The visual and aural
feast that is thatgamecompany’s Journey
has made its way to the Playstation 4,
allowing a new group of players the opportunity to embody mute, cloaked jawas on
their trek to the top of a mystical mountain peak. Before I get started on this
review, you may want to install a hyperbole remover plugin, because this is
going to get pretentious with praise quick.
I am an atheist. I prefer
to think of myself as more scientifically than spiritually minded. I have always
understood the fact that some people find religion a necessity for teaching life’s lessons, and thus understood people’s
desire to gravitate towards it. I understand the reasons people become born
again Christians – both why and how transitions like that happen. The reason I have
pointed this out is because I feel that, through Journey, I had a ‘religious’ experience.
Someone having a
religious experience through playing a video game may sound ludicrous. Well, people have had religious
experiences from pieces of toast before so why should a video game be any
different? Journey contains moments of such pure beauty and glory that they
can only be described as otherworldly, divine; works of art.
I’m getting ahead of
myself though – let me explain what Journey
is. You play as a being concealed by red cloak and a scarf that grows as you
progress through the game. As the game opens, you find yourself in a landscape
of endless sand dunes. In the distance is a mountain with a shining beacon coming
out of its peak. Your goal is to push forward, periodically pressing the X
button to jump. Along your travels you may meet other cloaked beings – some in
white shawls – who may join you on your path to the mountaintop. You can
communicate with your fellow travelers through various symbols which are
summoned using the square button. As far as controls go, that’s about it.
As with thatgamecompany’s
previous title, Flower, Journey pushes the boundaries of what a
video game is. Is this even a game? Or is it more an interactive art
experience? What exactly are the game’s creators trying to impart on the
‘player’? The arthouse film-lover side of me admires how open to interpretation
Journey is, yet I can understand the
reasons that Journey gets criticised
for being a very simple ‘game’.
Tetris is also a simple game with basic controls
– in fact, like Journey, it has only two
important buttons; the directional pad, and a button to turn the Tetriminos.
Yet, unlike Journey, Tetris has strategy making it more of a gaming experience. It’s this simplicity
within Journey – where there is no major challenge or puzzle elements – that
makes it a difficult game to recommend. Gamers should be aware of the sparsity
on offer and allow themselves to be open to a very different experience,
because – once again – this is not a conventional game.
Journey is not a game in the same sense that Dear Esther is more like a virtual tour
around an island than a game. Unlike Dear
Esther however, where the ‘story’ is narrated to you, Journey‘s story is fully open to interpretation. The voiceless
companions you meet during your travels can assist in showing you the way, or
simply become someone to travel with, or
they might point out a collectible glyph that helps elongate your luxurious
glowing scarf. Their presence is comforting – it’s nice to know you’re not
alone at times, and when you are alone, or your companion disappears, it can be
quite saddening. The relationship you’ve built up through non-verbal
communication can become quite strong –
especially during Journey’s
final scenes, as you trudge your way slowly through heavy snow.
One of the great
things about Journey is that it doesn’t
spoon-feed you information; you can decide for yourself what your experience means.
To me, the scarf is a grand metaphor about life and lessons learned. The
aforementioned glyphs help elongate your scarf, which in turn help you jump
higher, almost to the point that you’re flying. At certain points, you
encounter beings that can destroy your scarf, reducing its length dramatically.
You can quite easily complete Journey
without ever collecting a glyph and extending your scarf, but to get a fuller
experience it is best you explore your environment entirely. Just like life
itself, you get back what you put into Journey
and it will reward you with… a longer scarf! Yes, I’m aware I’m stretching it
here with the metaphor, but don’t say I didn’t warn you about the hyperbole
heading into this review! If you explore a little more you could find beauty
where you would not expect it – like a flower in the desert, or murals of
journeymen past on the walls of caves.
Andrew, what about this damn religious experience you were going on about
you may be asking. Well, I’m glad you brought that up. With the groundbreaking
Grammy award nominated score by Austin Wintory, Journey is elevated to a higher level than it would have been if
his score was not present. The combination of Wintory’s perfect score and the
picture-frame-worthy visuals of rolling sand dunes which fold into fields of
snow covered rocks, creates an experience like no other in the realm of this
medium we call ‘video games’. The combination of the two helps enforce my
interpreted theme of reincarnation.
Birth, life, death,
rebirth. No ‘game’ has given me the experience and understanding of these Buddhist
values better than Journey. In fact –
perhaps betraying my ignorance here – apart from a Haruki Murakami novel or
that one Dali painting, I’ve never had such a visceral and real understanding
of religion within art as I have had with
Journey. Moments of Wintory’s score
like Nadir and Apotheosis accentuate heartbreaking moments, where the world feels
against you, as you weather a snowstorm, your scarf torn asunder and your
ability to progress hampered by heavy winds. Finally you succumb to the winds,
as though the cold hands of death have wrapped themselves around you.
In my most recent play-through,
I was with another journeyman, and as we moved up the mountain, through the
snowstorm, both becoming weaker and weaker, we tried our best to communicate
with each other. Faint symbols would appear above our heads and we would nod
feebly to one another, trying to communicate the feeling that we weren’t alone.
After collapsing in the snow, we awoke in a glorious vista of bright blue.
Waterfalls and red scarfed creatures filled the scene. We were alive again, we
were close to the end and nearing our purpose. For a moment, I thought my
companion had deserted me, too eager to reach the apex, but actually they were
atop one of the waterfalls with symbols galore streaming from their head. They
were beckoning me closer, showing me the path. They wanted to ensure that crossed the void together.
Combine the three
elements of beautiful visuals, the wondrous and joyful score and the
companionship Journey provides, and
you have one of the most emotional moments a ‘game’ has ever crafted. These
elements work together to create a purely spiritual experience. Through Journey‘s short three to four hour play
time, you witness birth, life, aging, death and rebirth. Early moments, when
you stumble over the dunes awkwardly, learning to become accustomed to your
movement, gradually flow into moments of joy and fear as you skate freely over
dunes and navigate past creatures that loom in the dark, then finally trudging
into a crippling snowstorm that ushers you across the ether into the games
I love this
experience. I love the feelings Austin Wintory’s score evokes when I listen to
it. I love the imagery that it summons. It’s a pure experience rather than being a pure game. Yet, like many ‘experiences’ they do slightly diminish over
time. The joy of meeting someone for the first time, the awe of experiencing the
key moments and the impactful finale are all great moments in gaming. Like a
horror film, where the shocks become diminished over repeated viewings, these ‘experiences’
become diminished over time. I’ve
always felt that a game should never be qualified by its replayability –
some of my favourite games have been games I would never play through again.
The theme of rebirth is great, and it definitely is the reason to give Journey more than one run through.
However, after the third or fourth time it does start to become a little tired.
Maybe it is like reincarnation itself – the first few times are great, but
learned all that you can learn, living becomes tiring unless you find joy in
teaching others the ways of the world and where the mysteries of the land in Journey are.
For this reason, I recommend
giving Journey at least one play-through.
I also recommend playing it through in one sitting. This most certainly will not
be a game for everyone, but you may be like me and have an experience which you
would never have thought that a video game could provide. You may feel that
this is a waste of time and a terrible gaming experience; however, there is
simply no denying that it’s
wonderful to see that a game like Journey
can reach critical and commercial success in today’s world. It shows that the medium of
video games is ever evolving and ever pushing forward to include new ideas and
experiences that challenge players and question what video games are.
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