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- Categorized in: Reviews
Journey is an experience that subverts the very idea of what a video game is. Where most games feature complex controls, Journey uses but two buttons and the joysticks. Where most games have concrete objectives and storylines, Journey merely asks that you head into the wilderness and enjoy the ride. The game doesn’t even allow players to communicate with each other online, at least not in the traditional sense of using a headset to speak to the other players. While this may sound like a list of shortcomings, it is far from it. Journey is a very specifically designed game, and it has clearly been molded to instill certain feelings in the player. All of these supposed shortcomings are in fact conscious design decisions implemented to make the player feel certain things at certain times. The end result is not only unlike any game I have ever played, but also fun and engaging despite (and often thanks to) the unusual design decisions.
At the opening of Journey, you will be alone. A vast desert will stretch out as far as you can see in every direction. With only the vague suggestion that you should head towards the mountain in the distance, you will be left to fend for yourself. Although there are tutorial prompts, they are slight and unobtrusive. They come across more as suggestions than commands, and encourage experimentation during the early goings. As you run, jump, and slide across the landscape, you will feel as if you are discovering the gameplay mechanics organically. Journey does not feel like something that was programmed by a group of people in a California studio. It feels perfectly natural, transcendent even. The sense of wonder is palpable. But so is the feeling of isolation. With the desert stretching out in all directions, the world quickly takes on a lonely vibe.
Keep playing offline, and you will be left to discover the desert’s secrets by yourself. It’s a lonely experience, and a haunting one. What little story there is tends to reveal itself in short vignettes, leaving you to decipher what, exactly, happened in this desert. As you get closer and closer to the mountain, you will find that the going gets harder and harder. You will never truly die, but climbing the mountain remains a challenge in its own unique way. As you begin to pass by grave markers and giant beasts, the dread and the emptiness only deepen. Reaching the peak of the mountain on your own, then, is its own reward.
If you have your PS3 connected to the internet, chances are you will not have to make the journey alone. Other players will also be wandering the desert, and your encounters with them will twist the game in many unique ways. As mentioned earlier, there is no way to communicate verbally with the other travelers. Even if you have a mic hooked up, the game will deactivate it. Instead of talking, you will have to tap the O button to chirp. By hitting the button in different patterns, you can create a makeshift language for you and your partners. My first partner and I, for example, created a system by which one chirp meant that one of us had found a hidden item, and two chirps would acknowledge that the other had found the item as well. The bond between journeymen thus becomes incredibly strong, as the sensation of creating a method of communication where none existed before will make you instant partners. It is a testament to the strength of the design behind Journey that this experience differs so much from that of playing alone, and that both methods of play are both fun and emotional.
As you explore the desert, you will meet up with numerous other players, provided that you are playing online. The sensation is one of never having lost a partner in the first place, though. The game removes one player from your game and adds in another so seamlessly that oftentimes you won’t even notice the change taking place. Oftentimes, I would only notice that the players had changed because of slight differences in their behavior. I only noticed that my partner had changed, for example, because he was no longer responding to the makeshift language that we had created earlier. By playing through the game for a second time, you might be able to spot a few of the areas where the partners will change. This kind of takes away from the “magic” of the experience, so although the game is certainly designed to be played multiple times, you might be better serviced by playing through once offline and once online instead of playing both times through online. In such an otherwise smooth experience, it can be distracting to notice the players moving in and out of your game at certain key spots in the world.
It should also be noted that Journey is not by any stretch of the imagination a long game. This is the type of game that you can easily beat in one sitting. In fact, I would recommend playing through it all at once. The triumphant ending feels more deserved when you have labored through the entire desert in one go. Still, it bears mentioning that you will be dropping fifteen bucks on an experience that only takes around an hour to beat. If you are iffy on the prospect of paying so much for a short game that doesn’t really sound much like a game, it would be best to wait until Journey goes on sale. The experience is still one worth having, but it’s understandable to be hesitant due to the price.
The production values in Journey are admittedly quite high, and rival those of most full-priced games. The sand and cloth physics float so smoothly across the screen that they’re almost unreal. The audio cues and music kick in at just the right moments, never drowning out the action onscreen but always supporting it, lifting it beyond a simple platformer and selling the feeling of setting out to do something great.
Journey may not be for everyone, but it is an experience that I recommend everybody try at least once. It is rare for a game to convey such strong emotion, and even rarer still for it to do so through such minimal interface and control. The sense of community with your fellow travelers is somehow higher than it is in most multiplayer games, even though you can’t actually understand what they’re saying. And the metaphor at the heart of Journey, the great payoff when you finally reach the top of that mountain, stands among my favorite gaming moments of all time. Journey is a truly wonderful experience, even if calling it a game might not be entirely accurate.