Journey is unlike any game I have played before. It doesn’t have a genre, or follow tropes, or meet design expectations. In the same way “The Artist” defied the rules of what a 21st century movie is, Journey defies modern game design. Just as “Fantasia” captivated its audience by making a symphony an animation, Journey turns emotions into a video game.
Actually, I’m not even sure Journey is a video game (in the general or traditional sense of the term). That almost doesn’t seem fair to it. It’s more like an orchestra or a collection of artwork. It’s cinematic, but not quite like a movie. It’s like some of the more recent Pixar shorts or an independent animation. But it’s more like things that aren’t games than it is like a game, except that it’s interactive like a game. I downloaded it on my PS3 and used a DualShock controller to play it, like a game.
That’s not to say it’s completely devoid of game elements. There are divisions which could be called levels. There are power-ups to collect. It has networked co-op. You can take damage from enemies. The game has trophies to earn on PSN. But playing it is nothing like playing another game. This isn’t a game that you play and win; it’s an experience that you hop into, likely unsure what you’re entering, and then share with people you don’t know and will never talk to.
Okay, okay, so far I’ve been very esoteric. That’s partly because I don’t know how to describe this game without spoiling everything the game is; it’s also partly because that may be the best way to describe the game’s content and play experience.
The premise is that you are on a journey. (Cue: title drop.) Very much like Flower, though, thatgamecompany doesn’t really want to make a big deal that you are playing a game. The title screen is clean and simple: press Start and begin. You’re in the desert and a shiny mountain is set before you. That’s your goal. How do you get there? Which way do you go? Sand stretches out in every direction. Some ruins seem scattered over a few dunes. Let’s go that way.
And so your pilgrimage begins. Like the three kings traveling to find the newborn Messiah in Bethlehem, you have only a shimmering light in the distance to guide you. But you press on. I mean, why not? There must be something good there.
Then you visit ruins and unlock memories that weave a tale of prosperity and sorrow. This place was once beautiful and awe-inspiring, but now it is reduced to sand-covered rubble. Magically banners help lead the way. Flight assists your navigation. It’s as though some spirits of the old world desire to aid you – they want you to reach your destination. Perhaps they need it.
It wasn’t long in my journey when I met someone dressed as myself. We were looking for similar things. We were walking along the same path. We managed to help each other with some switches. Then we realized we could restore each other’s jump and flight abilities. So we can help each other. We can travel together. And we did. For a while, we just happened to be taking the same route and aiding one another’s speed. But as we traveled, I noticed I liked having someone around. It made the road seem less empty. It felt like reaching the goal would be more rewarding together. Before long I was waiting for my companion, and he was waiting for me. We were partners.
Then he was attacked. I was actually scared. I rushed to find him among the pillars to make sure he was alive and okay. He was. I guided him to safety, avoiding the danger lurking in the shadows. This moment was huge. From here, we did not separate. Just as Frodo and Sam stuck together, pushing ahead into Mordor, braving anything and not giving up, so we two pressed on together. Nothing would stop us. We would reach our destination and we’d do it together. This game invoked empathy.
And we did, finally, reach our destination together. Through sand and heat, snow and wind, we persevered. We braved the elements. We tried our faith and diligence, and we were rewarded at the summit of our holy mountain.
Throughout all of this I was overwhelmed with emotions: curiosity, wonder, worry, fear, awe, majesty. This game is beautiful, in so many senses of the word. I’m impressed. This experience was delicious.
Journey was developed by thatgamecompany and published by Sony Computer Entertainment. For this post, I played for about one and a half hours, or long enough to complete a single playthrough of the game on the PlayStation 3. I purchased the game for myself.
This post was originally written and published by me on a former site on November 27, 2012.