Note: Please don’t read this week’s column if you haven’t played Journey and plan to do so in the future. A lot of the game’s impact comes from discovering how it works for yourself.
Sometimes a game comes along that makes everything else you’ve played lately kind of just look bad. For me, last week, that game was Journey. Though I went into it with a bit of trepidation — I found thatgamecompany’s (its developer’s) previous release Flower more impressive than actually fun — after only ten or fifteen minutes I was completely absorbed. By the time the credits were rolling, two hours had gone by that felt like a quarter of that time. With most games, no matter how much I enjoy them, I never get as lost in their world. I’m always aware of the clock, work that needs to get done, dishes that need doing and the other mundane details of everyday life. This wasn’t the case with Journey and that, to me at least, makes the game something incredibly special.
It all begins with the player being introduced to a strange new world covered in sand dunes and half-buried mechanical structures. A few moments of bewilderment later, nearly transparent button prompts appear on the screen explaining how to jump, communicate and move the camera. From then on, the player is on their own, guided only by their natural sense of curiousity and desire to explore the landscape.
This is around the point when Journey truly begins to demonstrate its strengths. The protagonist, a figure in red cloak, black mask and glowing scarf, discovers the joy of movement. The next half hour is spent learning how to jump, glide, recharge the power of the scarf and slide across the dunes. By the time all of these mechanics feel natural the game shifts gears and subtly introduces a level of challenge that wasn’t present before. The difficulty amplifies steadily and organically until the very end when, without noticing just how much their skills have improved, the player has mastered the game and learned how to best enjoy the breathtaking ending sequence.
Journey’s incredible design is coupled with another key concept: communication. Throughout the game other players drop in, adding a cooperative element that serves to enhance the experience even though it isn’t required for progression. While exploring an environment another red cloaked, black masked stranger will simply appear on the landscape, busying themselves with the same sort of tasks that the primary player is engaged in. All of it is completely anonymous. No PlayStation Network ID is displayed and, most interestingly, the only way to communicate with one another is by pressing the circle button and emitting one or several chirping sounds.
Despite “talking” to one another through only a handful of tones and having no personal context to identify with, players form unique bonds in Journey that I’m convinced are only possible within the game’s framework. That no known language is used makes it necessary to interpret communication on a personal level and, because there’s no way to interact other than to find ways to move forward together, the game fosters a sense of companionship. I finished the game and discovered that I had played with four strangers (I estimated two or three at first), two of whom were, judging by their PSN names, Japanese. Despite the fact that we were separated by ocean, language and culture, we played a videogame together where helping one another was instrumental to our enjoyment of it. Nothing else has ever done that for me and it’s something I’ll always remember.
All of these elements come together to make a videogame that is not only tremendously fun to play through, but also a bold step forward for the medium itself. Journey makes me excited not just to see what thatgamecompany does next, but how games in general will progress in the future.
Reid McCarter is a writer, editor and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, The Escapist and C&G Magazine. He founded, writes and edits the videogame blog digitallovechild.com and is Twitter-ready @reidmccarter.