No matter what happens, it is doubtful that we’ll ever get away from the Games As Art debate as its vocal supporters will make the case by name dropping a small library of titles as a means to prove their point, no matter how many times Roger Ebert argues against it. There are a lot of “art” games out there, such as Dinner Date, Shadow of the Colossus and To The Moon, but a discussion of the genre cannot be completed without mentioning the games of Jenova Chen and thatgamecompany. Though they only have three games under their belt, each one is remembered for being visually thrilling and thought provoking.
In many ways, it is kind of hard to believe that Journey came from the same studio as flOw and flower. I don’t want to imply that these games were bad – far from it – but something happened to thatgamecompany. It is as if they grew past their awkward adolescent stage and reached maturity because Journey has surpassed all of their previous games. It does a number of things incredibly well and incorporates an elegant multiplayer component that is, from my point of view, brilliant.
From the moment you start the game to sitting through the end credits, you never really know the true purpose of the adventure you’ve led your character through. Playing as a hooded monk-like figure, your task is to simply wander an expansive world in order to reach a towering mountain located just off the horizon. The game never tells you what lies beyond and why you have to venture to the mountain: there are no sacred leaders to command you and no princess to rescue. Where you’re going isn’t important. To use a tired (but appropriate) adage, the adventure is the journey, not the destination.
Journey is almost shocking in its simplicity. There is no HUD to indicate health, progress, context sensitive commands and no control configuration screens. The first area in the game functions as a tutorial with a Playstation controller showing up as a faint overlay, pointing out the only two buttons you’ll use for the duration of the adventure. You’ll move the character around with the left analog stick and shift the camera using the right stick or engage SIXAXIS camera movement by physically turning the controller left or right. Interacting with the environment involves pressing the Circle button to emit a soft melodic trill, but if you hold down the button for a few moments, you’ll hop in the air and release a louder trill that sends out a small shockwave around you. The purpose of the trill is to activate tapestries that form bridges and attract small pieces of cloth that will attach itself to your scarf, imbuing it with power. This power can launch your character into the air, giving you the chance to glide around in order to access hard to reach areas and maneuver around obstacles. The duration of your glide is dependent on the length of the scarf, but you’ll have plenty opportunities to increase it (and a few chances to lose it entirely) as the game progresses.
The game is broken up into a series of levels and while each area is vast, small pillars of light will help guide to from start to finish. Most of the time, you won’t have to do much to reach the end of the level but some areas will force you through light puzzles in order to advance. The puzzles don’t require a whole lot of thought and can easily be surpassed by players of (almost) any age and skill. If you’re looking for a challenge, there are a number of hidden glyphs and random objects hidden deep in the world and finding them all will yield trophies. At the end of each level, you’ll sit through a short cutscene that outlines the progress of your journey and a small preview of what is to come.
The implementation of multiplayer comes as a complete surprise to me. Although I knew the game was going to incorporate it, I had now idea what they had intended to do. Although playing the game with another player is not necessary to complete or enjoy the game, it manages to unobtrusively add a major emotional layer to the overall experience. As you tromp through the environment, navigating puzzles and singing songs, you will notice white pulses that appear on the edges of your screen indicating the presence and direction of another player. This is the only notification you’ll receive: there are no on screen prompts or an invite system, so you cannot choose who enters your game. You can’t even communicate directly with the other player except for the melodic trills. The only way to engage the other player is to acknowledge their existence, follow them around a bit and see if they get the hint. I found that people are pretty eager to hang out with you, but they can easily be ignored if that is your thing. However, you might be surprised with how quickly you’ll form a bond with them. It certainly helps that there is no voice chat, so your serene exploration of this world won’t be interrupted by someone saying horrible things about your mother or sexual preferences.
Previous games from thatgamecompany have always been beautiful to look at, but Journey really stands out from the pack. The vast desert wastelands are hauntingly beautiful, as the sun baked sand dunes stretch out for miles and miles. It is difficult to find yourself in a spot that doesn’t look as cinematic as Lawrence of Arabia and it is easy to get so caught up in the environment that you’ll want to stop for a few minutes and pan the camera around. I wish the Playstation 3 shared the Vita’s ability to take screenshots and send them to friends or set as my wallpaper. That being said, screenshots really don’t do this game justice.
Journey seems to have taken a page from Uncharted 3 and spent a significant number of hours rendering sand and the results are pretty spectacular. Tromping around creates a nice visual flair as you’ll leave tracks behind and if you slide down the dunes, you’ll cut a sharp line through the sand. When the wind picks up, your footprints and tracks will get covered up by the constantly shifting sands. Although the desert environments have been featured prominently, you won’t be spending much time in them as move nearer to your destination and the sands will eventually give way to caves, underwater-like areas and snowy tundras.
Any enjoyment you obtain from Journey will largely be determined by what type of gamer you are. If you’re the type that prefers high octane shooters and competitive multiplayer, chances are you might not be too interested in what the downloadable game wants to show you. Journey will likely sit will with those who prefer to take on games at their own pace, looking for a quieter and gentler experience or argue the artistic merits of games and have no problem dropping $15 on a forty five minute game (my goal here is not to call out on group over another but instead help temper expectations – especially if you’re coming into this review only to find out why everyone is talking about it). There is little replay value, apart from trophy hunting, because the emotional impact of the experience lessens after the first playthrough. This is one of those games where I wished it had some sort of MIB-style brain wipe.
Journey’s multiplayer is a nice change from the norm because not actually having to talk to the other player is nice and anonymity is very pleasant. In a nice touch, gamertags will not be displayed until the end, resulting in an experience not unlike Chat Roulette (sans nudity and other Internet-brand insanity) – you’ll never know who you get to play with. I also enjoyed Journey’s multiplayer because it completely broke my heart. While doing my thing in the second level, I struck up an impromptu partnership with another player and we ended up hanging around quite a bit, helping each other look for hidden glyphs, stick around in case one of us missed a jump and raced through one of the most breathtaking levels I’ve experienced this year (well, so far).
The experience was truly wonderful…until something terrible happened. When an end level cutscene concluded, I was dismayed to find that the other player had vanished (in reality, he/she had quit the game). Where did they go? Did they go on ahead without me? Are they just sitting off camera? I caught myself standing around the end of the level for ten minutes, hoping that they would turn up again. I lost hope and gave up, moving to the next level without them. After a few moments another player spawn next to me, but I knew something was wrong. They weren’t the same player I had been with for the bulk of the journey and I felt angry. Who was this person? They’re glyph sigil is different, so I know it wasn’t my new friend. Once I calmed down a bit, I felt an immense sense of respect for thatgamecompany and want to congratulate them for being able to pull off such an emotional rollercoaster.
Journey is an amazing achievement for thatgamecompany and it shows just how far Jenova Chen’s studio has come since since flOw. The game controls like a dream, is startlingly beautiful and will be one of those games people will talk about for months. Journey’s release is kind of bittersweet in some way. While it does mark the end of Sony’s exclusivity deal and frees Chen to develop for more platforms, there is news that several key players from thatgamecompany are preparing to move onto other greener pastures.
Regardless of what the future holds for the studio, if you only play one game by thatgamecompany, let it be Journey. Taking the experiences and lessons learned from developing previous games, they have fashioned a title that will stand the test of time and be remembered for its beauty, simplicity and the ability to encourage a dialog. It moves the player emotionally and has the power to turn brief, momentary encounters into deep, meaningful experiences.