Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
WARNING: It's pretty impossible to review a game in any great depth without discussing mechanics, and themes to a certain extent. But going into Journey relatively free and fresh is, I feel, integral to one's first experience. Therefore, I would advise caution before proceeding, as there may well be minor spoilers of a sort.
The first time I reached the credits of Journey, as the first vocal track of a soundtrack that provokes smiles and tears in equal measure hit my ears, my eyes were already streaming with tears. I hadn't even noticed. As someone for whom the aural experience often makes a more significant impact, thatgamecompany's latest was absolutely devastating in terms of emotional wreckage. Not because there's anything in the "story" that's particularly sad, not because of an intricately woven narrative that pushes emotional buttons by numbers, but simply by being stunningly, breathtakingly, transcendentally beautiful.
Never has a game been so completely, or so succinctly, captured in its title. You begin as a rather nondescript figure, with toothpick legs, and glowing beads for eyes, attached to a face we never see, hidden by a nondescript cowled cloak. Stood, silently, amongst the whipping winds and undulating sands of the desert, the camera pans upwards to reveal the mountain ahead of you - a split peak that glows brightly at its summit. There are no text prompts, no mission statements, no instructions save brief controller inputs. Yet your objective is clear: journey to the top of the mountain.
What follows is a narrative of exploration and discovery that is entirely bereft of interruption, or anything that would detract from the experience. No dialogue, no in-game text, just you, the landscape before you, and Austin Wintory's captivating soundtrack. Relying solely on aesthetic experience, to both set tone and provide signifiers for pressing onwards, Journey is a rather unique game.
Indeed, I'm actually loathe to even call it a "game", making strong the case for rendering that limited epithet redundant. Nothing in Journey is explained or defined, there's no sense of purpose beyond the mountain, and your own curiosity of course. But at no point beyond the initial two minutes did I find myself scratching my head, or pondering the nature of the things around me in great depth. I just accepted them, gave myself over to this world, to this journey, and found myself utterly spellbound.
It's a matter of moments before you stumble across fluttering pieces of fabric, that dance around your genderless form, gifting you a scarf imbued with a handful of glowing glyphs. The game prompts you to jump, and you floatily soar skyward, the fluid, languid nature of the physics in Journey perfectly echoing the rippling sands about you. Objects of interest are noted by both a visual glow when you draw near, and activated with an almost ethereal vocal tone - a light bubble of a musical note.
Armed with these two simple mechanics, the pilgrimage continues, and it is not long before the vast open expanses of the desert give way to new environments; dune seas littered with ruined buildings yielding to gloomy, subterranean passages, before bursting forth into bright snow and steeper climbs. There are a few little puzzles towards the start, and some delightful platforming elements, one of which sees you call out with that one-tone song to playfully pirouetting pieces of fabric, that then launch you far higher than you can jump on your own. Later on, a sandy slalom ride through the ruins, combined with a euphorically whimsical musical number, affixes a smile of pure joy so wide to my face that I only notice it when my cheeks start to ache.
Journey is a game that thrives on emotional engagement, and it is, I feel, a game that will no doubt conjure up different things in different people. My first attempted playthrough was butchered by constant interruption from the infinitely less interesting world beyond the screen in front of me. The second was conducted all alone, and completed in two and a half hours. A spark of disorientation at the beginning gave way to immediate curiosity to completely ignore the mountain and go exploring. The discovery of singing instilled a small sense of achievement, that this was the first step on the way towards "getting" this game. Ten minutes later, I didn't care. A childlike sense of wonder gave way to platform play, a soaring joy turned into sudden wariness, and then, in the final third of the game, hopelessness, powerlessness, and a brief sense of disappointment. But then...
As a solitary experience, Journey is a powerful, personal, utterly consuming piece of interactive art. But there are times when you're not alone, and everything changes.
At first, it almost seems like a mirage. This is the desert, after all. But then you realise that the mirage is moving, towards you, and that the mirage looks just like your character. Other players can pop up in your game if you happen to come across a fellow in the same chapter of the game as you. But there are no online handles, no names, and no speech. Communication, once again, is conducted by singing that pulse-like note, as if calling to one another with celestial bells.
Do you stick together? Do you run away? Do you race one another down sandy waterfalls? With no way to instruct or suggest, it is only through action and simple communication (one note for no, two notes for yes perhaps) that players can interact. With that in mind, anyone else you encounter serves whatever purpose you, or your subconscious, decide. for some it may be a competitive thing - to lead or follow - for others it could be simple companionship, and noting how that changes the experience.
Journey left me on an emotional high, having been previously unaware that a video game (there's that word again) could affect me so greatly. It's an utter triumph of immersion, an aesthetic crescendo that proves perfectly paced, expertly crafted, and incredibly fulfilling. The journey might seem short on paper, a two to three hour title perhaps sounds a little bare, but not one minute of that is wasted time. Crucially, no part of Journey outstays its welcome, and it is a credit to the skills and talents of the development team that, in a game with no prompts, text or dialogue, there's never a moment of tedium to break the ride either.
This is a game that will delight anyone who found the first hour of Limbo to be utterly spellbinding, although this is far less sinister. But instead of abandoning a finely crafted experience for broader physics-based puzzling, Journey sticks to its guns and provides the player with a fascinating example of exceptional emotional orchestration. And whilst it might seem the case that a game like this wouldn't be able to offer much by way of replay value, I've played it four times now, and I'll play it again. Every time I do, I delight in something new.
But it's easy to see that for some this might seem boring. For some, Journey will be a pretty, but ultimately unfulfilling interactive experience that offers seemingly little for it's relatively high asking price ($15/£9.99). Those who game purely for competition, to test their skills and dexterity against others, they will find nothing of value here. For those, however, who look to games to explore new worlds, who find this most interactive medium perfect for immersing themselves in another's shoes, in the lives and times of others, this is for you.
For me, Journey is a reflection of life itself. The beauty, the vibrancy, the fluid nature of things. How we all start off not really knowing who we are, but our march towards our end is inexorable, tumultuous, filled with both light and dark. That those who take the time to delight in the world around them will find joy, that those who persevere will find reward, that sometimes you have to travel the lowest depths to reach the highest peaks. That a Sam Mendes' plastic bag dancing in the wind has nothing on thatgamecompany. That doing it alone can be devastating.
But that's my Journey. What's yours?
The Short Version: Like the finest feel-good films, or those books you read again and again until the title on the spine is illegible from creasing, Journey is a game that exhibits pure joy. It plays with it, subverts it, threatens to take it away at times, but the end result is something inherently euphoric, deeply personal and, dare I say, even a little bit spiritual as well.