The next time that someone with a public forum decides that they need a bit of controversy to remind people of their relevance, so they declare that video games can never be art, I will point out Journey as an example of why they are wrong.
I’m not point fingers at just anyone. No, I am straight up calling out Roger Ebert over passing judgment on a medium he does not have any real experience with. There was a time when he could at least make a real argument about the shape of the gaming industry, but those days are long past, and developers like Thatgamecompany continue to push the boundaries of what can be done with a game.
It is easy to play title after title and begin to feel the somewhat narrow confines of many of the gaming practices that we accept as the norm. And usually that is fine. Games where you shoot enemies, or where you jump from platform to platform have become such a force in gaming for good reason — they are fun. But then every once in a while a game comes along and challenges your concepts of what a game can be. Journey is that type of game.
One story, many interpretations
From the first moments when you begin, you realize that there is something a little different about this game. It doesn’t easily fit into any of the handy genre descriptions we love to apply. It is probably best described as an adventure game with heavy platforming elements, but that doesn’t really do it justice. You could also get away with calling it a puzzle-based title, and that would be fair, but beside the point.
Defining the story of Journey is an equally difficult task. When I first received the review guidelines for Journey, there were several elements that I was asked not to mention to avoid spoilers. I try to always avoid spoilers in reviews, but these instructions seemed a bit restrictive. Then I played the game and I understood.
The story of Journey is one that will be debated for a long, long time to come. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a narrative at work, but nothing is ever spelled out. It is a deliberate choice, and one that will cause some fans to dismiss this game immediately, while others look at that group and wonder what is wrong with them.
I have my own ideas and thoughts on what the story is, but it is just my opinion. Even if I spelled it out, it wouldn’t necessarily be anymore right or wrong than anyone else’s. And I absolutely love that.
The journey begins
The setting is easier to describe, but even that is open to debate. You begin as a solitary figure, alone in a wasteland. In the distance, towering over the landscape is a mountain generating a beam of light directly upwards. Reaching it is your objective.
The majority of the images from the game have focused on the first section, which is a desert wasteland that is slowly burying an abandoned civilization. But that is just one small part of it.
Each and every section of Journey is incredible to behold, and discussing them would be a disservice to you. They, like everything in Journey, is best left to the experience of playing it.
What I will say is that the level design is outstanding. Each new section offers something new and incredible. As you progress, you will also find murals that will offer some hints as to what may be going on. Some are hidden, some are necessary to progress, but don’t expect a wizened old man to come out and give you a lengthy narrative on what is what.
The look of the levels is beautiful, but it is the gameplay that keeps you going on. It is among the simplest mechanics around, but in its simplicity is a touch of brilliance. Your goal is always to progress. Through windstorms and blizzards, through caves and up towers, you are always looking for a way to continue your journey. Scattered throughout the world are pieces of paper that you collect to give you a momentary boost, which allows you to briefly float or glide. The amount of time you have to do this is dependent on the length of your scarf — which grows throughout the game as you find power-ups. Certain environmental objects, like flowing strands of garment and the odd creature, can keep you airborne while also keeping a full charge.
Other than that, there is a command that displays certain areas, which is essentially like a use prompt (although its exact nature is another aspect of the mystery of what Journey is). The six-axis controller can also be used to change the camera angle, but beyond that, you really don’t have many ways to interact with the world. Surprisingly, you don’t need them.
Journey is a stripped down game in the best way possible. It eliminates all the bells and whistles and focuses on what it wants you to do — continue forward towards the mountain. You can’t really die in this game, and most will be able to breeze through the story without breaking a sweat. If you are looking for a challenge, Journey is not the game for you. It isn’t meant to be.
Alone with a friend
While Journey is very much a singular experience, there is a co-op mode of sorts — but there’s a twist. Part of the nature of Journey is the sense of isolation that borders on desolation. As you play through, other players can stumble into your game, and you into theirs. The meetings are random and unplanned, and although you will find yourself face-to-face with another real-life gamer, you won’t be able to talk with them or identify them in any way. Together you and your new silent companion can then explore and journey together, but it is easy to lose them and never see them again.
It is an interesting addition, and something of a unique experiment, but it is best used after you have played through on your own at least once to experience what Journey is all about.
Now, while I have heaped praise on Journey and praised its simplistic beauty, there is one negative of sorts. The entire experience is over far too fast. And not just in an “I wanted more because I loved it so much” way (although that is a part of it), but the entire game can be completed in two or three hours. The co-op does add some life to it, but for as amazing a game as Journey is, it is over far too quickly. That doesn’t make what there is any less incredible, but it does make it a bit of a harder sell to the doubters.
It also would have been a smart choice to wait for the game to be available on the Vita as well as the PlayStation Network. That may still happen, but it would have been nice to be able to take Journey with you anywhere.
Journey is a game that deserves to be considered as art, and that isn’t hyperbole — at least, not if you define art as something that moves you and makes you think beyond the confines of the medium you are interacting with, in which case Journey can definitely be described as art.
The short length and interpretive story are likely going to scare many off, and there will no doubt be a chorus of “overrated” yells from critics of this game. And that’s fair. After all, what good is art if it can’t stir reactions?
Regardless of the results, Journey and Thatgamecompany have created something that is worth checking out. More than that though, the $14.99 price, and the exclusive availability on the PlayStation Network as a digital download for the PS3 could also give us a glimpse of what to expect in the future, thanks to the growing digital download movement. Or at least it may, if we are very, very lucky.
Score: 9.5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3 on a copy provided by Sony Computer Entertainment)