Journey, a PS3 game from Sony and thatgamecompany, surprised me.
First off, it’s rated E (Everyone) which usually means one of two things: good old-fashioned family fun or cartoon characters and jaunty tunes. This is neither.
The plot of Journey is simple: you are a wanderer in a wasteland, and your goal is to reach the top of a mystical mountain, seen in the distance.
That’s it. See that mountain? Go there.
Simplistic? Yes, but therein lies the beauty of this game.
Journey isn’t filled with twitchy, button-mashing combos and fully customizable weaponry. There is no repartee or good-natured banter. There are no cut-scenes filled with bad acting, and no ever-escalating encounters that climax with a monster battle against the final boss. There are no explosions, spawn points, or DLC map packs.
Journey is…a journey. It is a journey without speech or instruction, without text or complexity. The game gently guides you through the four actions your character can perform–look around, move around, jump up, and “speak” (more like singing a single musical note)–and then you’re on your own. Stormy winds keep you from wandering too far agley, but otherwise, you’re free to wander.
In your wanderings, you may meet others like yourself. Here’s the really neat thing. Those others? They’re real people, real other players, out playing the game at the same time.
I hear you. “Multiplayer? Big deal.” No, this is different. Firstly, at most, you’ll only meet one other person at a time. Second, most of the people you meet want to help. They’ll sing their little note to get your attention, and lead you to a hidden treasure that will make your journey easier. Lastly, this other person will stay with you through the rest of the game, if you keep playing. You can play and finish the game offline if you want, running it solo, but if you have someone with you, everything is easier. No prepubescent trash talk. No ninja rush by the more experienced to bogart all the goodies. It’s total co-op, without words, without chat, without competition of any kind.
The artwork of Journey is beautiful. Stylized, serene, a world where sand and water and air are seemingly interchangeable. The structures around you combine per-Colombian ziggurats with Arabian caliphate fretwork with Far Eastern textiles. Creatures of cloth fly through the air, and monsters of stone prowl the dark depths.
Over it all, weaving everything together, is Austin Wintory’s soundtrack. Heavy with the melancholy of a solo cello and lush with strings, it moves from lonely to joyous with ease. It is a beautiful soundtrack, all on its own, but within the game it is completely seamless. At times it is amorphous and atmospheric, such as when you wander alone, exploring the world, while at others it propels you along, adding to the joy of your schuss down a valley on a river of sand.
With such simplicity, Journey was able to quietly, subtly tap into my emotions, building slowly. I felt no frustration during the game, and the exhilaration of the last scene left me misty and grinning. I was so pleased, in fact, that I actually sat through the credits, watching the scenery roll back, listening to Wintory’s closing, wordless song. I laughed out loud when the credits included the gamer-tags for the real-world people I’d met along the way (I completed the trek over a handful of sessions), and when I realized that the game was bringing me back to the starting point, I was ready to click “New Journey” and begin my Journey again.
The version I purchased was the “Collector’s Edition,” which I recommend as it comes with two other excellent games from thatgamecompany, Flower and Flow.