Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Release date: 03/13/12
The first time I played Journey I found myself stuck in the level geometry. Fitting, perhaps, since its premise is based in travel, wandering and the individual worldliness gained at the eventual apex of a meaningful quest. What happened while I was circling back and forth from a cascading desert sandfall to an invisible wall about forty feet adjacent isn’t especially important—mostly I wrestled now-unnatural physics, struggling against volatile winds to scale dunes normally hidden behind a solid rockface in a stubborn effort to both break free of my hollow prison and save myself from a hard reset.
My escape may as well have been a miracle. Happening by chance on a weird zigzag path up the face of the sandfall, I reached the dusty foothills above. Although accidentally, I had a unique adventure early on in Journey—not what thatgamecompany intended, maybe, but as personalized as one could want from a game.
This philosophy makes Journey what it is.
Unlike many games, Journey is as aptly named as it is incisively brief. It is a journey first and foremost, and its sense of wonder in discovery comes from treading the length of your destined path, if not entirely in exploration of it. The titular word guides you, literally, as you crest the top of the first hill overlooking a vast mountain looming in the distance. From this you can probably guess where Point B is.
Journey’s developers aren’t interested in saddling the player with unnecessary narrative detail. All you know of your sprightly, robed avatar is that they are practiced in Zen-like poise and guided by what we can assume are the bonds of ancestral prophecy and myth. It is your fate to ascend the mountain; nothing else really matters.
As you will discover soon after rising from your meditative state for the first time, movement in Journey is dreamlike. Softly padding across the dusty earth, your stylized avatar is as a natural extension of your body—should you hit an invisible wall at the outskirts of the map, the kick up of wind and your reactive tumble backward feels like a force of designed physics rather than a cession to an unwilling controller.
Sliding down inclines, for their part, quickens the desert floor with a slippery gauze and unspoken vitality. Then there’s flying: soaring and whirling like a feather on the air can provoke elation in simply traveling across a level.
This is all an extension of Journey’s forward mobility. The environment’s character shifts come in an almost episodic fashion, and if you stay on course they will take you through the desert into a sunken city and to what lies beyond your expedition’s first nightfall in short order. With little aside off the beaten path to discover, your trip will likely be straight and to the point.
But unlike an adventure game, a classification I would hesitate to mention here, it’s the what and the how thatgamecompany wants you to soak in, not the uncharted. Still, given such a simple premise there’s a surprising amount of nuance here. You can see it in the multiple uses of the basic control scheme—sounding wordless tonalities can signal communication between players, activate ancient relics or provide metaphysical energy for flight, for example, while seemingly innocuous details like the length of your scarf actually govern your capacity to stay airborne.
The land, which flits from wild to tranquil to perilous to majestic and back in a matter of minutes, is equally unexpected. Roiling sand turns flat earth to bubbling, rippled liquid; steep gradients force unexpected slalom runs; “undersea” sections give the illusion of watery density; mystical cloth carpet creatures move freely in the air as, elsewhere, great beasts stir in the deep.
The use of color throughout Journey’s impressive aesthetic palette may actually be my favorite part about it. When washed in a setting sun, the desert takes on hue and texture of a pink lemonade Italian ice before descending into a deeper, more intense display; As you delve of age-old architecture, concentrated beams of yellow and aquamarine contrast otherwise dark enclosures.
Without giving too much away, the expectedly straightforward arid color scheme is subverted by the astoundingly varied and sumptuous prismatic spectrum at play here. In concert with the dynamism of the environment, this is a world that, even in the absence of other beings, pulses with life.
It’s Different To Go Alone
You won’t necessarily be paying attention to Journey’s artistry as much, at least in anything more than passing, if you choose to undertake your venture with a partner. Co-op is an anonymous affair, and one whose consistency makes team play by its very nature hard to ignore (unless you’re offline). Your only method of communication is to use your notespeak to plink out a message to any companion you might encounter and hope they understand—yet playing with someone else completely changes the dynamic.
Suddenly taking in the world side by side with another traveler fosters an instant camaraderie. You often move together, sticking close by each other; chirping notes at them will replenish their scarf’s energy and vice versa. Again, nuance yields contextually fascination. A series of tones might mean “follow me” or “I’m making small talk” with the same frequency.
It could also be your partner telling you to slow down or, if they know what’s coming up, to warn of impending hazards. In any case, I found it telling that very few of my would-be co-op partners would simply ignore or quickly give up and move on without me, even in the cases I was clearly moving at my own pace.
What may make a co-op game resonate differently is simply that you’re sharing a pilgrimage. Too few times are you encouraged to use tandem abilities in order to bypass tricky obstacles—one of my greatest memories is successfully communicating my desire for a partner and I to use tandem flight to reach an otherwise inaccessible platform, the kind of thing I wish the design called for more of. Regardless, reaching the finale with a friend can lead to a unique emotional response.
Although I feel it’s somewhat unfairly arbitrary to assign a numeric score to something this subjective (and it should be noted that a two hour completion time is average), I would stress that this is a game you shouldn’t miss. Its divisive emphasis on the journey itself is capable of eliciting varied reactions from different players, and obviously isn’t necessarily to everyone’s taste. But no matter where your opinion may fall, there’s one thing you can’t argue that Journey isn’t: