Platform: PlayStation Network
Released: March 14, 2012
I’d been looking forward to Journey ever since it was announced a few years ago. The art direction and setting caught my attention immediately (and I’ll admit it’s at least partially because it reminded me of Homestuck’s Exiles plot line), but what really intrigued me was the gameplay promise. Creator Jenova Chen stated that he wanted a game that plays like nothing else on the market, a game that defies traditional video game structure to evoke emotions in the player that normal games cannot.
It’s an ambitious goal, and it comes with design choices that make Journey tricky to explain to an outsider. It’s technically a platformer in that your primary actions are running and jumping to explore various environments. But there are no monsters to kill, very few puzzles to solve, and only one power-up to find – scarf segments that can increase your jump distance until you’re practically flying. At the beginning, you know nothing except that you’re heading toward a glowing mountain in the distance; the very sparse story is told wordlessly in small segments as you progress. The game’s roughly two-hour run time is largely spent just wandering and observing the set pieces, which are gorgeous. The bright cel-shading, panoramic perspective, and moody musical score all combine to make every ruin seem grand and majestic, like they’re part of a huge world that you will only ever see a fraction of.
But Journey‘s greatest innovation is its multiplayer. At any time, another journeyer may pop up beside you. This is a real person playing the game somewhere in the world. You don’t get to choose who it is, you don’t get to see their gamertag, and you don’t get to talk to them. You can only communicate through motion and by making chiming sounds at each other. Teammates can give each other a jump boost, but this is not necessary to complete the game. You may choose to stay together or separate at any time and it will not affect your final outcome.
If you’re wondering what the point to any of that is, that’s understandable. Journey asks its players to discard a lot of notions about what defines a video game. It uses the trappings of a game to ease you into it, but it’s less a game and more of a shared experience in artistry. Sharing your journey with another player really is the core of the experience. Paradoxically, removing all identification from co-op allows the players to make a deeper connection with each other. I went into the game thinking that a partner would be nice, but that I’d really like to explore on my own at first. But within half an hour of play, I was excitedly pointing out secrets to my partner, waiting around for them, and feeling a twinge of disappointment if they didn’t do the same.. There was an early area where we found a secret that required us to boost each other up a steep cliff. We were both bad at timing it and missed the jumps for at least five minutes, but neither of us even once attempted to leave until we’d both gotten to it. That, I think, is Journey in a nutshell. Your personal experience will depend entirely on how you and your partner treat each other, and that is the point. (And I’ve tried to keep this review as detail-free as I could, because I think a lot of the point is discovering the game world together.)
I do wish there were a little bit more to do. I’ve done two runs and I’d like to find all the secrets, but I’d love it if there were branching paths to make the experience more varied. For all that it wants you to explore, Journey‘s world is so linear it’s practically on rails; after a few playthroughs the only real difference will be in what you choose to do with your companion. If you’re looking for complex or varied gameplay, you won’t find it here. Still, I think everyone owes it to themselves to at least give it a shot, to see if it resonates with them. For me, it completely did, and I think Chen fulfilled his goal expertly. There’s just an ineffable quality to the game that made me completely lose myself in it. I felt friendship and abandonment, despair and triumph, all within a few short, wordless hours. That seems like hyperbole, but it’s not.
Journey is magic. I cannot recommend it enough.