Thursday, October 1, 2015

[Video Game Review] Journey

journey screenshot

Journey, © 2012 Thatgamecompany

This game almost makes me wish I smoked, because I think I need a cigarette after playing it.

The best word I can think of to describe Journey is "exquisite": in terms of design, visuals, music, playability, length, fun factor, and overall gestalt. I haven't really been part of the video gaming scene since I finished college, but this might be the most beautiful game I've ever played (and I mean that in more than just a graphical sense).

Indeed, I would go as far as to say that Journey has truly spiritual dimensions. It feels like an interactive parable from one of the world's great religions, one about the human soul, life and death, friendship, and the rewards which flow from striving towards something greater than oneself, even at great personal cost. This game has a lot of depth for something you can finish in under three hours.

As a matter of fact, I'm not sure that I can even really say that Journey is a game at all, at least in the traditional sense. It's impossible to take damage (the worst that can happen is losing a bit of your "scarf"; the longer it gets, the farther you can jump), there's no time limit, and the "puzzles" are very simplistic. There is no loss condition, and basically nothing to do except move forward. Despite this, there were moments, deep in the bowels of some ancient ruin, being pursued by unstoppable, flying serpent-guardians made of stone, where I was truly afraid, despite knowing for a fact that there was nothing they could do to hurt or kill me, even in-game.

Thatgamecompany is renowned for not simply releasing action-oriented titles, but interactive works of art, which are specifically designed to provoke emotional responses in players. I would say that Journey achieves this goal in spectacular fashion.

You'll grow far more attached to this nameless, faceless avatar than you would expect.

The game opens on a vast and endless desert, with the player's non-gendered avatar sitting in the sand. It stands, and after a brief, wordless tutorial on how to manipulate the camera, the player is left to decide which way to go. That's it: no half-hour unskippable opening cinematic, no backstory, no text, no voice-over, no nothing. I found it deeply refreshing to simply be thrust into the game-world and allowed to make my own decisions about where to go and what to do.

Since the only moving thing in this featureless world of sand is a flapping "scarf" atop a nearby dune, the player will most likely decide to move towards that. As you crest the dune, the camera pulls back to simultaneously reveal a shining mountaintop in the impossibly-far distance, and a stunning panoramic vista of ancient sand-choked ruins. The word "Journey" fades into view above the mountaintop, and you realize that the developers have just gotten you to willingly walk right into the title-screen without even realizing that you were playing right along. Journey is full of moments like this, where gameplay and game-design work together, instead of at cross-purposes. Sometimes the camera-work was so smooth that it was hard to tell whether I was playing a game or directing a movie.

Another thing that I loved is that there's zero dialogue in this game. No text, no narration, no spoken dialogue, not even a HUD. Asides from the aforementioned title-screen and the end credits, Journey is a game totally devoid of linguistic content. Just like in real life, there's nothing blinking in the corner of your vision to distract you from what you're seeing and doing, which has the effect of keeping the player in the here-and-now, rather than distracted how many points they've got left or have earned so far. This game isn't about winning, it's about... well, the journey.

And what a journey it is.

When this vista opened up, I was literally struck dumb in the middle of a sentence; all I could do was stare in awe.

This game will take you over sand and under the sea and through the earth and up, up, up into the very highest reaches of the stratosphere. You'll run, leap, fly, swim, and even sneak your way through a world which feels simultaneously solid and otherworldly, plausible and fantastic. You'll feel wonder, foreboding, fear, sorrow, and even the tender concern for a beloved traveling companion.

You might even make a friend along the way: about two-thirds of the way through, I realized that I suddenly had a companion, a second figure identical to myself. Like me, it seemed unable to talk, but we could "sing" to each other (if you can call it that; it's really more like a pulse of white light accompanied by a tone and a glowing glyph). Since singing and touching refilled each other's jump-power, we stuck close together whenever possible. By the end, I was surprised at how emotionally attached I got to my nameless, faceless "buddy", even if s/he couldn't communicate with me in any linguistic sense (kind of like the Companion Cube from Portal).

"I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam."

Journey is full of genuinely touching moments, despite not having a single word of written nor spoken dialogue. It's packed from beginning to end with a sense of wonder and exploration, of mind-blowing revelations and stunning, silencing vistas which emerge without warning. The desert (indeed, the entire game) reminded me of trekking over Sleeping Bear Dunes as a child: you never know what you're going to see when you crest the next rise, but it's sure to blow you away.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful tribute! If I liked video games even a little bit, I would absolutely play Journey. As I don't, I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on it. :)