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Warning: This article contains some spoilers for Journey.
Since its official release, thatgamecompany’s Journey has been causing quite a stir in the video game industry. It has been met with unprecedented critical success and inspired analytical discussions from game journalists everywhere (including here on Bitmob). It’s a gorgeous game with innovative mechanics, but that description alone isn’t enough to describe what makes Journey so special.
As it has done with its previous games on the PlayStation 3 (Flow in 2007 and then Flower two years later), thatgamecompany has stripped away any preconceptions about how video games are played by reducing the medium down to the bare minimum of interactivity while still providing a meaningful experience. In Journey’s case, this is achieved due to three key factors, which, when taken together, accomplish more in two hours than what some games try (and fail) to do in at least double that amount of time.
The art of play
“Play” is at the root of all games (not just the electronic ones) and it is an instinctual behavior inside all of us, especially as kids. We play to test our boundaries, to foster our imagination, and to cultivate relationships with others as a way to prepare us for interaction in the real world. Video games are an extension of this type of play through their creation of virtual sandboxes where we can be whoever we want to be and explore the choices we make (along with the consequences associated with them) in a safe space.
Though games have become increasingly streamlined and simplified, most are still very complex and rigorous in dictating what we can or cannot do while we play. For instance, the Call of Duty games don’t let us wander off the linearity of their beaten paths, just as the Assassin’s Creed games limit us to specific time periods to play in. These aren’t inherently bad design choices — as they’re usually fun because of these set limitations — but they also do little to stir our own imaginations.
Some games, such as Media Molecule’s LittleBigPlanet and Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto 3 (and the many open-world games that have followed it since), have offered a more free-form approach to play. They say to the player, “Here are the tools we built. We have a path set for you to follow if you want, but feel free to create your own experiences.” Journey fits into this latter category of games. Thatgamecompany has created a mysterious and beautiful-looking world with a preliminary goal in mind, though it leaves it up to the player to figure out how they’re going to accomplish it.
The game doesn’t offer much instruction on how to do anything when you first start, instead it encourages a child-like sensibility of discovering how things work for the first time. The best way to do that is by experimentation: On my first play-through, I spent five minutes just messing around with the controller to see what I could do as I ran around the sand dunes, testing if I could jump, fall, fly, or die.
It’s a curiosity that was constantly challenged with each new ability, revelation, or visual cue that Journey threw my way. The core experience may be brief, but it’s probably the best two hours you could possibly spend in a video game. From the beginning, Journey carries a momentum that never lets up, and I couldn’t help but smile the entire time. Other games are fun on a visceral, moment-to-moment level, but Journey is the first to practically hypnotize me all the way through.
An emotional narrative
Eat Sleep Play’s David Jaffe once said that the Holy Grail for most game designers was “to make you cry.” In other words, to inspire the same type of sadness, disappointment, or happiness that is often associated with more traditional forms of media (such as books and film). After reflecting on his failures and observing the trends from his colleagues' games in the industry, he realized that this ambition was a mistake: Jaffe now advocates that designers shouldn’t emulate the storytelling that we already have in other forms of media, since it sacrifices the pivotal tenets of innovation and creativity as a result.
Journey illustrates exactly the type of game Jaffe thinks we need. In the absence of a traditional narrative, and with only sparse cutscenes, Journey relies on the subtle interaction between the players and the environment to tell its story. This is further reinforced when interacting with another player in your game; you may ignore them and move freely without their help, or the two of you can travel the world together, tackling its obstacles along the way.
As an anonymous online adventurer, lacking the screen name and even the voice of a fellow player, you’re forced to place your trust in a stranger if the two of you are to work together. In an act of blind faith, you hope that the other player will be dependable enough to make the experience worthwhile. As Evan Killham already discussed, sometimes you don’t even know if the the both of you will make it out of this alive.
It’s a powerful feeling that no other multiplayer game has been able to achieve.
The amazement and wonder I had in the first few chapters of the game gradually transitioned to one of caution, unnerving tension, and claustrophobia in the face of the new obstacles that I was thrown into. Eventually, I became genuinely afraid of what lied ahead of us. I felt helpless and vulnerable as my new friend and I walked carefully underneath a beast's shadow.
From this point on, Journey becomes a series of trials meant to test your willingness to move on, and it’s a struggle that is easier to bear with an friend by your side. At one point, it appeared that my companion had succumbed to the dangers in the game, and I impatiently waited on them to rejoin me as I sung to their lifeless avatar to see if they’d respond back
When I saw them fade away seamlessly with the natural elements, and with Austin Wintory's sweeping soundtrack reaching its denouement, I felt a slight pang of sadness at losing what had developed into a mutual bond. My only friend in this world was gone, and I’d have to face the rest of the obstacles alone. In reality, I only lingered on this for perhaps a minute or two, but just the idea of a game making me feel and think this way is testament enough to how expertly paced Journey really is. By the end, I had experienced an entire range of emotions in a medium where most games have a hard time just trying to invoke one.
A true adventure
Although every game inspires some sense of adventure — in exploring new worlds, new characters and new mechanics — we always have some expectations attached to them, especially once we know if the product is a sequel or fits into a particular genre. It’s truly rare for a game to surprise us as much as Journey has (since much of it was still surrounded in mystery in spite of its extensive pre-release media coverage).
In a recent interview with IGN, thatgamecompany’s co-founder, Jenova Chen, mentioned that the team's goal for Journey was to create an environment with “no tasks,” and that the purpose was to encourage exploration and adventure. He wanted to remove all of the competitive trappings that we’re used to seeing in multiplayer games today, and instead hoped that players of could establish a relationship with one another on an emotional level. Needless to say, they've accomplished those goals with flying colors.
After experiencing nearly all that the game has to offer, I'm almost hesitant to start on a second play-through. As silly as it might sound, I've adored my first Journey experience so much that I'm afraid that subsequent experiences might tarnish it. I'd honestly be fine moving on to other games, completely satisfied with the enriching experience that I've had with my initial impressions of this latest masterpiece.
However, Journey taunts the completionist in me with its scattered secrets hidden across abandoned ruins, not to mention the allure of playing with new strangers and forming new relationships as we seek those secrets together. There is also a trophy in the game listed as the "Return", which is awarded to the player for beginning a new journey after a week-long break from their last one. This is the perfect solution for me, since the extra days will give me more time to chew on what has become an indelible experience.
I can't wait to jump back in.