It’s not very often I’m moved by a game, but then Journey isn’t like other games. It’s a small but perfectly formed package that during its mere two hours in length takes you through high tension, despair and exhilaration. It runs a gambit of emotions, all from a rather humble beginning.
Crouched on the ground, wrapped in an earthy coloured cape, you sit in quiet contemplation. Stretching out before you is a desert, the sun low in the sky emphasising the dune about you. Not far in front is a rise with a pair of standing stones. A length of fabric attached to them flutters in the breeze. It’s a strong image.
You stand and make your way towards them. As you move the sand shifts beneath your feet and grains flick out behind you. The trudge over the sand is emphasised further as you reach the incline; hunched in the effort of walking up a shifting surface your pace slows. The subtleties are a lovely small touch in a very big visual experience, but they are nothing compared to what waits you as you crest the hill.
From this vantage point the desert seems even larger, with further stones littering the landscape, but in front a small outcrop draws your attention. There are no objective markers or large neon arrows within Journey, curiosity is its primary tool in drawing you forward and at this outcrop one of the your few abilities is revealed. Surrounded by small scraps of cloth flocking like birds, a glowing trinket allows you to jump and soar as though a bird yourself. It’s about the only way you can interact with the world, but it will see you whirl and swirl to new heights.
That talent comes in handy as proceeding onwards you find Journey is made almost exclusively of arenas which stretch off in each dimension and cause you to be no more than a tiny speck. The sense of scale always reminding you that your character is not a hero rampaging through a world but more a pilgrim on a quest. Indeed, the very temple like structures and your crossing of the desert gives proceedings almost religious significance.
Your other ability is that of chirping. Throughout the world lie dormant variants of the cloth birds you found initially. Standing over them, let out a chirp and you’ll reanimate them, sending them fluttering about once more. What this does for you can be anything. Stand close by long enough and all will most likely recharge your limited jump power, some may even rush around you and pull you into the air, and others will trigger large cloth bridges to help you on your way. It’s your way or bringing life back to the world.
For the most part this is the main “game”, assessing how to reach from point A to point B over this vast and beautiful landscape and then setting off to do so. Consideration only needs to be made for making sure you have enough jump when necessary, there’s no time limit or for the most part no threat so to speak of to hurry you on your way. It’s a broad and lush canvas that you’re being asked to traverse.
That in itself is enough of a reason to experience ThatGameCompany’s latest but where the experience takes you is somewhere quite unique. Many, many releases have introduced a buddy or a partner that you’re supposed to care about. Be it the lovelies that Nathan Drake keeps happening upon in deepest, darkest Peru or the voice insider Master Chief’s head, all are there to introduce a dynamic and work as a emotional tool to grant the writers the opportunity to pull you along. Though what if they were real?
Early on, when I was pottering around in the desert, a shape resolved in the distance. I had thought it another small flock of cloth but as it came closer it was another journeyman. The online co-op is seamless and wherever possible the game will gently feed you a companion to share the trip with. Being honest, I waved the first one through; I was too busy poking around the desert to want to continue right then, but at one point I became stuck.
A large wall stood in front of me and I had no idea how to scale it. After a few minutes of puzzlement a chirping came from behind. A new journeyman had happened upon me. Through a series of chirps and tweets he somehow pointed out where I was going wrong, and leapt to the top of the wall. And waited, chirping encouragement. Up I went and upon reaching him, a further chirp. There’s no other way to communicate, you don’t even know the gamertag of your compatriot, yet somehow a chirp is enough to attract the attention or holler out in distress.
And so we continued, surfing down the other side of the huge dune, chirruping back and forth. Our adventure took us over further sand fields, deep underground through lost temples, and up large towers filled with a magical menagerie of cloth creatures. By now we could both soar quite some way and the act of flying or dune surfing in tandem was extremely liberating. Doing so alone is fun, but seeing the other interject the odd jump or twirl, maybe try and slalom in and out of the stone pillars, adds a certain joy that could never be replaced by an AI. You know their actions are spontaneous and knowing that they are probably getting the same kick out of the interaction makes it even better. It’s a simple pleasure but one that truly works, even more so due to the limited means of chat as no abusive teenager is going to break the spell.
Towards the end the tone takes a darker twist, reinforcing the pilgrimage ideal that our journeymen are testing themselves, and it was here that Journey truly touched me. Making our way up a hillside during a heavy storm we crossed from cover to cover in a bid to be shielded both from the winds and a large predator that circled above us. Against the noise of the breaking storm we chirped our moments and then sprinted from stone to stone. But then my friend seemed to panic. He jumped up, chirped and ran into the open far too soon. I let out a long hoot, trying to call him back, but it was too late; the flying beast descended and in a flash of light he was gone.
I stood there, honestly stunned. This man who had helped me so early on, who I had shared most of the journey with was gone. I stood and called out for a while, my character turning blue with the chill. I felt a little lost, alone on the hillside. I sat there hoping he would return but when a shape did emerge from the slopes below I could tell it was not him; his scarf was a different length.
That single incident there was something incredible. An emotional response had come from not the clever scripting of level design or pen of a script write but from the simple connection I had felt with my fellow traveller. There is a tale that runs behind Journey, but that is the facilitator rather than the reason. A focus for the pair of you that sets the scene and indicates the mood.
To now return to talking about things like mechanics and replayability verges on seeming crude, but necessary. Played alone the experience will be one of wonder, but in a similar way to those embracing Child of Eden for the first time. The scenery and fauna will delight, whilst the puzzles that block your way are solved easy enough as long as you let your curiosity take over. But you will be missing a large proportion of the experience.
Open up to online and you’ll find yourself in a completely different world. One where whole conversations take place as though bird calls, and one where you will have someone to share the good times and the bad times of your passage. It is an emotive and beautiful experience.
For me, Journey is the pinnacle of the art of videogames.