Journey Review: There and Back Again
My gamer cred may take a hit, but it’s best that I get this out of the way first: I was never interested in Journey upon its initial release, and thus I never played it. It would be easier to say that I never played it because I didn’t own a PS3, but the truth is, even if I did, I probably would have stubbornly refused anyway. The real reason why I had no interest in the game was because of my views on “games as art,” specifically that nothing up until that point had really worked as either a game or as a piece of art.
I believed that art and video games were fundamentally incompatible. Art, as I saw it, was a one way street: the artist(s) creates, the audience observes. Video games, on the other hand, are a two way street: the developer creates the game, and the gamer uses it to create his or her own unique experience. Games that had attempted to be art always misunderstood the dialogue between developers and gamers, and instead tried to make a work of art with the least amount of interactivity possible in order to preserve the traditional artist-and-audience dynamic. I play video games for a challenge, and the only challenge these games had presented to me so far was the challenge of clicking through all the dialogue bubbles without falling asleep. I only picked up Journey for PS4 because it had become such an enduring talking point in the “games as art” debate, and now that I write for a gaming site, I figured it was essential for me to know my talking points.
Here’s the twist: Journey does all of the things I hate about art games, and yet I loved every minute of it. Sure, it’s incredibly linear, the controls are simple, the puzzles are even simpler, and it’s impossible to die, but there are a few seemingly minor elements that make a huge difference. First, there’s the scale of the environment. thatgamecompany has crafted a world that feels massive, inspiring a sense of wonder and a hunger for exploration that few games can match. Even though the game is divided up into smaller areas and there is only one path to the end of each, Journey masks that with an impeccable use of space. Wide open canyons full of sand, towering cities that stretch toward the horizon, and the near-constant sight of your final destination on top of a gigantic mountain all lend a natural grandeur that makes every room and every vista feel significant.
I say “feel” significant, because very little in the game is significant in the traditional gaming sense. There are no collectibles, no items, and the only powerup extends your hover ability, which is more for the joy of floating around than it is for progressing through the game. Even so, there are clues left behind by a destroyed civilization that hint at a larger story, and by paying attention, players can assemble their own narratives in their heads. This is a different kind of dialogue between developer and gamer, one that combines the strengths of video games and traditional artwork into a new paradigm. By the end of the two hour experience, I couldn’t believe the emotional range I’d experienced from a video game with no dialogue or characters to speak of. While I’d like to go into details, this is something that’s best left unspoiled.
The second thing that Journey does differently is the multiplayer component, and this is what truly makes this a must-play title. Other players can drop in and drop out of your journey at any time, and together, you can explore the world, divide up puzzle duty, recharge each others’ hover ability, and huddle together for warmth. You can’t communicate beyond a simple chime, and you can’t even see the other player’s name. These small tweaks turn the normally-frustrating online co-op experience into one of the game’s most beautiful elements. In total anonymity, surrounded by this engulfing wasteland, total strangers can come together like old friends. It helps that there are virtually no ways for players to grief each other, but still, I’d like to think that my unknown traveling companions were all cooperating with the best of intentions.
Unfortunately, I can’t properly compare the PS4 version of Journey with the original, but the visuals are so effective in their simplicity that I wondered how much the game could have possibly changed. A comparison image that I found online confirmed what I’d already suspected – Journey looks quite similar on both consoles, but the seamless 60fps might make a difference for those who take their framerates seriously. Still, if you’re like me and you’ve never experienced Journey before, then you owe it to yourself to check it out. If you’ve already played it and you’re looking for an excuse to play it again with new traveling companions, then look no further. Journey truly is an interactive work of art, and it deserves to go down as both an innovator and an all-time classic.