Platform: Playstation 3
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Journey is the latest exercise in videogaming minimalism from Jenova Chen and thatgamecompany, the studio that made the excellent downloadable game Flower.
It tells the tale of a mysterious androgynous traveller who journeys from an open desert to the top of a mountain. As with Chen’s other titles, it is a simple premise that is designed to evoke an emotional response through its audio visual stimulation, rather than the complexity of the gameplay mechanics or storytelling. It is a compact experience that lasts just a couple of hours from start to finish, but this also means the game is free from padding and could conceivably be replayed many times over for those who enjoy it.
I found Journey to be an incredible experience. Its sparse and simple mechanics meant there is little frustration in navigating the avatar, so instead you can easily lose yourself in the avatar’s journey. The game has just two buttons – a shout button which allows you to activate various beacons and relics that you come across in your travels, and a jump button that can only be activated through the unlocking of said beacons. The rest of the game is cleverly designed to appear open but is purposefully linear and designed in such a way that the player will have moments of toil where they may trudge through a snowstorm or up an enourmous sand dune, only to be offset by the relief of sliding down the other side or soaring through the air.
An interesting wrinkle to how players will experience Journey is the multiplayer experience which is rigidly controlled by the developer, but is done in a way that offers a richly rewarding sense of commradery to the player. Unlike a convential multiplayer game, there is no ability to add someone from your friends list to your game. In fact, while you’re playing, Journey doesn’t even tell you the name of the person you’re playing with or give you a choice as to when they join. Instead, these other companions will simply appear over the course of your journey at random intervals. You can opt to follow the other player or not. Communication is reduced to your movements and wordless shouts. It sounds incredibly limited, and it is, but you’ll be surprised at how quickly you become emotionally invested in making sure your companion keeps up with you when you continue your journey to the mountaintop. If the other player pauses or exits the game, their avatar sits down and then disappears in a whisp of dust and sand.
I loved this game. Loved, loved, loved it. thatgamecompany have shown an incredibly apptitude for drawing an emotional response from the player through this ambiguous environment, much in the same way they achieved this with Flower.
There’s a moment early in the game where my avatar discovers a sandfilled ruin of a former civilization that lies at the bottom of a desert valley. As the avatar glides down the sand dunes towards it, he criss-crosses paths with his wordless companion. Rays of sunlight beam through the gaps of roman pillars in the distance as the orchestral score swells with each brief moment where I jump and soar through the air. It gave me a sense of exhileration that few other games can hope to match. It reminds me of the sort of emotional response I got from the Sigur Ros album () which uses a combination of ambient music combined with made up gibberish lyrics. The response it draws from the audience becomes deeply personal and is highly interpretive.
Journey is Jenova Chen’s crowning achievement as a video gaming auteur. Its a cliche to say it but the game industry is still predominantly made up of games which shoot first and ask questions later. Journey is one of those games that offers a refreshing alternative for what video games can offer.
Chen’s artistic and design motif is very distinctly his own, and despite the outward simplicity of his games, he still shows himself to be a savvy game designer with a clear understanding of pacing, clarity of vision and player behaviour in his games. Because his games seek to offer a cathartic experience, it is critical that the controls be responsive and that the player doesn’t easily get lost or misunderstand their objective. To this end, it is clear why Journey had such a lengthy development, but it was absolutely worth the wait. Chen and thatgamecompany have absolutely nailed it with Journey. It is a short, sweet experience that surprises and delights the player from start to finish.