The lights are on
ThatGameCompany (TGC) captures videogame magic once again with their newest title Journey, an emotional voyage through shifting sands and half-buried ruins with little direction, but for one simple goal: reach the top of a far off mountain. Technical innovations in graphics and motion capture abound this late in the current console generation and TGC has chosen to innovate in other ways- namely, player engagement through emotional resonance. Make no mistake, Journey is a visual and auditory marvel, but the real value of the game comes from the level of investment the player is willing to make.
This time around, TGC experiments with a loose narrative, leaving both the story and the experience open to player interpretation. Journey has a fairly simple plot, yet poses deep philosophical questions. On the surface, your story begins and ends with a journey from the outskirts of a lonely desert to the summit of a mountain looming in the distance. Why this character is traveling to the mountain or what connection he/she has to the ruins is never fully explained, but as you progress you do get the sense you’re experiencing something personal and profound.
During your travels, each level is bookended with animated vignettes. These stories serve to provide both context for and progression of your travels. Some hints exist as to what happened to the now crumbling civilization, but you’re never spoon-fed a definitive explanation. Any deeper message these stories cumulatively create is up to you.
JOURNEY WILL MOVE YOU
Movement through the game is most delightful when skiing down sand dunes or floating through the air. Utilizing the gliding ability allows the player to reach high ledges and traverse long distances quickly. Illuminated symbols sparsely populated throughout the game reward the player with prolonged flight. The amount of time a player is able to glide is represented, ingeniously, by the length of their scarf. While airborne, glowing runes along the scarf dissipate until the scarf is goes dark and you’re deposited back on land.
While gliding through the air produces a certain amount of childish glee, it’s the exhilaration of slaloming down sand dunes and through ruins that generates the most enjoyable moments in the game. One specific level, The Sunken City, combines the joy of skiing through this dramatic environment with an emotional rolling score and brilliant skyline. TGC has done an incredible job perfecting the pacing of Journey to the point that even the ebb and flow of movement (walking, surfing, gliding and sneaking) rarely, if ever, feels monotonous or repetitive.
ZEN AND THE ART OF SAND SURFING
THERE IS LIFE IN THE DESERT
You will meet many in-game companions as you progress through this sea of sand that take on a notably aquatic nature. Each stylized cloth creature, from the schools of little fish and energetic dolphins, to the giant flowing kelp and jellyfish add life to an otherwise desolate environment. Interactions with each creature resemble an almost symbiotic relationship. As the player helps to release these creatures from confinement, they function to enable forward progression, either providing a boost, a quick charge or a friendly guide through the level. The only real antagonists players will find in the game take on the form of flying stone serpents. These menacing giants will chase players down and violently tear off a segment of their scarf should they cross their line of sight. Even players disconnected from the network will find some form of companionship along the way.
COMMUNICATING WITH THE WILDLIFE
The online “multiplayer” TGC included with Journey is a critical component of the game. Much like Dark Souls and Demon Souls, you lack the ability to directly invite a player into your session. The game will automatically pair your avatar up with a single companion. Competing for resources is blessedly absent and voice support is, wisely, replaced with nonsensical shouts. Whether you choose to work together or not is up to you. Cooperative versus solo play offers no distinct advantages other than being able to “recharge” one another with your shouts.
It’s interesting how much more enjoyable the experience is using only shouts to communicate and how impactful it can be to lose your companion along the way. Rather than avoiding contact with random players, I found myself seeking out and holding onto their companionship during my journey. For example, at the end of a rather involving level, I lost my companion and had no idea what to think. Where did he go? Why did he leave? Did he go on without me? Should I leave him behind or wait? In any other game I would not have struggled with moving on. Not this game. Had I been able to talk with XxxUrM0m96xxX, I’d probably have disconnected the game on purpose. Unintelligible shouts are a more humanizing form of communication than in-game chat. I strongly recommend both a solitary playthrough and one with companions. While there is no change to the story, the emotional journey with each new companion encountered is worth multiple trips.
A GILDED CAGE
Journey’s strangest surprise is how linear it really is. The path to the mountain and ending are the same whether you play solo or with a companion. It seems encountering companions along the way and deciding whether to stay with them or explore your own path would have carried more weight with a more open world design. Tighter pacing seems to be the tradeoff. While the game clearly doesn’t require an open world design to be successful, it seems like a significant missed opportunity given the impact TGC was looking to impart on these specific interactions.
Emotions and character interactions aside, Journey is a visually striking game with gorgeous sound design. You will, without a question, be treated to jaw dropping vistas and expansive landscapes along the way. These visually engaging moments are supported by some of the most moving and adept musical scores expressing everything from joy and amazement to dread and gloom; Journey uses its live orchestra soundtrack in this way to great effect. While the score is unique, it’s difficult not to draw comparisons with Greg Edmundson’s work on Firefly in instrumentation, musical themes and emotional impact- high praise indeed. Do not turn down the volume of your TV for this one.
Journey’s stylized artwork is both simple and rich. The simple artwork and environmental design do not overwhelm the experience and the lack of a HUD is incredibly refreshing; use of the scarf as a power meter through character and costume design is quite clever. My only visual complaint in Journey is the absurd amount of sand glare. Some level of “pop” is necessary to help the game standout with its reserved color pallet, but I could not stop comparing the glare to a sugar encrusted confection or a Barbie convention gone horribly, horribly wrong. Less is more with glitter and this game is no exception.
DESERT: TWO PARTS SAND, ONE PART GLITTER
A JOURNEY WORTH TAKING
Storytelling through emotional resonance is the true innovation of TGC’s Journey. Visual pizazz, a moving score, engaging environments and inventive multiplayer all coalesce into a phenomenal game dedicated to expanding the emotional impact of the videogame industry. Not since Final Fantasy 6 have I felt such a broad scope of emotion in one game. Through multiple playthroughs I’ve felt: wonder, joy, loss, sorrow, exultation, dread, peace, loneliness, empathy and so much more. Many games like Mistwalker’s Lost Odyssey, Team Ico’s Shadow of the Colossus and Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain have tried to capture emotional impact, but with a narrower focus. Journey successfully guides the player through a much broader spectrum. TGC has broken new ground in interactive storytelling by combining all of its cumulative elements into one tightly paced game. I seldom replay a game right away and I could not wait to take a second and third trip. Don’t make the mistake of failing to embark on your own journey.Nitperks:
Sixaxis camera control: Mass Effect 3 players, how amazing would it be to use your controller to shift the camera while running in single or multiplayer modes? Exactly. Let’s see more use of this feature please!
Sand skiing: Moving so fluidly through this game is a treat. The Sunken City level is easily my favorite. I want more!
Cloth Dolphins: Journey can be a pretty somber game. The pod of cloth dolphins added a sense of playfulness you seldom see in a serious game.
Sand Glare: Not even snow provides that much glare. Tone it down! Glitter is meant to sparkle, not spackle.
Companions between levels: My experience with the game was a new companion each level. Considering there’s a trophy for playing with the same companion for most of the game, shouldn’t this be easier to accomplish?
Larger world: It’s hard to fault such a well-constructed and well-paced game, but I feel TGC missed out by limiting the scale of their world. I’d have like the option to take multiple paths up the mountain and struggle with the decision whether to follow a companion or go my own way in a larger, more divergent world.
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