I had the idea for Journey in middle school. I’m not even kidding. In the late '90s, a friend and I developed an idea for a game (which is what we did instead of play soccer with the kids who had lives) in which players took on the role of an androgynous, wispy protagonist with a long, flowing red scarf, waking up in a surreal, vaguely apocalyptic landscape. The gameplay would consist purely of exploring the world and discovering why you were there. There would be no combat and only the lightest of puzzle-solving or platforming. We were kind of weird.
So imagine my surprise when I came across Journey, in which you play as a wispy, androgynous protagonist with a long, flowing red scarf, waking up to explore a surreal, vaguely apocalyptic landscape that contains lots of exploration and only light puzzle-solving and platforming elements. Clearly Jenova Chen, founder of thatgamecompany, is skilled in either inception or wizardry.
Journey, of course, is a much better game than the one we devised in middle school. For one thing, it exists. For another, this PlayStation 3 exclusive is a fantastic piece of work that deserves a place among the classics and to be routinely discussed as a modern milestone in the history of gaming. The developers had already staked out their niche in designing quietly beautiful, avant garde games like flOw, in which you play as a simple organism fighting for survival in the primordial ooze, and flower, in which you play as a gust of wind collecting flower petals. Journey is bigger than those games, more ambitious, more satisfying and emotional. It’s simultaneously more familiar and more innovative. Above all, it’s a triumph.
The game begins with your character, a robed and bescarved humanoid, waking up in the desert. In the distance is a mountain with a gleam of light at its summit... And that’s it—that’s the setup. In that moment, the titular journey is made crystal clear: Go to the mountain. The story is fleshed out as you continue through silent cutscenes that depict the history of the ill-fated civilization whose lands you are exploring, but as it is told wordlessly it always retains an air of mystery and awe. Eventually it becomes somewhat clear what your origin, goal, and purpose is, though it may take multiple playthroughs to fully interpret the cryptic goings-on.
The backstory is there to discover, and it’s highly intriguing, but it’s clear that the focus is on—you guessed it—the journey itself rather than the reasons for undertaking it. On your quest you’ll progress from chapter to chapter, encountering a pleasantly varied smattering of gameplay styles. Some chapters are linear and tightly-scripted while others are relatively open, gating you into a larger area that can be explored at leisure.
All of them are gorgeous. From the early desert valleys to the snowy slopes of the mountains, simply moving through each area is a joy, largely because of the game’s painterly look, with strong earth tones and a cartoonish but mature style. The environments are full of picturesque dunes glittering in the sunset, crumbling ruins of ancient machinery, and overwhelming vistas in the distance. Wonderful small details abound, like the trails left behind as you glide across the sand, as do large details like the impressive draw distance that lets you gaze out over the rooftops of a long-dead city. And Journey is as technically polished as it is artistically accomplished. The solid frame rate never dips even during scenes of great activity, and the game is filled with impressive shaders, post-processing, and other bells and whistles used to great effect.
Even better than the visuals is the sound. There’s a reason that Austin Wintory’s original score for Journey was up for a Best Score Grammy against Hollywood icons such as John Williams, Hans Zimmer, and Howard Shore. The soundtrack is absolutely phenomenal, resembling more the movements of a symphony than a collection of discrete tracks. Moving smoothly from soaring violins to feisty pizzicatos to dissonant cellos, the string-heavy score brings emotional heft to every chapter. It’s a credit to Wintory’s work that the music seems to constantly mold itself to your experience, when in fact the score is non-interactive (outside of reaching certain checkpoints, which will trigger a change of cues). The soundtrack works just as well outside of the game, and the album has been a mainstay on my mp3 player since the game was released.
Journey is played in third-person, and controls most like a platformer. You can move freely through the environment, jumping, gliding, and sliding. And you’ll need to in order to overcome the game’s towers, mountains, caverns, and valleys. One of the guiding principles here is minimalism, however, and to that extent the list of controls is very short. You can move, control the camera (either with the gimmicky Sixaxis motion controls or the more traditional right thumbstick), jump, and “ping,” which will require a bit of explanation.
Jumping and floating forms the core of the gameplay. The almost angelic animations of the protagonist fit perfectly with the floaty controls. Normally in a game that involves platforming, “floaty” controls would be a negative, but here they create a uniquely exhilarating sensation. Holding down the jump button allows you to fly and glide for extended periods of time. As you progress through the game, you’ll gain the ability to jump higher and glide further. This feels natural from the get-go and before long you’ll be a master of your environment, soaring from ledge to ledge like a leaf caught in a breeze. The movement is so forgiving that the platforming is never frustrating. And unlike many platformers, there is no penalty for falling—no infinite abysses, no spike traps, no death at all (this goes for the entire game—it is possible to be hurt during some segments but never to die). It becomes a soothing, freeing experience.
I said that the game involves only light puzzle-solving and I meant it—there aren’t very many and none of them will stump you in the least. There is no inventory and no dialogue, as the puzzles are all exploration-based. In one chapter, you’ll find yourself interacting with objects in order to construct a bridge of scarf-creatures; in another you’ll need to observe flocks of scarf-creatures in order to navigate in a wide open desert. You won’t find doors locked by codes or riddles, and everything in the game can be surpassed by walking around and pinging the right objects. That might sound disappointing to some, but in fact it’s one of the reasons the game never loses its essential flow. More difficulty would have meant bringing the journey to a screeching halt while you pushed blocks around or what have you. That kind of thing is fine, even welcome, in most adventure games, but here it would have been a detriment to the overall experience.Continued on the next page...