One criticism that has been laid at thatgamecompany‘s Journey is that the game is quite short. I played through in about three hours, and any subsequent play throughs are unlikely to be longer. But they were three very good hours, three very immersed hours, and three quite emotional hours.
Usually when we talk about emotions and gaming, we’re talking about frustration, burn out, boredom at the grind, or the cackling joy of getting off a good headshot. Because, let’s be honest, the predominant emotion in multiplayer games is a mix of frustration (at yourself, at whoever you are playing against, at any incompetent allies) with occasional highs. Sometimes, almost by accident, a game will show good flow and you’ll get right into the groove for awhile … until another frustrating incident throws you out again.
Journey, by comparison, is a sculpted emotional experience which encompasses flow, restfulness, playfulness, focus, mild highs of achievement when you complete a level for the first time, spookiness, sadness, elation, and ends with a sense of peace. I defy anyone not to feel anxious when your little avatar is struggling uphill in the snow with the winds against it, or not to grin when you are sliding down sand dunes just for the fun of it.
Every part of the game is a crafted piece of the experience, including the graphics, colour palette, animation, and lush orchestral score. The animation in particular is a joy, as you swish around in the sand, drift underwater, or trudge through the snow. The environment feels very real here, in a way that most MMOs never achieve. Journey is a very beautiful game, it’s aesthetically pleasing. The non-gender specific, non-culture specific main character is on a journey towards a light. That’s all you need to know. The rest you will find out on the way.
It isn’t really fair to categorise Journey as a platform game, although you will be jumping onto platforms. It isn’t really fair to categorise it as a puzzle game either, although there are puzzles to be solved. It’s an exploring game, through gorgeous desert, underwater, and snowy mountainous regions. It’s a magical game, where scraps of fabric hold strange powers. It’s a multiplayer game, where anonymous robed figures may silently appear to help you, play with you, or try to communicate via chimes. It’s a meditative aim where the soft colours and soothing string music accompany you on your explorations, and there is no timer, no competitive aspect, nothing to stop you taking your time. And it’s a story, an oddly personal story with no words, no characters — just the story of a journey.
With my gaming head on, I found Journey to be a bit on the easy side. I enjoyed the more puzzle-type levels and wouldn’t have minded more tricky or involved ones. But one of the design goals for the game is that provide good flow for a wide variety of players, and that means that people who aren’t in the gaming headspace shouldn’t find it frustrating. So basically, it was never going to be a hard game in that sense.
The multiplayer aspect is done well also. You can only communicate with the robed stranger via chimes, but when you are close to each other, both characters get a buff to their jumping abilities. I don’t think it is possible to grief, but it is very easy to dance around each other, or co-operate. There is nothing to be frightened about with the other player in your gameI found that the stranger soon felt like a friend, a fellow traveller, someone you might even want to help or protect. If they were chased by the scary snake thing, you wanted to help.
And somehow it felt oddly appropriate that if you finished the game and sat through the credits all the way to the end, the last screen lists “Friends you met along the way” and finally adds a name to the robed stranger.
Journey is available on the PS3. Maybe £10 for 3 hours isn’t too cheap, but it’s what I’d pay for a film and I felt it was money well spent.