Last night I finished Journey, the final game in ThatGameCompany’s PSN exclusive “game” “trilogy.” I quote both game and trilogy separately because the three games are completely unrelated, so they aren’t really a trilogy and, according to some, the first two games (flOw and Flower) aren’t even really games at all. Journey is certainly the “gamiest” of the three, wherein the player has direct control of a humanoid avatar that has the ability to do things like run and jump.
It is at about this point that I must fully disclaim that the long history of lazy, trope-heavy reviewing of things like music, movies, books and video games create a problem here, because describing Journey is something in which bullshitty words like “ethereal” and “artsy” could be put to good use, but years of abuse and misuse by review writers have sucked any and all meaning from many of the words that could be aptly used to explain Journey, so I will just do my best to explain what I personally liked about the game.
Like flOw and Flower, Journey is completely devoid of any predefined narrative or story. There is no text or dialog, no prompts or tutorials. Your character is unnamed, as are the characters you play with in the anonymous, seamless multiplayer. The only way to communicate with the your online partner is through a single pressure sensitive button press that causes your avatar to “chirp.” Online players enter your world randomly and if you become separated for a large distance or amount of time, the player drops out of your game. It is impossible to be trolled in Journey, as far as I can tell. The “puzzles” in the game can all be solved solo, but having a second player, particularly at the end of the game, makes for a much, much more emotionally resonant experience.
The game looks stunning, and an amazing amount of work and detail obviously went into created a game world that feels barren. The music, which I am listening to as I type this, is beautiful and matches up well with the environments and the action.
I think, perhaps, what I like most about Journey, though…what I find most ambitious about it, is it’s ambiguity. Flower, which was also beautiful and creative, had an unavoidable, preachy overtone to it that I just found myself unable to ignore. Journey, for me at least, is left completely open to player interpretation. The blanks in the story – who you are, how you got there, where you are going – are filled in completely in your own mind. If you are like me, those things never even enter in to it, though. I took the title to it’s logical extreme and just went on a Journey from the start to the end of the game.
There is one moment in this game with no story that I could spoil, but I will not. I will only say that, nearing the conclusion of the game, there was a moment where, had the credits begun rolling, I would have either wept or stood up off the couch and applauded or possibly even both. To become attached to the unexplained journey of nameless character with no backstory in 90 minutes of gameplay to the extent which I did displays a brilliant level of craftsmanship at work on the part of ThatGameCompany.
Journey is not for everyone. I don’t give a flying fuck about the “games as art” discussion. I have no horse in that race. I like art. I like games. Sometimes, even if it is only by virtue of the majority of games being completely antithetical to the idea of “art,” there is an overlap where a game can create the same guttural, emotional response that great music, books and films can. Sometimes it is because of stunning visuals, sometimes it is because the story is excellent and sometimes it is the catharsis of one particularly moment in a game. Journey has all of those rolled up in to one short, $15 package.