This critique contains a few minor spoilers.
The most consistently depressing aspect of being interested in the aesthetic dimensions of play is the sheer vacuity of the typical videogame release schedule. While there are always oddities and curiosities being put out into the wild, the interesting titles are by-and-large tiny, low budget projects – and just as the film industry lavishes its attention primarily on feature films not shorts, so the games industry similarly lavishes its attention on the bigger games, those able to create a compelling world, or push forward the envelope of representation by sheer force of funding. The sad truth is that very few game developers get a chance to indulge in making artistically-motivated projects, and fewer still get a few million dollars to do so. My joy at what thatgamecompany have been able to do with the money their current patron, Sony, has afforded them is tempered by the stark knowledge that this is all too unique a situation. A great deal of creative talent is stifled by a funding gap that is greater than in any other medium today.
Journey has its aesthetic roots sunk deeply into the work of another artistically-motivated developer under Sony’s patronage, namely Fumito Ueda’s Team Ico, creators of Shadow of the Colossus and Ico, which they are named after. But whereas those particular games are hymns of praise to the deeply masculine experience of overcoming challenge and adversity (the emotional experience of triumph or fiero that is central to violent videogames), Journey is guided by an admirable restraint that allows it to explore genuinely new play experiences. Make no mistake – the aesthetic territory explored by Ueda-san is the unavoidable progenitor to Journey’s feel, but Jenova Chen and his dozen-strong team have managed to take that inspiration and build on it in unique ways.
If it were not for, shall we say, the excessive minimalism of Shadow of the Colossus, I doubt Journey could even have been conceived. This style of development focuses resources into narrow areas, thus allowing much of the typical game design deadwood to be trimmed away while the surviving features benefit from increased refinement and prominence. For Ueda-sans famous game, the attention is paid primarily to the colossi, which perfect the well-established Boss formula into something capable of delivering a rare additional emotional experience: regret. For Journey, its the world that all the attention is lavished upon, as a sequence of carefully crafted environments are presented to the player with an exquisite eye for delivery. Understated framing of viewpoint, including camera cases within which the player remains largely in control, are used to show off the beauty of the spaces the team have crafted. This landscape requires only patience to cross, and those with the willingness to meekly submit to the experience will be justly rewarded for their persistence.
There are slight problems with the breadth of appeal that perhaps need to be acknowledged. Just as Shadow of the Colossus was an artistically-motivated game destined to be played and loved by a comparatively small cadre of a million or so players, all of whom were highly literate with the complex controls required for entering 3D synthetic worlds, so Journey will not appeal to anyone who has not already spent considerable time out in the digital frontiers. If thatgamecompany believe this can be played by non-gamers, they are surely mistaken – such players will require a helpful guide present in the same room if they are to overcome the potentially baffling controls. Even though only two buttons are used, their function is quite arcane (and presented with minimal explanation) such that some players – even when able to explore the world competently – are still unable to describe in words quite how they are doing what they are doing. It’s a minor issue in many ways, since this game will be loved by its players, and it is to Journey’s considerable credit that it strims back its control suite to a comfortable minimum of two actions – sing and fly. Nonetheless, prior experience of videogames is a necessity for appreciating Journey. That said, no-one is going to begin admiring paintings with a Mondrian or a Picasso: adequate preparation is often a requirement for fully appreciating artworks.
Where the game truly exceeds expectations is by taking influence from a comparatively obscure title, namely Tale of Tales’ The Endless Forest, a massively multiplayer screensaver which invites players to interact with one-another as deer. Within that particular world, players could not enact any act of violence and could only behave as a deer would behave – creating a kind of collective performance art that was further facilitated by the absence of written or spoken communication. Each animal was identified solely by a unique glyph, and from my experience of that particular game it seems players seldom met the same deer twice. This idea is taken up in Journey (the team acknowledge the influence of the earlier game in an online interview) as each player’s traveller is similarly identified by a unique symbol that appears stitched into the front of their robe, and hangs in the air whenever they use their button to sing. As the player explores the world, they meet other players (provided they have opted to sign in to Playstation Network) in a way that owes a debt to what was pioneered by Tale of Tales, but once again takes it further.
Throughout Journey, the player is repeatedly paired with other players who are at the same point in their pilgrimage to a distant mountain. Sometimes these other players fail to notice or care and push on regardless, leaving their fellow travellers alone in the desert. Sometimes, however, they stop and sing to one another, communicating through a strangely beautiful piping and chiming voice that varies according to the frequency with which the button is pressed. There is no way to enact violence against the other – you can help, or you can leave: those are the only choices. The result is unexpectedly rewarding: players are actively encouraged by the design to co-operate, indeed, co-operating is the most rewarding course of action from beginning to end. Experienced players even return to the game (which can be completed within two hours) in order to render aid to fellow travellers. This carefully designed co-operative circumstance draws an entirely new experience out of the online multiplayer concept – you cannot help but help, since even if you wished to cause grief to the other player all you can really do is complete the progression of challenges ahead of them, making their journey easier.
The developers describe Journey as an “interactive parable”, and there are two distinct stories at work here. Firstly, the story of the world, a mythic-but-familiar tale of the hubristic fall of civilisations, told in short, mandatory mosaic sequences that appear between sections. This is the game’s least successful element, for although the exposition of the backstory is elegantly presented, it is also intrusive and unavoidable, and becomes wasteful of the player’s time during replay when the game becomes more overtly game-like. This is a minor complaint, however, as it is the second story – the tale of each individual journey – that really shines, and these emerge from the random pairing of players cloaked in an anonymity that forges a bond between strangers. This is not to suggest that a player who explores this world on their own will not enjoy themselves – the odyssey is sufficiently well-crafted to entertain any gamer who can bear to give up the adolescent power fantasies that fuel so many other videogames. Nonetheless, you can’t fully appreciate what Journey achieves until you’ve experienced its “massively co-operative” online play.
Journey is not just a rarity for being a well-funded artgame, nor for exploring the frontiers of the vast uncharted play space beyond videogame violence, but also because this is a game which willingly touches upon the spiritual. It would certainly be possible to offer a more subtle presentation of these issues – but since other games never come even remotely close to such matters, this must surely be forgiven. Besides, my sense is that a great many players (although perhaps not all those who will encounter it) will be genuinely moved by where Journey takes them, and some of the emotional tones it is able to touch are just slightly further afield than other games have even dared to imagine. It is an achievement to be lauded, even if it is tempered by the knowledge that the current state of game industry funding denies almost all creative teams – including Tale of Tales, who helped influence this title – the chance to create unique and memorable synthetic worlds like this one. As thatgamecompany admit: there’s no way they could have made flOw, Flower, or Journey without Sony’s patronage. Something is seriously wrong with any creative medium that manages to so radically block its own potential.
This is a critique, not a consumer review. My review would be: buy this game if you own a PS3 and want to support videogames as a creative medium.