Note: Doesn’t contain plot spoilers, but does contain detail about game mechanics, which some have described as spoilers. Read on at your leisure/risk.
I recently finished my second play through of thatgamecompany’s Journey, thoughtfully and accurately described by its creators as an “interactive parable, an anonymous online adventure”.
That’s right, you’re indeed playing with people from all over the world. This may come as a surprise to some. Journey begins so quietly that I first assumed a fellow character I encountered in my first few minutes of play simply had to be of the AI variety.
After all, I received no notification that any player had joined my game. With no name or avatar floating above their cloaked head, this second character didn’t seem any different from my own. Not sure what else to do, I followed it, as I do with nearly every AI character I meet in a game. After a few minutes of following their billowing scarf, I began to notice a few differences.
Their cloak, initially thought to be identical to mine, bore a greater number of patterns and lines. Their scarf was nearly double the length of my own and they were using the game’s “call” feature (O button) far more liberally than I was. I didn’t know what purpose it held, and fear of the unknown left me unwillingly to use it.
Through over 16 years of play, games have taught me to keep my resources well stocked and at the ready. A seasoned gamer doesn’t go around wasting bullets and stimpaks. But Journey doesn’t rely on the trappings of conventional video games. It gives players a chance to experience gaming in a new way, one that doesn’t penalize players for doing the wrong thing, at least not in any form that will usher in any feelings of inadequacy.
In fact, the only aspect of Journey that rewards a player’s strategic and exploratory method of play lies the player’s cloak and scarf. The differences in my partner’s cloak design weren’t merely cosmetic. The multiple rows of gold banding and dark burgundy geometric shapes signified that this particular player had experienced the game multiple times, through multiple Journeys, if you will.
The length of their scarf showed how many of the 21 glowing symbols they’d discovered as they played. Each symbol discovered adds to the overall length of the garment and the duration of time the player can fly/float before having to”recharge” the scarf.
The adornment of their cloak is akin to the exotic bracelets and golden tan of a friend who’s been on vacation to some faraway destination. They wear the fruits of their adventure proudly, their tanned skin contrasting against yours, temporarily pale until you’ve seen the sunshine too. Once you’ve earned your tan, the two of you enjoy a sort of camaraderie. You can compare notes on the places you’ve seen and what you’ve done.
In my second Journey, I met a player wearing a beautiful off-white cloak. They seemed friendlier and more patient than others I’d met in the game. They used the call feature as a way to beckon me forward, inevitably leading me to the next hidden symbol, my scarf growing ever longer. When I ventured off the beaten path or toppled off a ledge, my fall cushioned with sand, they simply waited, using their call feature to let me know where they were. When we navigated a challenging section, we called back and forth to one another, as if to celebrate our small victory.
At one point, after opening a new set of gates, my ivory-cloaked partner was nowhere to be seen. We had been playing for close to an hour together, and I felt lost at their sudden departure. I called out again and again, even running in circles in the hopes that they were simply in some high up crevice, and would see that I wanted them to come back. I resigned myself to the fact that, like all the others, they’d left me in my greatest time of need. I trudged onwards, feeling both abandoned and hurt.
A minute or so passed and I noticed a glowing white light at the bottom left corner of my screen. I had yet to experience this and whipped around, expecting to see some kind of threat. Instead, standing only a few paces behind me, was my friend, my knight in soft white cloth. I ran up to them and jumped in circles around them, my clumsy way of thanking them their return. Things were back to normal. We pressed on with our adventure, feeling an even stronger bond.
Never before have I felt gameplay enriched by the presence of another player.
As a child who grew up in rural Manitoba without access to high speed Internet, I didn’t have exposure to multiplayer. It’s only in the past few years that I’ve nervously entered this world of the ultra-competitive. Gaming has grown to be such an intensely personal experience for me that I rarely enjoy multiplayer. It reminds me of sports. I’m expected to be an asset to my team in some way, playing in a cold and calculated manner, taking enjoyment solely in the thrill of the kill or completed level. And may God have mercy on your soul if you mess up. There’s no sense of exploration or learning. If you’re not an expert, you’re a liability.
Then there’s co-op, a mode of play assumed to be more forgiving to the less skilled player. Experience has taught me that one player is often left feeling dragged down by the other, muttering expletives at the first sign of a mistake.
Both experiences are flawed in that they don’t foster the ability to be human.
By the time you take on either co-op or online play, you’re expected to know every facet of the game. Mistakes are rewarded with death.
Journey is different.
It was the first game that made me glad I was playing with another person. They weren’t letting me down and for once, I wasn’t letting them down either. Our simultaneous exploration made the game better for both of us. You can’t die in Journey. Combined with the ultra-limited communication system, this means that players won’t be left feeling bad for their “mistakes”. Instead, players are encouraged to dust the sand off their cloaks and try again until they succeed.
Suddenly, these other-worldly characters become more human.
Completing my second play through and discovering all 21 glowing symbols earned me the Transcendence trophy, along with - I couldn’t believe it - an ivory cloak. The attached scarf is regenerating, meaning you can soar through pastel skies unencumbered by temporary flight.
But make no mistake, wearing this cloak doesn’t act as a shallow status symbol. It’s not like a special costume you get for buying the game one day one. Instead, it identifies you as a sort of guide, a seasoned player willing to help those in need. Those who’ve earned the prestigious garment have the choice of wearing it or the standard burgundy cloak. In this way, players who don’t yet feel comfortable guiding others can play through the game in continued anonymity, with only the pattern on their cloak signifying their level of expertise.
The game itself acts as metaphor for a some deeply personal aspects of life. Players may find themselves contemplating the notion of destiny, relationships, health, and possibly other more subtle topics. A major theme for me was that of relationships, and what it means to go through life with a partner, and conversely without one, and what that means for how we deal with success and adversity.
At its surface, Journey is a beautifully constructed game. Swells of lively music and instances of hushed silence are orchestrated with impeccable timing and fluidity. Sparkling sand lulls players into this utopian world.
This is something I would feel confidant recommending to nearly every type of gamer I know. Advocates of the medium will relish in the emotional themes of this experimental narrative. Self-described “hardcore” gamers, those who pride themselves on their skill in Call of Duty, will find solace in the introspective and relaxing experience which Journey offers. And young or casual gamers will find delight in the accessibility of this deep game.
Journey is a landmark title for the game industry and reminds us once again that games are art. Not that they might be or that they should be considered as such, but that they simply are.
A beautiful review from the lovely Albertine. High five of awesome!