It’s been over a year and a half since the brilliant Journey was made available on the Playstation Network. In the short three hours it took for me to play and finish the Indie marvel, I felt no hesitation in placing it within my top ten games of all time. Even after such an extensive period of time, I still hover over the launch file on my PS3 and gaze at the foreboding mountain, accompanied by that sombre, lone violin which tells of thousands of emotions, from thousands of individual journeys. For the incredible amount of praise I’ve heaped onto Journey, let me share with you why I believe this game is one of the greatest ever made.
From the get-go, it should be mentioned that this game was developed by Thatgamecompany, noted for creating rather unconventional games like flOw and Flower; each of which are both aesthetically pleasing and very simple in terms of gameplay. Additionally, both games lack dialogue and a story, but make up for it with soundtracks to compliment the unique gameplay. So with their third outing being Journey, the same principles were applied, but there was an underlying story to it. Set in the middle of a barren wasteland engulfed in a sea of sand, you play a cloaked and almost ethereal, armless being gliding over the vast desert—all portrayed over a haunting and beautiful score. However, the significance of the desert’s stark desolation is the great spectacle that looms in the background: a grand mountain with a shimmer of light protruding from the summit, gleaming magnificently. That said, wandering the desolate plains creating patterns in the sand isn’t the true extent of your adventure, for you have a sole objective: climb the mountain. It’s a simple task which in turn begs more questions: what is at the top of the mountain? Why are we making this journey? And furthermore, how could a game about climbing a mountain with such a linear view of the story garner such critical acclaim? To answer simply for now, Journey is a beautiful game, both literally and metaphorically—the attention to detail in terms of landscape and music is a bond that surrounds you in a world filled with nothing, yet tempts you with the mystery of a simple task and with the history of a forgotten place in time (which you do learn about along the way). With Journey, it offers more of an emotional experience rather than one focusing on gameplay, and it’s a game that willingly toys with your emotions in ways you will never forget.
Expanding on emotions, I believe that Journey experiments with your ability to feel. In the short space of time it takes to complete the game (I clocked in at roughly 3 hours), you are overwhelmed with a number of feelings, such as those of excitement—exploring the wastes and the ancient ruins scattered over and under the land, revealing itself to be from an old civilisation that once thrived long ago, now lost forever in the sands of time. There were instances of fear—veiling yourself from ancient beasts soaring through the sky and lurking through forgotten catacombs, while you’re evading them in desperation. Finally, you’re hit with a sense of sadness, and you’re hit hard. It is this emotion that ties in with the other two perfectly, and working in conjunction with the game’s defining feature, it reveals why Journey is an emotional rollercoaster of an experience. In the simplest of explanations, you do not play Journey alone. As you begin your lone pilgrimage towards the mountain, you are joined by another figure identical to yours, but they are controlled by another player. They are randomly selected to join you while playing at the same time as you are, and it’s at that point where you realise that now you are not alone, and your solitary voyage has now become a true journey with a companion by your side. Though you cannot speak to each other using vocal commands, you are able to tap some of the buttons (or hold them down and release them) to sound off a musical note with a special symbol being emitted from your character. This is essentially the only form of communication in the game—singing. In whatever way you choose to press the buttons, it will appear as if you are singing in key with the music being played, and it is worth noting that it has a secondary function, as a way to call to your companion should they wander too far from you, and vice versa. The symbol is unique to you and your PSN ID, so it will never change, and will also be remembered by those who you play with. Once both players establish this connection between each other, it is at this point where the game begins to put your emotions to the test.
Further into the game once you have spent a substantial amount of time adventuring alongside your partner, you‘ll find that the playing conditions have somewhat worsened along the journey. Along the way, you both will have encountered ancient spirits at certain checkpoints, sitting before them together as if to hear another part of the story, as you awaken them to reveal more about the forgotten land’s past as they guide you towards your next goal. Though you may have lost your original companion who might have been replaced by someone else (due to the fact that they might simply want to stop playing), a relationship still exists between you and the other player, since they have endured on the same journey as you have. As a result, you cannot help but feel that you both have an obligation to see out the adventure, and ascend the mountain together. Once you actually begin your ascent, you will both find that it is more than a struggle. Besieged by snow and harsh winds, you and your partner may constantly be separated from each other, tumbling down the slopes, singing to each other in the desperate hope that you will reunite; that everything is going to be okay. In caring for each other’s safety, the instance of fear rears itself, and prompts you to feel something extraordinary: you are caring for the welfare of a complete stranger. You don’t know this person, and yet the will to continue to the summit of the mountain with your companion truly compels you to press on strong, trying not to falter. The pulsating score playing in the background hails down upon you like the obstacles in your way, yet you try your hardest to stay together – your characters have no arms, yet you are bound by companionship and unwavering resolve.
Following your completion of the game, you’re left to reflect on your experience. Your partner’s ID is recorded along with the others you’ve played with serving as a reminder. Looking back, you realise that you embark on a seemingly simple adventure alone, which soon manifests into a joint journey that transcends that of a standard fellowship, but rather an expedition that forms the bond of friendship between yourself and a complete stranger, evoking fear for their safety, determination to reach your goal together, and the sorrow of a feigned defeat to that of a goodbye at the end. Of course, this isn’t always the case for many who have played the game. I was fortunate to complete my maiden journey with a companion who was not only a team-worker, but also someone who I felt cared about me the way I did them. However, many have played alongside players who have preferred to work alone, displaying rather erratic behaviour, while some have even finished the game alone. Furthermore, the experience of a journey with one main individual for the majority of the adventure can be disrupted by broken playthrough. I myself believe that this game cannot be played in parts – it must be completed in one sitting, alone and ready to play, as I did. I do believe that I enjoyed a near-perfect experience of this game, and have been left with many wonderful memories as a result. It is because of this that I have not played the game since, as my experience was so unique and moving that I felt a second playthrough would tarnish these memories. This is truly the extent of the experience I have had with Journey.
I have played many games which evoke many emotions, but with a simple yet complex experience as this one, I feel that this game is more than just that; it’s an opportunity to indulge in a pilgrimage of friendship, expertly tied together with music, art, and emotion—something unique and truly unforgettable. In summation, Journey offers an experience unlike any other.