To embrace the concept of humanity in any form of entertainment is ambitious and, in some ways, risky. Even foolhardy. Those looking to indulge for a few hours are often more interested in escapism; in relieving the stress of a long day by focusing on a riveting piece of fiction. But is it not also a form of escapism to reflect and consider the vastness and complexity of the human condition? Is it not singularly interesting to find oneself alone and vulnerable? In short, we must all take a Journey.
A desert isn’t exactly full of lush scenery and at first glance, the barrenness of the sands seem almost too stark to be interesting. But part of this artistic vision is in fact that minimalist approach to a virtual world; we are supposed to feel alone, after all. Furthermore, this is a highly polished and accomplished presentation, as that sand moves realistically and responds faithfully to our every step. And when we begin to explore underground caverns and make our final trek into the snowy mountains, the production gels into an achingly beautiful living painting.
The sound envelops us further, as the gorgeous classical soundtrack, filled with subtle, haunting pieces often featuring poignant and even majestic strings, continually enriches the experience. The effects are basically limited to the sound of shifting sand and blowing wind, but that again plays into the underlying foundation built on autonomy. The combination of these simple yet crisp and believable effects with such a moving score is impressive, but the music really is the highlight. These compositions are of the very highest quality and hit just the right note, every time.
During a conference call earlier today, Thatgamecompany creative director Jenova Chen spoke about the team’s goals when developing Journey. As was the case with previous efforts (flOw and Flower), they wanted to do something new, and they wanted to reach the player on a mental, almost mystical level. They wanted to create an adventure that relied upon a complex cocktail of inherent human traits; fear and loneliness coupled with childlike awe and a dominating, almost subconscious drive to reach the summit. The summit beckons...
The summit, of course, can be a metaphor but in this case, it’s also literal: after a brief cinematic of a shooting star, you awake in a desert. You have eyes and a long red cape, but no arms and no mouth. This isn’t for the sake of being strange or bizarre; this too is an ingenious method of adding difficulty to your struggle. If you meet someone else on your travels, you cannot communicate via normal means; i.e., speaking and gesturing. Besides, you almost don’t notice that your character is lacking normal human proportions; your focus is always on your surroundings.
Like the aforementioned Flower, there is little to nothing in the way of handholding. You are given a few introductory commands (left analog stick to move, X button to jump and glide) but beyond that, you’re on your own. However, the game is so meticulously designed; at no point will you feel lost, confused or frustrated. You may have to figure something out – such as building a bridge or taking shelter behind rocks to avoid gusts of wind – but you will always have visual aids. You’ll always know precisely where you need to go; you just have to look around.
The latter is no easy feat, especially considering the lack of direction. To accomplish this in such an open atmosphere requires a great understanding of how we look around and progress. Therefore, we have a memorable journey that combines the freedom of an open-ended sandbox title and the gripping advancement of a linear story. The story, by the way, is never told with written or spoken words. It is told through the visual, through drawings on cave walls, through a tall, motherly figure dressed all in white that greets you at the end of each chapter.
Now, let’s be clear— the game can be completed in about two hours. But Chen answered my question concerning the length of games, and how he might respond if someone said Journey was too short. His reply is crucial to this review:
“Honestly, I don’t care if they say the game is too short. My perspective is that we’re making games for everyone. We want to inspire and entertain people; we want to bring a strong emotional element to the player. They can reflect on their experience and learn something. Our goal is to communicate a message, and I feel it’s our responsibility to do it in the most efficient way possible. People are paying money and if we give them filler, that’s disrespectful. We come from a very artistic perspective and if we start putting in filler just to extend the hours… I just can’t do that.
I like to keep a game between two and three hours. If you look at adult entertainment, people have family and work; they don’t have a lot of time. But they still want to watch movies and go to concerts and things like that; these experiences are usually about two to three hours. If something is too long, they’ll be worried they don’t have enough time to enjoy it. In film school, we learned about creating strong emotions in a narrative and in two hours, you can take the whole thing in and build up to a climax.”
So it’s true you can easily play through Journey in one sitting. But the length of time is hardly the point. They convey their message in that time and you emerge feeling fulfilled, and that’s what matters. Chen also mentioned that in order to get the “full picture” of the adventure, you have to play through it solo and with someone else. Trust me, it matters. Coming across someone else and taking this trip with them is indeed a different experience and you always feel connected to that person. You have no idea who they are, but you’re both striving for the goal.
In terms of control, there’s simple movement with the left analog stick and the jump and shout features. The scarf you wear gets longer as you progress, and the more glyphs are imprinted on it, the further you can go in the air. Floating pieces of fabric, found in various locations, will “refill” your scarf. The shout command is to draw attention when another player is involved. It may sound simplistic and maybe even boring, but if you have any depth of feeling or in fact, any sensitivity at all, you’ll have to appreciate the stellar, awe-inspiring presentation.
Journey is a mesmerizing and extraordinary experience. It successfully taps into the deepest parts of ourselves, allowing us to simultaneously reflect and explore. Playing alone is akin to a soul-searching trek; we all strive to reach the top of that mountain, even if we don’t know exactly how to get there. It doesn’t matter if we’re scared. We have to get there because something inside us compels us to move forward, whatever the cost. It’s the classic metaphor for life; it’s the adventure we might take if you believe in an afterlife. It resonates universally.
Essentially, it’s an artistic triumph that reaches outside the boundaries of interactive entertainment. And in doing so, it delves deep inside and finds a home where all our hopes, dreams and fears reside.
The Good: Beautiful visuals and overall presentation. Brilliant music. Captivating, immersive atmosphere. Gorgeous game design. Accessible, reliable controls. Playing solo and with a companion elongates and enriches the adventure. A supreme artistic achievement.
The Bad: Some may still view it as too short.
The Ugly: “Chen and Co. don’t know the definition of the word ‘ugly.’”
3/5/2012 Ben Dutka