The Goddamn Beauty of Journey

It’s so cold.

I don’t know how cold it is, but I can feel the wind tugging at my cloak. The wind pushes me hard, trying to force me back down the snowy slope. I pull my cloak snugly around my body, holding it close to keep the warmth in and my scarf streams out in the wind, frost clinging to the silky material. I lower my head and push on, leaning into the savage wind, snowflakes buffeting my face.

The steady crunching of feet on my right side slow down and the snow blows into my hood as I turn my head. My partner has stumbled. I slow as I try to speak comforting words, but the noise of the wind and the cold steals my voice away. He finds his feet and pushes onwards. I stop briefly to compensate him, and we continue our slow steady tread to the summit. Together.

This is the impact of Journey, on the PS3.

Journey is one of those games. The type of game that isn’t a game – a member of the artsy-fartsy group. People who wear tight fitting black jumpers, drink espresso and use a Mac would call it an ‘experience’. It’s something you play in order to have played it. It’s the closest thing that the gaming industry has to a hipster movement.

And usually, that means the game is crap. The emphasis on making it an experience tends to mean these games fall flat in actual gameplay.  What starts out as an interactive medium turns into a piece of art, or at best, an interactive movie. Very nice to look at, but not a videogame.

So it’s a massive surprise to find that Journey just works, and I still can’t quite figure out how. It contains everything that would normally mark it out as a crappy art game; a unique, atmospheric world, a starkly beautiful art style, a bold attitude to storytelling, and minimalist gameplay elements. But every part works and it comes together so beautifully  that although it is obviously an experience game, it’s one you want to experience. It never becomes a chore. It’s never boring to play. The world never gets tiresome.

The start is nothing special. You’re not launched into the middle of a warzone, or confronted by a grisly murder scene. You start surrounded by sand dunes. You don’t know where to go, or what to do. So you climb the dune in front of you. At you top, you look around and you see a calm ocean of sand, the sun reflecting off the surface, first blindingly, then warmly. Now you see your goal; a mountain split with iridescent light. It’s the sole landmark in the desert and it’s a visible goal that never goes away. That is the object of your journey and your sole indication of direction. It’s a simple hook that you never realise is a hook. It’s not a scramble to survive in the face of an enemy, or a drive for vengeance against an evil adversary, but it’s just as compelling. You’re given your goal in the most simple and beautiful of manners – it’s just there, and you want to know what’s at the top of it.

It’s so very beautiful.

The whole game continues in this way; you never find yourself being forced in a direction, and the only way to reach the edges tends to be through sheer bloody-mindedness. The way ahead is always obvious and always easy to find, clearly marked by being where the most interesting looking stuff is. If there’s a puzzle, it’s easily found by simple exploration; exploration that never gets tiresome because each area is new and exciting. You want to explore and sample each area. You want to dig up the hidden nuggets of information that tantalisingly reveals the history of this mysterious land that you’ve been placed into.

And this lack of context isn’t frustrating, it’s brilliant. What you know of the storyline you piece together yourself because of the absence of any dialogue. Journey supplies you with ideas. It shows you the timeline in simple pictures: the origin, the disaster, the genesis, but it never preaches. It never tells you what happens, it only supplies the clues and lets you piece the rest together for yourself. You never learn the true name of your race or silky red material is either. You’re encouraged to name everything for yourself, and to interpret the history of this stunning world for yourself. And this will ultimately shape how you interpret the game, potentially making your experience completely different from that of someone else. It feels like scholars reading the same piece of historical material and coming away with entirely different interpretations of the same thing. It becomes a living and breathing world through this lack of information, allowing it to grow organically in your own mind. D’you think the race that came before enslaved the red material, leading to their downfall? Or do you think that the benevolent masters fell through a folly not of their own making? Both are valid interpretations of the same materials, but it dramatically changes how you view the game in the end.

These different interpretations in the same world is especially poignant when that person is physically sharing your world. This is a co-op game; be signed into the Playstation Network, accept the T&Cs and another player will join your game and share your experiences. Interaction is entirely optional and you can easily play through the game without even glimpsing another player. At no point are you needed to travel with a partner. But if you stay with them and travel together, you’ll create an emotional attachment utterly unique to this game. Despite their physical presence in your game, communication between players, like the storyline, is wordless and entirely without context, but the single notes you sing and chirrup have another use when accompanied by another human.

At the start of the game, you gain the ability to jump and glide, the duration dependant on the length of the shining glyph-like letters on your scarf. Pick up another glowing glyph and your scarf extends, increasing the amount of time that you can rise and continue gliding. These glyphs are refilled on contact with the red silk, or by having another player sing to you. The more they sing and the closer they stand the more your scarf is refilled. Jumping is purely an extra tool; no part of the game requires you to jump, or doesn’t supply you with a way of solo’ing your way there, but having another player sing to you to refill your scarf adds a feeling of friendly support. That player isn’t just sharing your world, he’s supporting you, and you can return that support. The trials you face are lessened by the presence of your chum, and your bond is strengthened by these very trials that you share.

No, really beautiful.

On my first playthrough, I swapped many partners throughout the game. From area-to-area, they changed. I can’t say I noticed though and every single one of them wanted to help me as much as I wanted to help them. The nature of the journey itself made complete strangers, unable to share any words at all, bond together and support each other in order to complete the journey together.

In one area I was caught off-guard by a gust of wind which blew me back towards the start of the corridor. There was no harm done, but as I was caught by the wind, I saw my partner’s avatar twitch  towards me from his safe area, as if he was attempting to catch me. He couldn’t, and there was nothing he could do even if he had reached me save be blown back with me, but the emotional bond was there. He had seen me in trouble and he had attempted to save me. This nameless person, who I will never meet and have never shared any other form of communication with, still attempted to save me on instinct.

In a game.

And that was incredible.

I don’t want to spoil too much of the game, especially the sublime storyline, but I do want to impress on you just how good of a game Journey is. How much of an experience it is.

My friend at the start? The one who stumbled in the snow? That was real emotion. I slowed to stay with him because I wanted to do that. At this point, the bonus from singing and staying together was worth nothing, since the cold was too intense to sing and any energy we gained was instantly stolen away. But we had been together through so much and had been through so many trials together that I wasn’t not going to leave his side. Not for anything. As far as I was concerned, we were together on this journey and we were going to complete it together. And the most amazing thing is that I felt that feeling returned, through a games console, over what were likely hundreds of miles of land, from someone who I had only connected with for ten minutes at most. We were in this together, and no force in the game would part us. The same minimalist approach to storytelling that had made the world so real had made my relationship with a stranger so incredibly strong over such a short time.

The final sequence will rank as one of my favourite game experiences of all time, and at the end I watched the credits roll, emotionally exhausted, but elated. And isn’t that exactly what you want from a gaming experience? I know I do. I played it again, not expecting the same experience. But I got it again, pushing onwards to the end, a stranger by my side, forcing our way through the snow together.

And this is something that only people who have experienced this game can really understand. The destination is there in order to give you something to go towards. The sight of it pushes you onwards, drives you through adversity, sand, and snow. But when you finally reach it, you realise that it really wasn’t about the destination. It truly was all about the Journey.

I’m going to go buy a tight black jumper and some espresso now.

Sod the Mac though.