Journey is a seminal release; the kind of title that comes once in a generation. It’s PlayStation 3’s ICO: an interactive adventure that collapses the common expectations for the medium. It’s not always perfect, but its imperfections make it beautiful. Journey is a game about everything and yet nothing at all; an adventure wrapped in poignancy, optimism, hope and trepidation. It is what you make of it and nothing more.
It’s also the most mechanical of thatgamecompany’s releases. Gone are the ubiquitous breezes of flower and the darting emblems of flOw, and in their place is a hooded figure wrapped in a gold and crimson embroidered shawl. The protagonist represents you.
Movement is familiar. The left analogue stick controls where you want to move, while the right analogue stick – or alternatively the Sixaxis motion sensor – manipulates the camera behind you. You have two additional abilities: to sing or to fly. The former can be executed upon will, and is used to interact with the world as well as the strangers you encounter throughout your journey. Flight is tied to a meter represented by a tapestry upon your scarf and you’ll need to interact with magic carpets dancing gracefully in the wind in order to recharge the ability. The length of your scarf depicts the time you have available to fly, with silver emblems hidden throughout the world extending your animated accessory.
thatgamecompany trades on minimalism, and Journey is no different: a fleeting start screen, the most basic of visual cues and the level design itself is all the game offers to guide you. And yet, for all its minimalism, you’ll never be unsure where to travel. The glimmer on the horizon is enough to make your objective clear, without dissuading exploration.
Sand dunes bleed into ruins that lead into foreboding ocean beds. Like any true adventure, Journey is packed with visual variety that drives the sense of progression throughout the experience: the bright surroundings of your curious starting point are warm and homely, and contrast with the dark storms and eerie temples discovered as your adventure protracts. As bad weather sets in, the sense of weariness conveyed throughout the controller is unparalleled. The orchestral backdrop fades away to highlight the monotonous thud of your footsteps, accentuated by the slow, dwindling bursts of rumble passed through the DualShock 3 controller. The emotional payoff at the campaign's conclusion is by far one of the most evocative moments in games.
And emotion is something that’s present throughout Journey. It’s the kind of game able to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end – not once, not twice, but multiple times throughout its relatively short running time. But more than that, it’s a game that makes you feel. The sense of place is staggering, from the build-up of winds that dash around you in the campaign’s early environments to the sense of dread later on as a mysterious mechanical manta ray hunts for any sign of movement on the deserted sands below. It’s a game that asks many philosophical questions, but is never upfront about any of them. Whether you want to simply enjoy the sense of place or question the meaning behind the many graveyards surrounding you, Journey is bold enough to sit back and simply direct the adventure at your own pace.
Key to the sense of immersion is Austin Wintory’s outstanding orchestral score. The audio meanders throughout many tones during Journey’s course, from exotic up tempo xylophone-led jams through to intimidating string-driven discords. The pace of the soundtrack is perfect, with thatgamecompany using Wintory’s score to pick out crescendos in the gameplay. Sliding down a sand dune to harmonious melodies is one of the most empowering moments in games (if not media) and it creates a longstanding impression by which you’ll remember the game.
It also doesn’t hurt that Journey is one of the most technically impressive games available on PlayStation 3. It might be a downloadable release, but Journey is on a par with the likes of God of War and Uncharted as an example of what Sony’s hardware can do. The sense of scale throughout is sublime, but it’s the littlest details that set Journey apart: sand parts naturally as you walk through it, creating a natural breadcrumb trail of your journey so far. Set the controller down and your protagonist will sit and sink into the sand, only to shake the residing granules off his clothing once you awaken him. The sand kicks up in swirls and ripples as the wind blows, creating makeshift waves by which you can surf from one side of the horizon to the other.
thatgamecompany also makes considered use of colour to orchestrate your journey. Golden skies transition into murky greens in order to convey the passing of time; red is a predominant colour throughout, used to conduct your path in the world.
And yet for all the activity within the environment, your adventure feels isolated unless you happen upon the company of another player. The game never opens up communication with your companion – you’ll never learn of your counterpart’s PSN username, nor be able to discuss strategies with them over voice chat – but you’ll feel a connection to them nonetheless. The game’s sing mechanic becomes the best means of communication, as you work within the game’s confines to form bonds and continue your journey together.
There’s no insistence for you to communicate with the other players you encounter; you might simply decide to wander past them like the crowds in a big city. That’s your prerogative — there’s no advantage to working with another player other than the draw of sharing your experience with a stranger. Your choices will depend entirely upon your personality.
Experiences like Journey don’t come around very often in any form of media. thatgamecompany’s crafted an interactive tour de force that’s triumphant in its ability to cycle through human emotions. It’s a game that demands your involvement on a spiritual level, rather than a purely mechanical one, and while it’s never preachy in its philosophical intentions, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the divine nature of Journey’s tale.