Monday, April 07, 2014

Review: Journey

Journey, for me, was a magical experience. When I sit down a reflect on the games I've played since December last year, many of them fall into the "interactive movie" category. There's nothing wrong with that. The Last of Us, had me thinking about its themes long after I'd finished the game, and Arkham City is an excellent story that would hold up to any of the Batman stories in any other medium. But those games wouldn't lose all that much if they were translated into movies. In fact, without the constant repetition and restarts due to player deaths, The Last of Us might even make a better movie than it did a game.

Journey, however, is the kind of experience that only works as a game. The wonderful thing about it is that it's an incredibly accessible game. Using only the twin analog joysticks and two buttons, it's a game that eschews complexity, timing based controls, and high speed reflexes and hand-eye coordination for a contemplative travel through the virtual landscapes it renders and the emotional spaces it evokes. What's more, unlike hard-core games that require hour upon hour of slogging and skill mastery, Journey is relatively short, and if you have time to watch a movie, you will have time for Journey.

You control a traveler, rendered in simple fashion little more sophisticated than a stick figure. The start of the game has you contemplating a mountain far away, and it is understood (though the game never explicitly tells you) that you are going there. Along the way, you traverse a desert landscape, an underground cavern, underwater spaces, and a snowy tundra. You visit ruins, and encounter creatures, most of which help you, and perhaps, another traveler representing another player who is also making the same journey.

You can't die, though there are moments when you are threatened, even succumbing to those threats won't hurt your ability to finish the game. The other player who might travel with you can't help or hinder you in your travels. In fact, other than a couple of gestures, you can't even communicate with each other explicitly. Yet the nature of the game is such that mere presence still grants you camaraderie. The puzzles will never stump you for more than 10 minutes, if that. There are no difficulty levels, no ability to save or restore the game. At no point are you forced to move forward, and nothing shoots at you when you're having a contemplative moment or just enjoying the scenery.

If Journey was made into a movie, it would be flat, lacking the emotion it was designed to evoke. But by taking on the character in a virtual space, and providing the means for various forms of traversal, Journey managed to invoke in me feelings of exhilaration, as I slide down a sand dune or soar through the skies towards my goal. I felt fear, when a monster detected my presence (even though I knew I could not die), and came after me. And there were many many moments of wonder as I wandered through a new landscape, not knowing what would come, but enjoying the moments of beauty and solitude that came with making my way through the virtual spaces. The combination of the design, the music, the simplicity of the controls and the way the game teaches you what to do with just dialog and just a handful of on screen prompts in the first 15 minutes of play is nothing short of amazing.

I don't want to over-state the pleasures and the strength of Journey. I wouldn't go as far as to say that you should acquire a PS3 just for this game. (I'd say that for Uncharted 2) But it truly is a game that I think just about everyone should play just to understand why video games are art. Just as missing out on great books like A Wizard of Earthsea would be a great pity, I think missing out on Journey would also subtract from your life.

I bought Journey as part of a collector's edition. However, I will review the other two games on that disc (Flower, and Flow) separately. You can also purchase Journey directly from Sony as a download for $14.99. Highly recommended.
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