Perhaps games like these are starting to come off as obnoxious. Far reaching and empty landscapes, silent characters, and lonely ambience to the sound of rustling wind. Throw in some symbolism, give it a minimalistic interface and controls, and apparently it’s a masterpiece of game design. That’s pretty much what Journey does, and it is a masterpiece. Annoying, isn’t it? Maybe that’s the attitude of some, and maybe that’s how they’ll approach Journey, with a furrowed brow and soured expectations — but let them. It will be worth seeing their faces afterward.
Indeed, the silent protagonist is there, a curiously gender neutral figure, garbed in wispy robes to brave the desert environment where Journey begins. The traveler’s pointy legs are exceptional tools for skiing down the first sand dune, lending witness to the game’s stunning rendition of rolling, windswept sand. It’s all very pleasant, but after the breeze ceases to flap the figure’s robes upon reaching the bottom of the dune, what lies ahead can seem very intimidating.
With a painfully slow walk speed and a wide expanse of desert at every turn, Journey immediately lets on the anxiety of getting lost, the fear of tedium, the expectation of boredom – all conditioned responses gamers have thanks to the usual habits of game design. But this beginning portion is where the game earns a lasting trust, because no one can get lost in Journey, and no one will ever feel the road ahead is insurmountable. Somehow, without any sort of on screen interface, everything falls into place perfectly. The game throws anxiety to the wind; all that it asks is that you move. So pick a direction and trudge up another dune, because just beyond it, the next objective will come into view – an unspoken promise.
But they’re not really objectives, no, more like guide posts. Tattered lengths of cloth – the wind always flapping them towards the sky — attached to all sorts of ruins and rubble that indicate the designated path, and this where a bit of the game’s magic happens. See, the silent figure isn’t actually so silent, as holding and releasing the ‘O’ button has the timid being produce a sound, a musical note, really. The sound breathes life into the torn flags, which in turn, lend energy to the trailing scarf on the back of your cloak. Spend this energy to leap into the air and fly for a short period of time, and suddenly there’s motivation to keep pushing forward.
The design here is very conscious of itself, delicately paced between a series of highs and drop offs. Whenever the game recedes back to the slower hardships of gradual routine, it comes with the assumption that it will be worth it. Engage in an uphill battle against bitter winds, and then revel in a thrilling sensation of speed and freedom. Sift through a barren wasteland, and then surf gently downhill aside the golden glint of sunlight, dancing between the encompassing shadows of a sunset desert. These moments of ecstasy and immaculate imagery will be most memorable, but Journey still begs reflection on those seemingly routine segments, doing so with the careful placement of cutscenes. These put everything into a meaningful perspective — the past, the accomplishments therein, and the people met along the way.
Those other travelers, identical to yourself, seem to appear and disappear throughout the expedition, and in eerily unnoticeable ways. During one segment there will be a companion, and at the next, perhaps loneliness will resettle. Some figures will stay close and look for guidance, and maybe others will lead the way to secrets they already know of from past journeys, such as the magical glyphs that increase the length of your scarf. But whether or not the other players go about their own business, and whether or not they are interactive with you – their effect on the experience remains the same.
It’s a profound solidarity, a very human one, and it’s apparent at every point in the game. The idea that others have traveled the path before you, the existence of the ruined ancient cities that you’ll pass through, the common goal of reaching the mountain in the distance – somehow it’s all comforting. And it’s important to be comforted, because the game’s latter segments paint a very desperate, dark, and frightening picture for its travelers.
At that final stretch, noticing no one is around is suddenly quite terrifying, and so the bonds are that much stronger when happening upon a friend. There are dangers in the final moments of Journey, and the thought of someone being left behind almost becomes more discomforting than the perilous environments themselves. These travelers are indeed a real online community of players, and so sweeping generalizations of their behavior does tread on dangerous ground, but Journey does nothing but insist that its players act upon this human solidarity. It doesn’t give anyone the opportunity to think otherwise. Everyone somehow knows what’s up, it’s innate.
And it’s all to get to that mountain in the distance, the climax that will have people wondering if their Dualshock was coated with LSD. It’s a finale that begins with a discomforting chill, the unwelcome yet surreal sensation of the heart stopping, followed by a utter weightlessness. It’s played to a riveting orchestra revolved around its violin – perhaps the one instrument that so perfectly combines the emotions of joy and sadness into one sound. And when it fades, it suddenly becomes a necessity that other people experience this freedom as well. Everyone has to make it up that mountain.
Journey is only 2 hours long because you aren’t supposed to get up while playing it. And when you have completed your journey, go on another. Do it to appreciate the subtleties of symbolism you missed the first time through, to weave the longest scarf in the desert, and most rewarding – to act as a guide. Let the other wide eyed and curious travelers know that it will all be worthwhile in the end.