Review by Agdistis
"Journey is a testament to the legitimacy of video games as an art form."
There are many modern video games that go out of their way to attempt to prove that video games can be just as artful as other media such as film. The success of these type of games varies wildly, with many of these games falling into the trap of simply emulating what can already be achieved by film and forgetting about the one major element video games have over other media - user interaction. I personally find myself to have extremely mixed feelings over games such as "Dear Esther" and "The Path", both of which are the stereotypical example of the so-called "Art Game", games that apparently go beyond being mere video games because they have far more "artistic integrity" than simple video games, as if to imply video games in general can't be artful. There's often a strong sense of smugness that emits from these type of games, a trait that often leads to said games being branded as "pretentious", which is not always an unfair statement. Whether the game be a retro-style platformer with a "quirky" artstyle that pretty much rips off every 8-bit platformer ever made or whether it's a vaguely interactive piece of eyecandy that beats you over the head with it's "symbolism" and "deep themes", It's hard not to imagine the developer stroking his beard with a look of smug satisfaction on his face as you play these type of games.
Journey goes against these type of games and shows that it's possible to create an artful experience while still retaining the elements of interaction you'd expect from a good video game.
As it's title suggests, Journey is essentially about traveling from A to B with emphasis on the experience between those two points as opposed to emphasizing the points themselves. As such, the game opens by pretty much dropping you in the middle of nowhere, giving you no real goal or any information regarding where you are, who you are or what you're supposed to do. Of course, if you want the player to actually travel from A to B then you generally need to guide the player somehow. The way Journey does this is not by handing out huge blocks of text stating "GO HERE!!" or by slapping a gigantic arrow along the top of your screen. Instead, Journey exploits human instinct and uses visual clues to guide it's player along the journey in what is one of the best examples of the "show, don't tell" philosophy you'll likely ever see in a video game. As soon as you start the game and are dropped into a vast desert that seems to go on forever, you'll quickly notice a small structure on top of a sand dune in the distance. Instinctively, you'll want to go and investigate this structure and as you climb this dune to reach the top, you'll see a huge mountain way off in the distance slowly start to peak out from behind the dune followed by the title slowly appearing along the top of the screen. It's an extremely effective opening that essentially shows you what your "goal" is. You just managed to make your way to the top of the dune, now you instinctively know you have to do the same thing with that gargantuan mountain. This method of visually showing the player what to do and where to go is used frequently throughout the game, more so in the more open areas and it's a technique that's executed subtly enough that you won't ever feel that the game is forcing you to go where it wants you to. You'll always feel in control of your actions.
Journey understands the importance of player interaction, which seems to be the one thing that many other artsy games seem to forget about. The mechanics are extremely simple and you'll have pretty much mastered them within minutes if you've been playing games for more than a month. The simple control scheme makes Journey incredibly easy to interact with, and the fact that sliding around in the sand and floating around in mid-air is such a joyful experience means it's not only easy to interact with, but also fun. Journey makes it abundantly clear that it wants you to interact with it, and the importance of interaction extends beyond the gameplay as the game's entire narrative is told almost entirely through your interaction with the world. There are no cutscenes outside of the extremely short end-level scenes giving you a visual hint concerning your next location, meaning there's never a point in Journey where your eyes are plucked from your head and put on rails in order to witness plot events unfolding. The narrative is concerned only with you, the player, and your experiences. The lack of any concrete storytelling means 1 player's experience may differ wildly from another player's experience and makes many elements concerning the game's world and the reason behind the player's journey open to interpretation and you never feel as though the game is trying to beat some kind of message or meaning into you.
It's impossible to talk about interaction without bringing up one of Journey's more unique forms of interaction - It's multiplayer. There's a great feeling in walking across the desolate desert on your lonesome and suddenly seeing a figure in the distance and knowing that figure is a player who is possibly just as clueless as you are. There are no nametags hovering over other players and the fact that communication between players is done entirely through chirping sounds adds a level of charm to the avatars while ensuring players have to do a bit of improvisation if they want to make specific commands. Say you find a glyph (a collectible that increases the size of your avatars scarf, the longer your scarf the longer you can fly for) but the other player is completely unaware of it - you have no way of directly communing this so you'll have to improvise (which, for me, usually consists of running around in circles in the general area of the glyph while chirping like a mad man). Of course, communicating with other players is completely optional and you don't even need to acknowledge them as no levels require two players to beat it, though it certainly makes the journey a lot more interesting as crossing through the blizzard in the mountains while sticking close to your partner to keep each other's scarfs warm and at full length just wouldn't be the same on your own. If you have a good partner, you'll feel joy when you both beat a level and you'll feel sad when you get split up and end up on your own. Your experience in regards to multiplayer is clearly going to vary a lot depending on the players you get stuck with (you might be unlucky enough to end up with people who simply rush to the end), but it definitely adds an additional layer of emotion to Journey.
It goes without saying that graphics and music are of huge importance in Journey. Journey is extremely impressive visually, both technically and artistically. From the vast, sun-drenched desert to the bleak, solemn and bitter-cold mountain, It's impossible not to feel the need to stop every now and then so you can pan your camera around and take it all in. The sense of scale of the environments is stunning and you'll constantly feel dwarfed by your surroundings which makes the trip to that one huge mountain looming in the distance seem even more daunting. Journey is also crammed full of neat little visual effects that aid in boosting immersion. Walk around in sand and you'll leave little trails and kick sand particles around. It's these little visual details that make the world of journey feel like a living element that responds to your interaction with it. The visuals in Journey go hand-in-hand with the music to create various types of atmosphere with each level having it's own unique look and feel to it - the opening levels capture that feeling of grand adventure while the levels progressively become a bit more bleak and dangerous in the later stages and the soundtrack is a huge contributor to this as it creates a wide range of moods.
All of the elements in Journey feel so "complete". Everything comes together to work in unison to create a truly unique experience ("experience" is a bit of a buzzword when describing Journey but it's impossible not to use it). There is no separation of narrative and interactivity like there is in many other video games that try to prove games can be just as artful as other media. Journey is a game that nearly anyone can enjoy, whether they are a casual gamer or a longtime one, an incredibly simple game that attempts to invoke emotions from the player and is incredibly successful at doing so provided you will it to.
Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 03/21/12
Game Release: Journey (US, 03/13/12)
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