The culprit: Journey (PlayStation 3, via PlayStation Network)
It’s seldom that I’m blindsided, swept away and awestruck by a game. And yet, that’s exactly what happened with Journey, the latest offering from indie developer Thatgamecompany. Having downloaded it upon a friend’s recommendation, I started out with little more than idle curiosity, only to be promptly and thoroughly spellbound. It’s not a stretch to say that this is one of the most stunningly beautiful games I’ve ever had the pleasure to play and a uniquely emotional experience in its own right, made all the more powerful by the fact that it doesn’t contain a single spoken word. Simply put: it goes straight for the heart.
The game opens on a sweeping vista of a desert; glittering sand as far as the eye can see, inexplicably dotted with a multitude of gravestones, while a lonely cello spins out a thread of melody (“Nascence”). Then what looks like a shooting star goes streaming across the sky, landing beyond one of the dunes. The next thing you know, the camera pans down to reveal your character, sitting cross-legged in the sand, as if meditating. This queer little figure in a long red cloak is immediately sympathetic in and of itself, with its glowing white eyes, shadowy face and what appear to be small pointy ears peeking at the top of its hood. As you pan the camera around, a dune with two gravestones on top comes into view, and climbing it reveals your goal: the silhouette of a mountain with a cloven summit looming ominously in the distance. As for the purpose and meaning of this journey, that’s for you to determine. The game doesn’t give any definite answers.
The gameplay is very straightforward, yet elegant. The first notable thing you come across after descending the initial dune is a shining white symbol on top of a small ruin. Approaching it has the effect of creating a short strip of cloth with glowing embroidery at the back of your character’s hood, like a short scarf. You’ll also notice more strips of cloth fluttering above the symbol. The scarf enables your character to fly (by flapping their cloak like wings), as long as there is embroidery remaining. When it runs out, approaching the aforementioned fluttering strips of cloth will recharge it, and you’ll notice several clumps of them dotted around the landscape. Moreover, finding more white symbols will gradually extend the scarf, thus allowing for longer bursts of flight, which is an infinitely more graceful means of locomotion than running around on spindly little legs.
Strips of cloth come in a lot of varieties, from small patches like the ones you encounter at the beginning, which resemble schools of fish, to long, seaweed-like bands and other living creatures which appear to be entirely made of cloth. They all have aquatic characteristics, and, indeed, after a while, it seems more like your character is swimming rather than flying. Anything made of cloth will also recharge your character’s scarf. The most common type of creature vaguely resembles a dolphin. They emit soft chirping noises, tend to travel in packs and will occasionally carry your character on their backs, if asked.
Asked? Why, yes. I did say there wasn’t a single spoken word in the game, but that doesn’t mean your character is mute. Pressing O will make them sing a note. The longer you keep O pressed before releasing it, the louder and stronger the note. This has various effects: it will call any nearby cloth creature for assistance, and, more generally, serves to interact with any cloth construct you encounter. Moreover, if you’re an inquisitive explorer, you’ll come across several murals which appear blank at first glance, but will reveal carvings or glyphs when ‘sung’ to. These might not make much sense at first (not the first one you find, at least), but they help to establish the game’s backstory.
Speaking of backstory, there’s another, more straightforward means of filling it in. The game is subdivided into several stages or levels, punctuated by platforms with a statue of a robed figure which looks a lot like your character. Interacting with these will trigger visions describing how the desert and the ruins came to be, as well as allowing you to progress to the next stage of the journey. It’s a simple, but all-too-sad tale of paradise lost, and every vision is steeped in a regretful, nostalgic aura.
Both of these feelings permeate the game, which isn’t to say that they’re the only ones. Every stage of the journey has its own look, dynamic and prevalent emotion associated with it: wonder, awe, empathy, exhilaration, fear, enchantment, determination, as well as both hope and despair. And all this is achieved exclusively through exquisite visuals and sound. Austin Wintory’s music meshes in seamlessly with the environment and events, the prevalence of strings creating a poignant general atmosphere. Graphically, colours are vibrant, movement is fluid, and the omnipresent sand ends up becoming an entity of its own, more akin to water. You may notice that your character ‘surfs’ down steep dunes, and there is an absolutely breathtaking episode involving what can only be described as a rushing river of sand, turning to liquid gold in the sunlight. This is immediately followed by a trek through some menacing, dark tunnels with a decidedly aquatic atmosphere, even though there isn’t a drop of water involved, culminating in a luminous swim through the air. And the final sequence…well, I’ll just leave you with the word ‘transcendental’.
Once you’ve finished the game, the first level becomes a hub: you can access any stage from the circular arena right before the first vision statue. Moreover, a group of stones on the lower right of this arena keeps track of all the white symbols you’ve found across all playthroughs. Should you find all 21, a clump of seaweed-like cloth will appear nearby, enabling you to turn your character’s cloak white (like the figures in the end-of-stage visions). This white cloak has a longer default scarf, which also regenerates automatically, thus making your character more autonomous and more mobile. What’s more, every time you finish the game (up to three), more embroidery is added to the regular red cloak.
Journey has another peculiarity: you can play it offline or online, and depending on which you choose, it will be a vastly different experience. If you play offline, you’ll obviously be on your own. If you play online, you will run across other characters during your explorations. Outwardly, they look exactly like your own, give or take some embroidery or a white cloak. Other than that, you have no clue of who they are and no means to interact with them except by ‘singing’. While this may appear awkward and restrictive at first, you’ll quickly find that a wordless camaraderie tends to develop on its own, based on that most primal of sensations: the feeling of another living creature keeping you company. There’s even a physical manifestation of this, as walking close together will enable your characters to recharge each other’s scarves. If you manage to make it all the way through the game with one person, that companionship will definitely be both valuable and welcome in the final stages. I was even surprised at how distressed I was to lose my first companion at that point, although this may have also been due to the circumstances in which it happened. A list of the usernames of every person you bumped into during your journey is displayed after the credits roll, but there’s no indication of who was which. Overall, this upholds the impression that you’ve just shared something universally human with a stranger. That is, of course, provided the people you encounter do travel with you; some will just run by on their own merry way. As a side-note, if you are with a companion for the final end-of-stage vision, it will reflect that fact, which I found to be a thoughtful little detail.
All in all, I have no real criticism about Journey. Of course, your mileage may vary, and you may find it too short, too cryptic, too contemplative, too simple, too restrictive in terms of online options or even lacking long-term replay value. I, however, was left with nothing but a warm, bemused melancholy after the credits finished rolling…and after the wave of goosebumps I got from the song which accompanied them (“I Was Born for This”) subsided. And if only for that, I’m happy to have had this experience. A truly unforgettable game.