Less is more. This old adage has been used so frequently that it borders on cliché yet it perfectly encapsulates everything that Journey is about. It doesn’t fit the traditional definition of fun, neither does it have a particularly involved plot, but it is, in every possible sense of the word, a work of art.
Go forth and discover
Starting out in the desert with no introductory cut-scene or even so much as a single word to provide some context, you head towards a glowing mountain in the distance which serves as a rudimentary waypoint marker to guide you on your journey. As the name suggests, this is not about the destination but about your experiences along the way. There is no sense of urgency in anything you do and whether you are walking, jumping, gliding, floating or surfing sand dunes, everything feels quite meditative. You are silently encouraged to meander and explore and in doing so, you discover how things work on your own. Much like a parent teaching a child to ride a bicycle, the game discretely guides you to makes sure you don’t wander too far from the intended path but still makes you feel as if you discovered it for yourself.
Amidst the towering dunes stand the ruins of a lost civilisation and along the way you find stone shrines that depict its fall. Much like a poem though, the rest of the plot is pretty open to interpretation and while some may read it as a story of resurrection, others might see it as a metaphor for life. I viewed it somewhat nihilistically and saw it more as a representation of meaninglessness through repetition. What makes art great is its ability to evoke emotion and by remaining open to interpretation, you are able to impose your own feelings onto the game. In this way, the plot can change from person to person and provide everyone with a unique experience.
The beauty of simplicity
Keeping with the theme of simplicity, the game is easy enough for anyone to enjoy. There are elements of platforming and puzzle-solving but ultimately it’s all about exploration, although not in the traditional sense. Sure, there are things to collect along the way but it’s more of an optional extra than an active treasure hunt. As you progress through the game, you collect bits of floating cloth that replenish your power and allow you to jump and float through the air. The amount of power available to you is displayed on your scarf which billows behind you and glows with strange symbols as you collect more cloth fragments. This scarf is the closest the game has to a UI and as you discover glowing, floating symbols throughout the world, your scarf grows in length and allows you to jump higher and float further.
The multiplayer element is unlike any game I’ve played before. As you press towards the distant mountain, you may come into contact with other wanderers like yourself. There is no indication that someone is joining your game, or that you are joining theirs, and you just sort of stumble across them. There is no floating text above their head to tell you their name nor is there support for any in-game chat. Despite the lack of communication, I found that I learned a lot about the game simply through the motions that they made for me to do as they did. It was through this that I learned that when playing with others, you are able to refill each other’s power by using the chime ability. It really made the game all the more special because although having another player on your journey made the world feel a bit less lonely on one hand, it seemed to make it even more so on the other. Without the ability to chat or even make basic gestures, it’s difficult to convey your intentions, or even gratitude, to other players. When I stumbled across my first online player, I didn’t even realise that it was another person and I can only imagine their frustration at my ambling. As they were frantically chiming, trying to indicate for me to do the same and refill their power, I was looking around and marvelling at the landscape so they eventually wandered off to continue alone. It’s this encouragement of discovery that seems to filter down to every aspect of the game and create a truly remarkable experience.
If games were paintings
The mesmerising visuals and brilliantly composed musical score could sell the idea of video games as art to even the most ardent cynics. Despite being set in a desert that’s devoid of any real life, there is just so much beauty to everything that I often found myself stopping just to take it all in. The sheer vastness of the desert has quite a diminishing effect and really helps to highlight the emptiness of the world around you. The ribbons glow and dance majestically in the wind and, at certain parts, the entire desert seems to have been touched by Midas as the sand glows bright gold in the late afternoon sun. Caverns, on the other hand, are completely shrouded in a deep blue that often made me feel like I was in an ocean rather than a desert. Ribbons seem to have a life of their own and many look and behave like ocean creatures that playfully float in the air around you. I’ve often used photo-realism as a yard stick by which I measure visuals, but Journey really emphasises that you don’t need a triple-A budget to make a beautiful game. It’s the simplicity that draws attention to the most elegant aspects of the game.
I’m a firm believer in the fact that nothing should receive a perfect score unless it is completely faultless and there wasn’t a single thing about Journey that I didn’t like or would change. Even the brevity of the game doesn’t work against it because if it were any longer I think some of the elements may start to feel a bit stale after a while. Although it may not be the kind of game that you would want to play again merely for an increase in framerate and resolution, if you didn’t get around to picking it up when it first launched in 2012 it’s definitely worth playing on the PS4.