Journey, the latest title from thatgamecompany, starts with a baking hot sun, the heat radiating from it shimmering on the sand below. A cloaked figure, very reminiscent in style to a Bedouin, sits deep in apparent contemplation, awaiting the player to flick the controller into life and traverse this harsh terrain towards it’s final destination – a far away mountain. If any other title out there attempted to present such vague notions to a would-be players they would probably fail miserably, but the world in which Journey is set makes this an inviting and intriguing proposition.
That’s because Journey is unlike any other game in how it allows the player to impose their own narrative out of thin air, filling in the blanks with the minor hints found scattered here and there. The player is asked to explore various areas, piecing together visual clues as to what might’ve happened in the past. There is no dialogue and a refreshing lack of waypoints, or visual cues. In fact the only prompts that appear detail the controls, but once delivered they dissolve into the ether, leaving the player (or indeed players) to feel their way through, crediting them with the requisite nous and ability to work out the puzzles along the way.
There is little in the way of mechanics to grasp in Journey. Early on the player will be bequeathed a scarf that can allow them to gain altitude with a press of the X button if similarly patterned cloth is found nearby. The other ability is to call out with what is best described as a type of sonar that not only emits a sound similar to whale song, but also a small hieroglyphic style symbol which indicates location by creating an aura effect around the player and anything in the nearby area. This simplicity is enticing since the world, while barren, sparks the inquisitiveness that lurks in all would-be explorers, helping the player to focus on the delightful visual style this game has.
The look of Journey is simply staggering. Whether it’s the sand dunes, framed by an oppressive sun beating down, which eventually make way for dusk which throws light and shadow on the ruined exterior of buildings, or the incidental details of how the traveler struggles to climb up a steep incline, with movement becoming labored and progressively harder. When you marry the exceptional musical score (which at its most mournful can illicit comparisons to Yehudi Menuhin at his finest) with great orchestral swells, it fits together perfectly in time with the onscreen action to evoke emotional responses of joy through to sorrow and everything in between.
And while the rush to move to the next area is especially strong in order to see just what lies in wait, there is reward to be gained from taking a more sedate course of action, exploring for hidden alcoves to find reliefs and items which hint and what might have happened within the world. Even when puzzles rear their head there isn’t much here that is taxing. Fitting in with the tone and setting perfectly, they leave it to the player to find the best way of working it out, instead of hand-holding them to the solution.
What might surprise is there is co-operative play built right into the experience and probably the finest example of it to date. There’s no obtrusive names above the extra player and their presence can be welcomed with a blast on the sonar or even ignored… but that would be to deprive the player of an emotional empathy that is shared, from frivolity to terror and arduous moments where each player’s sonar blip is barely visible, piping up to make sure they’re OK and still hanging in there.
There’s an actual bond created with these companions and their names are listed after the credits. It sparks a feeling of gratitude, that they shared the experience, and a smile is sent their way for those moments shared. Even when the dynamic shifts and the player has already completed the game, there’s an enormous amount of satisfaction in acting as a guide for the uninitiated, helping them find their way and reveling in the shared experience with them, hoping they are in raptures just like the it was for your first time around.
As an experience Journey is peerless. The aesthetics are second to none, while the emotional highs and lows it creates are cemented by the invisible bonds with total strangers, meeting in a world where co-operation and helpfulness sit in complete comfort with each other.
Thank you that gamecompany for bringing us Journey, an experience that no-one who plays it will ever forget.