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Journey in Review

Last night I played through thatgamecompany’s Journey, now available on PSN. I played it from start to finish, which took about two hours. It may be two of the most important hours of video gaming I’ve ever done. I don’t know that I’ve ever sat through the end credits of a game feeling as if what I had just played was as much inside me as it was on the screen, and that something had changed in myself and also in the video game ether. I do know that I don’t think I’ve ever played a video game as eloquent in expressing an abstract concept of humanity and the rich fabric of emotion, experience, and relationships that define us.

Journey is both a critical dream come true and the game writer’s worst nightmare. It’s exactly the kind of argument for “games can be art” that I’m always looking for, a sophisticated and transcendental usage of video game grammar, metaphor, and structure rather unlike anything else before it. But it’s also hard to discuss without veering into the kind of soft-headed, doe-eyed hyperbole that undermines rigid analysis. And then there’s the issue of how magnificently subjective the entire experience of playing the game is. I’ve read several reviews, and although all have given the game high praise, most feel futile in the wake of this game’s passing. I’m sure mine will too.

How do you write about a game that is more about meditation, introspection, and self-discovery than shooting the core or saving the world? How do you quantify a game that describes- with stunning minimalism- concepts like the development of language and the ascension of matter into spirit? Why do terms like “replayability” and “linearity” matter at all in a game that touches on love, loss, elation, discovery, curiosity, creativity, fear, compassion, competition, loss of faith, loneliness, courage, and death?

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The usual game criticism vocabulary falls apart. The grammar fails. Because this game, although it is a video game, is something else.

There is a story. You control a nameless pilgrim travelling across a desert to reach a pillar of light emanating from a mountain. That’s really all you need to know, and arguably it’s all you should know. In case you’re worried, there is a jump button.

There is also a button for speaking. Or singing. Or laughing. Or screaming. It’s your choice. The reason it’s there is because eventually, you will come across another pilgrim that will accompany you. It’s another player, although you don’t know who they really are. And you can’t speak to them except through this one button and what you do in the game.

On my journey, I went through an amazing range of emotions, many tied to my companion. When he (or she) would be away, I would feel sad and look for them, pressing the button to see if they’d respond. When they did, it was a huge relief. We worked on some of the game’s cryptic, simple puzzles together. We celebrated when we made it through an area. We laughed as we slid through the desert through crumbling gates left behind by unknown builders. We hid together from a giant dragon made of cloth.

But his scarf was longer than mine, and I wasn’t quite sure why. I wanted mine to be like his. When we were close, we replenished each other’s energy. I can’t help but think that maybe the other felt like they were taking care of me, sharing his wealth, knowledge, experience, and energy.

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Eventually, at the very end, I lost my companion during a dizzyingly ecstatic sequence that’s best left for you to discover. Walking into the final section of the game, I was alone. I felt guilty about going on without my companion. Was I so caught up in my ecstasy that I neglected the person who walked with me all of this time? I stood on a cliff, pressing that button to see if they would answer back. They didn’t. I moved on.

That a video game- particularly an extremely simple, abstract, and threadbare design- is able to evidence such meaningful emotion and such internal dialogue is astonishing. This is not about facile, immature emotional beats like the death of Aeris or a Call of Duty nuke. These are instances of almost complete emotional surrender and reflection that resonate deep within the soul, catalyzed by a very, very special video game that absolutely deserves the praise it’s receiving.

The few complaints that are out there- too short, too linear, too simple, too expensive- are pointless bleatings from people who may be expecting the wrong things out of Journey. In my opinion, they’re not expecting enough. Because this game is one of the few that can totally deliver on the premise of games as art and the potential of the medium to reach far beyond pulp narratives and macho, blockbuster posturing. It’s like a masterpiece in a gallery full of teenage notebook art.

But there is one tremendous variable in this game’s success or failure as a work. You. What you bring into this game, what you expect it to do as a video game, and how you receive its cues will determine what it means for you- if it means anything at all. Some will not like it, citing a dearth of gameplay or choices. But there is a game here, complete with trophies, secrets, challenges, and even fail states. Others will call it pretentious or boring. They’d be dead wrong.

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Journey is an important game to me because it validates almost everything I’ve ever believed about video games as a creative medium. But more than that, for two hours of my life I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so emotionally and spiritually connected to a game. It’s demanding, in a way. I felt exhausted afterwards. When it was over I had intended to play a few levels of Sine Mora for the review next week, but instead I just went to bed and thought about what I had just experienced. It haunts me today, and I think it may very well haunt me forever.

I’m asking myself repeatedly if I’ll ever play it again. I don’t know. The first time was so powerful that I’m afraid of hyper-analyzing its mysteries and internal logic too much. But I want to see what happens with another companion. I want to feel that sense of discovering another on the same quest that I’m pursuing. Maybe I can take on the role of a mentor or guide for a player that hasn’t been through the game yet. Maybe my scarf will be the longer one between us.

Michael Barnes

Games writer Michael Barnes is a co-founder of Nohighscores.com as well as FortressAT.com. His trolling has been published on the Web and in print in at least two languages and in three countries. His special ability is to cheese off nerds using the power of the Internet and his deep, dark secret is that he's actually terrible at games. Before you ask, no, the avatar is not him. It's Mark E. Smith of The Fall.

45 thoughts to “Journey in Review”

  1. And this is why No High Scores is one of the best game sites on the web. I dunno if you guys have the traffic you want for this site but man you guys deserve to go big.

    That was a marvelous piece of game writing Michael.

    That avatar still creeps me out, though.

  2. I’m one of those people who has a hard time justifying paying $15 for a 2 hour game that no one can see mto explain if it’s replayable or not. I would assume in a month or so this game will go on sale and i will pick it up then because I really want to play it.

    Since you’ve already deemed opinions like mine pointless I’m not sure why I felt the need to comment in the first place other then to say aside from that remark I really enjoyed this write up.

    My question is did you pay for this on your own or was it a review code?

    1. If he got a code he didn’t tell me about it. Pretty sure that was a buy.

      The upcoming Sine Mora review was a freebie, though.

      1. Maybe it is just me but that makes the point about it being worth the money a lot more meaningful knowing he bought it.

        Of course I just dropped mega $$$ on an iPad 3 and I am hemming over $15 so I am not sure what that says about me

        1. I paid my own $15 for it, and No High Scores pays exactly $0 for reviews.

          Here’s the deal. The linear content of this game is about two hours- more if you poke around and play with it rather than rushing through it. If you play it again, you’ll go to the same places and see mostly the same things and as far as I know the actual ending is always the same.

          HOWEVER…and it’s a BIG HOWEVER…the random/anonymous co-op element has the potential to compeletely change how the game develops _internally_ and _emotionally_ every time you play it. And there are hidden things, trophies to go for if you want them, and secrets. Like I said, there is a game here…it’s just that the core content is that two hours. Is it replayable? Yes, absolutely. But the variations between plays are going to be more subtle and even psychological than is common in games.

          But no, there’s no “game+” mode and there’s not endless sidequests and filler content. There’s not two hours of cinematics. There’s not an hour of the game that’s an extended tutorial. It’s incredibly focused, direct, and without any kind of guff whatsoever. It’s refreshing in that sense.

          I just don’t think that the common concept of replayability and the value=length equation means anything in the context of appraising this game. It only takes about two minutes to look at a Jackson Pollack painting, but does that mean it’s only worth about a dime?

          I’ve spent $60 on games and gotten far, far less out of them having spent far, far more time with them. I think it’s a mistake to equate value- particularly artistic value- with how long it takes to experience something. For some reason, games are the only medium where this really occurs.

          Is this game worth $15? Absolutely, beyond a shadow of a doubt.

          1. ” If you play it again, you’ll go to the same places and see mostly the same things and as far as I know the actual ending is always the same.’

            This is what I wanted to know. So the game is about the journey but what you see doesn’t change. For every glowing review i have read not a single reviewer has stated replaying this game. Considering it is 2 hours long I would of guessed someone would of done it and said it’s the same locations.

            I was kind of hoping there were multiple “journeys” so to speak that the locations weren’t strung together in a linear fashion.

            Is your opinion that if the environments were randomly generated it would of detracted from the game? Is the liner path that important to the experience?

          2. It would be interesting to see how the game changed if it were somehow procedurally generated or if the areas were modular and occured at random. But then, I think you might be getting away from the point that this is such an incredible focused, directed and authored experience. Things happen in the game and themes emerge in a specific order. So yes, I do think it would change the game.

        2. I don’t get the logic you are trying to convey. You spend $20 on a movie just to see once. If you want to see it again (replay), you’d have to spend another $20 for it.

          But you don’t want to spend $15 on a game because it’s only a couple of hours long with no replay value? I just don’t follow your rationale for deciding to buy it or not.

  3. “How do you write about a game that is more about meditation, introspection, and self-discovery than shooting the core or saving the world? How do you quantify a game that describes- with stunning minimalism- concepts like the development of language and the ascension of matter into spirit? Why do terms like “replayability” and “linearity” matter at all in a game that touches on love, loss, elation, discovery, curiosity, creativity, fear, compassion, competition, loss of faith, loneliness, courage, and death?”

    Barnes, I hate you so much when you write this well. Stop giving me an inferiority complex!

    1. It’s not his skill with words (which he has), it’s that the game spoke through him. Those aren’t his words, they’re his experience. 😉

      I’m half-kidding. I found it a very moving experience also and was full of philosophical and metaphysical thoughts and analogies.

  4. The people who made this can thank Michael Barnes specifically for my $15.

    I wasn’t terribly interested in this until I read your review. I follow game news pretty closely but for some reason never looked into what this game was about, I think I got it confused with “From Dust” and “El Shaddai” for some reason. None of which seemed like good concepts for games to me.

    I can honestly say that if Barnes hadn’t talked about it, I would still not know I should care.

    1. Yeah, it’s funny you mentioned those two games because both had some pretty high-minded ambitions…but they both fell flat. I think some of that is because they were too beholden to standard video game expecations (El Shaddai in particular).

      Journey challenges you to be willing to strip down the video game experience- control, agency, competition,challenge, and so forth- to a very abstract, streamlined core. But by doing that, the game is able to occur at a very compelling level that invites the player to respond to cues, use a very small tool set to interact with the world (and another player), and participate in the game at a emotional or possibly even spiritual level.

      This is profound. It’s a kind of game design that point the way to breaking through some of the medium’s self-imposed limitations.

      I’m glad you bought it…let us know what you think about it, it’s defintely a game worth talking about.

      1. I enjoyed it thoroughly, thank you. I think part of the reason I enjoyed it so much is that it tells me so little that I am forced to fill in the blanks myself. This to me is one of the key ingredients to any good art.

        This game has opened my eyes to why I love some of my favorite games. When developers don’t hold your hand and tell you exactly what to do throughout every step of the game you feel a sense of accomplishment and pride when you do things on your own. The gaps they leave are filled in by your own ability to play a game. Don’t get me wrong, these games all have tutorial levels, but they are so subtle that they don’t remove you from the experience. I love it when I catch myself saying “Oh…” out loud because I figured something out as opposed to “Jee, do you think A is jump?” (which I’ve never actually said.)

        The bottom line is that this is a platformer so artistically executed that every frame is beautiful and, like all good art, is as good as what you are willing to bring to it.

        Thanks again for suggesting this so highly. My PS3 is now more valuable.

  5. That’s a jaw-dropping piece of writing. It might be “hard to discuss without veering into the kind of soft-headed, doe-eyed hyperbole that undermines rigid analysis” but you offered an objective lesson into how to do just that.

    I’d drop $15 on this in a second after this review. However it’s not quite positive enough to convince me to drop $250 on the PS3 I’d need to get first.

    1. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that it will turn up on any other platform since it’s a Sony game.

      I’d _love_ to see this on Vita, actually. The only thing is that it’s really meant to be played in a single two hour sitting.

        1. I imagine the devs would like to do that, but they signed a 3 game contract with Sony and this is that last game. It’s Sony’s property and I don’t think we’ll be seeing it elsewhere.

          That said, the devs are already hiring and talking about being on different platforms for their next game. I hope those platforms include the PC.

  6. At least this is cheaper than what you usually make me want to buy. i was on the fence now i find myself pushed off.

  7. Is there a remote possibility that you will play the game having never encountered another player? I wonder.

    I plan on purchasing it sooner or later. But I wonder if after the so-called hype dies down and the game is replayed months, perhaps a year after the initial release if there will be a chance of playing through completely alone. What will that do to the experience? Will it even be the same game? Is it possible to complete alone? Would you get the same reaction then?

    Think, for a moment, if you had never encountered another player during your initial play through. How would have felt about it then?

    Brilliant writing, Barnes. Excellent stuff. I’ll buy it soon.

    1. That’s a good question. I think it’s entirely possible that you can play it without encountering someone else. It would be a very different experience. Not necessarily a lesser one, but definitely that relationship-building element wouldn’t be there.

      That does worry me…because that’s one of the most profound and impactful elements of the game.

      The interesting thing about the matchmaking is that it’s automatic. You never know when it happens. You just encounter another. There’s no mulitplayer menu or anything like that. At the end of the game, it tells you who your companion or companions were but that’s all, just their screen names.

      1. It’s a good thing they don’t show you the name until after the game is complete. I would imagine that the journey would be far less impactful when undertaken with B1GBallsB1lly83.

        1. HA! Or if he hurled racially charged insults at you the whole way. An entirely different set of meanings would emerge from that journey.

  8. Great piece Mike! Just finished my own review of it last night, and it was… different and definitely harder to write than usual reviews. But your review (and Hamilton’s over on Kotaku) are two best ones I’ve seen so far.

    And such a great game/experience! Recommended to everyone who owns PS3!

    1. I really didn’t know how I was going to write about it when I sat down at the keyboard. I just kind of let it flow, writing from a more experiential, encounter-with-the-work perspective. It was definitely hard to THINK about how to write this though, for sure. The neat thing is that reviews are coming from very different experiences.

  9. Don’t do this to me, Barnes! I was going to wait to pick this up until after I had finished ME3, but damn, I don’t think I can ignore it any longer.

    Also, I know its becoming a moot point as video games become more accepted as an art form, but I still love reading pieces like this that look at the medium from a artistic perspective.

    1. I think it’s important to LET games be art and to give them the respect they deserve to be discussed like art- without a lot of nonsensical presumptions or misguided appropriations. Obviously, this is the kind of game where you can do there whereas a game like Mass Effect 3 you’re looking at some very different creative goals.

      1. THIS.

        I threw 15 bucks at this thing, sight unseen, because it was thatgamecompany and I knew what they were about. I totally understand profit motive, marketing, and all the grown-up pressures that necessarily plague AAA development. The guy who writes checks at EA probably thinks he works at a toy company.

        But Journey? Even if I hadn’t loved it, I would be throwing down a quarter of what I usually spend at a group of people that I know think about gaming the way I do. Which is worth it even if I don’t get the game I want.

        The time will come when I demand to know about genre, compare one director’s work to another, and so on in gaming, like I do in film. But that vocabulary doesn’t even really exist yet. Thus, Mr. Barnes writing a perfectly explicable review, and still being worried that the message won’t get through.

        My two cents: this game doesn’t combo anything. When you’re sliding, the entire game focuses on conveying the thrill of sliding. Same for wading through waist-high dust, or flying, or combing an area for secrets. You have to be ready for that. If your idea of good gameplay requires jumping out of a crouching kick into an aerial parry into a 32-hit combo finish – with all the hyper-alertness and button mashing that entails – then walk on, nothing for you over here.

  10. Finished this last night. I liked it quite a bit.

    For me, The Journey’s great feat is to further refine the way video games use the language of cinema. Shadow of the Colossus and Uncharted 2 can be thought of as its predecessors, though both of them rely a great deal on “game” tropes in a way that The Journey doesn’t. Key to the game’s effectiveness in this regard is that it doles out the amount of player agency very carefully so that you never run across these jarring moments of “I’m playing a game now, I’m watching a movie now” that we’ve all started to take for granted in video games. And most importantly, gameplay truly works on behalf of the story. Gameplay is in service of something larger, instead of being an end in and of itself.

    What’s also exciting about this game is that it feels like thatgamecompany has finally hit its stride. Its previous games, Flow and Flower, almost seem like proofs of concept on the way to creating The Journey. Their influence is obvious, but ultimately just part of the game’s much bigger picture. I can’t wait to see what these guys do next.

    1. Well said. The game part is almost transparent, and in a way far beyond invisible HUDs allow.

      I think it’s equally important that the game tells you almost nothing- there’s not even a specific logic for how some things in the game work. You discover it, and draw your own conclusions.

      It’s funny though, because there are moments where you are kind of invited to “make” a game out of some things- I’m thinking specifically of the slaloming through the archways. But there’s not any rules or mechanics dictated to you.

      I’m totally blown away by that speaking button. I mean, how brilliant is that? A button that does something…but really what it does is whatever YOU want it to mean. That’s a whole new area of player angency and intent, I can’t think of another game that does this.

      1. My last session, I ended up developing a ping system. My stranger player and I agreed that a single short ping was “don’t mind me, I’m off noodling around.” Long ping: “objective found over here.” Quick burst of multiple pings: “Duuuude! Come look at this!”

        1. Yeah, isn’t that amazing? That’s what I’m talking about how it demonstrates the development of language- which is also one of the foundational elements of _civilization_. That’s such huge concept, and it’s described with one button and how you use it.

          How it’s unspoken between the players…but you learn…it just blows me away.

  11. That was the part that actually blew my mind. I didn’t know about the online functionality so I kept wondering who these “AI” companions were that seemed to act in a surprisingly intelligent fashion. Then at the end when it showed me the screen names of everyone I played with I was pretty blown away.

    Somehow seeing that I had completed the journey with XxLegolasLoverxX was more meaningful than if they’d remained anonymous. Listing the names also had the vague sense of being an In Memoriam more than anything else.

    1. I knew about it, but I didn’t really understand how significant it was going to be to have another human player there. I totally agree, at the end it’s almost like a rememberance.

      I’m wondering if it’s possible there at the end (no spoilers) for both players to (ahem) cross the finish line or that’s specifically a solitary part of the game.

      I have to say that one of the most powerful moments I’ve ever experienced in a video game was there toward the end with the wind and snow…again, no spoilers…but when the event presaged by the mural happens…wow. Knowing that it’s a human player makes that a really profound occurrence.

        1. Yep. I’ve finished it twice now, and always with another player. I ‘spect the player logged out while you were near the endgame – it’s pretty scary when it happens the first time.

          Another not-quite-spoilery hint: try holding still and pressing every button on the controller separately, at least once. One of them controls a hidden in-game player function.

  12. wonderful revieu what i found amazing was that in my play through i had the longer scarf and i did feel like the mentor and i also lost track of my partner in the final section but as i started to walk towards the summit i tuned back to see the outer player call out one last time before disapiring and i felt horrible he had bin there for me when i needed him and i left him as soon as things got easy. i dont think any art has ever shown me so much about myself.

  13. Memo to players: there are definitely several hours of replay value. Come back to it a week later and check the noob zone for subtle difference from your first playthrough. The “secret counters” are obvious once you notice them for the first time.

    Also, the trophies are the most worthwhile I’ve seen in a long time. They’re specifically designed as hints to lead you to a lot of the game’s secrets

    1. After finishing my Journey, I had my wife and my 10 year old daughter play through it as well. My wife is not a gamer but Journey transcends games…she loved it. My daughter made one of her friends play it during a sleepover. So it has seen 4 plays in less than a week and I can certainly see playing through it again after a particularly tough week at the office as therapy.

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