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The Setting of a New Benchmark
2012 saw a deluge of franchise titles in the video game industry, including (but not limited to) ‘Far Cry 3’, ‘Mass Effect 3’, ‘Max Payne 3’, ‘Halo 4’, and so on seemingly into infinity. There were, however, also some original properties from both major studios and the independent market that are well worth remembering — perhaps the best of these being ‘Journey’, co-developed by Thatgamecompany and Santa Monica Studio. ‘Journey’ was originally released on the PlayStation 3, at a time when that console was going through a sort of Indian summer; despite having been out for six years already, it was seeing some of its strongest new titles. Despite being noted for its brevity, ‘Journey’ made an immediate impression with critics and audiences, to the point where its score (composed by Austin Wintory) became the first video game soundtrack to garner a Grammy nomination. The success of ‘Journey’ was not exactly a fluke; Thatgamecompany was coming off the success of their previous title, 2009’s ‘Flower’, which won praise for being an early and successful use of the PlayStation 3 controller’s SIXAXIS function. The meteoric success of ‘Journey’, though, would set a high benchmark for “arthouse” games that followed.
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Yet we are left with a question: Why play ‘Journey’ in 2022? Surely, with how games have evolved in the past decade (surely the difference in gaming between 1992 and 2002 was more earth-shattering), something like ‘Journey’ might now strike you as old hat. The funny thing is that there has always been a minority of detractors when it comes to this game, and the detractors’ talking points are more or less the same: it’s short, it’s simple, and it’s easy. True enough, you can get through ‘Journey’ in the time it takes to watch a romantic comedy, and it’s not what we would call a particularly challenging game. Even so, the virtues of ‘Journey’ are so luminous as to be almost self-evident.
‘Journey’ – The Player, the Desert, and the Mountain
When playing a game, you’re usually faced with a HUD (heads up display), which conveys important info to the player; ‘Journey’, however, does not have a HUD. Not only is the screen free of any non-diegetic information, but the “tutorial” consists of a few button prompts, and indeed, there are only two buttons the player must be concerned with: the button used for jumping, and the button used for talking. Well, “chirping” may be more accurate for the latter. Your player character, an androgynous robed figure, can jump (and even glide) depending on the length of your scarf, and you lengthen your scarf by collecting glowing symbols, the game’s primary collectible item. You can also interact with the game world by chirping, an action that is surprisingly dexterous; you’ll basically be chirping whenever you’re not simply traversing the landscape.
We start in a desert, surrounded by what might be large tombstones. The game doesn’t tell you to move in a specific direction, but since it tells you next to nothing from the outset, your first instinct is probably to get over the hill you start out at. Once you ascend the hill, you see, in the distance, a mountain — possibly the largest mountain you’ve ever seen, the sun glowing behind it like an icon painting. Without being told verbally, you get the feeling that you should move towards that mountain; something about it seems meaningful, but you can’t be sure as to what is meaningful about it. The storytelling of ‘Journey’ is entirely nonverbal; there are cutscenes, but you’re only given visual hints as to the backstory of this desolate world and why you’re here. I must have played through ‘Journey’ five or six times over the years, and I’m still not entirely sure what the plot is about; it’s simple to the point of being cryptic, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a game that does a great deal with so little, and without giving away what I do understand about the plot, replaying it is both easily tempting and thematically appropriate.
The Finest Video Game Music of the 2010s
‘Journey’ was a team effort, naturally. You have a game that, while a small production, required the hard work of director Jenova Chen, along with programmers, artists, and producers — yet if you had to narrow down to one person who would define this game’s identity, it has to be Austin Wintory. The music for ‘Journey’ is primarily string-driven, swerving between minimalist and almost operatic at times. Suppose you bought this game back in 2012 for your PlayStation 3; the very first thing you would hear upon booting the game up is a single cello, somber, lonely, desolate, yet immediately gripping in its power. The desert ruins of ‘Journey’ are remnants of some previous civilization, perhaps destroyed by war, or famine, and yet there is also a sense of wonder about these ruins.
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At first, the mountain you’re heading towards looks so small from such a distance, but as you progress, you come across structures that utterly dwarf you, and the music gives almost a metaphysical weight to this scale: that you’re a tiny person, making your way through things (and towards something) which are so much larger than you. I mentioned before that Wintory’s score was nominated for a Grammy (Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media), the first video game score to do so, and the fact that the score has its own section on the game’s Wikipedia page says a good deal about its role in what makes ‘Journey’ so beloved.
A Journey You Don’t Have to Make Alone
The mechanics of ‘Journey’ are bewilderingly simple, but something I’ve neglected to mention up until now is that this game is, in fact, a multiplayer experience. I’m sure there are games that handle cooperative multiplayer in a similar way to how ‘Journey’ does it, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head. For one thing, you have no control over whom you buddy up with during your playthrough; there is no server to find fellow players in, and you can’t message a friend and have them join a playthrough with you. From what I can tell, the co-op feature kicks in once you get to the second level (the first being the closest to a “tutorial”), and depending on how close you stick to your buddy, you could be acting alongside the same player for the rest of the game, or you could come across several different players. As with everything else, you interact with other players by chirping, and the main advantage of chirping here is that you can lengthen each other’s scarfs, making an already-easy game even easier. It’s startling, though, to find how much of a difference just one friend can make, turning an isolated experience into something you feel like you’re actually going through with someone. While the co-op mode is unconventional, and you may bemoan the fact that you can’t invite friends to play alongside you from the outset, you do at least get a list of players you’ve met during your journey at the end of each playthrough.
An Emotional and Spiritual Experience
I replayed ‘Journey’ recently, which is not something I often do with games; I don’t have as much free time as before, and frankly, a lot of “good” games don’t hold up too well on repeat playthroughs. To my surprise, though, I found the whole experience to be about as powerful as the first time I had played it — which would be about seven or eight years ago. I’ve never been able to turn the “plot” of ‘Journey’ into a hard science, but I’ve always been able to understand it on a thematic level; of course, I can’t give away what seems to be the game’s main theme without also giving away its ending. Even in 2022, I struggle to think of games that are as cryptic, as mysterious, and as gorgeous as ‘Journey’, although we have gotten other indie titles that deserve their own spot in the pantheon: ‘Undertale’, ‘Papers, Please’, ‘Cuphead’, ‘Celeste’, and many more. Out of all the games listed, though, ‘Journey’ is the only one that strikes me as almost a religious experience, like a moment of pure ascension, where you become part of something so much greater than yourself.
By Brian Collins
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