One of the games I was going to make it a priority to play when got my PlayStation 3 a couple years ago was Journey. What kind of game was it? I didn’t really know, but I did know that this game was inspiring some of the best writing about video games I’ve ever seen. I didn’t know what the game was really about, but I knew I had to play it. Somehow, between catching up on blockbusters like The Last of Us and Heavy Rain, indulging in various massive RPG’s, and gorging myself on dirt-cheap PSN sales I managed to not play it before the big upgrade to the PS4. Having heard that the little indie title that could was only a few short hours long, I kept waiting for a sale on it that never happened.
Then the week before last, Journey came out on the PlayStation 4 and I rejoiced at the second opportunity. More reviews popped up on this new edition, and again it produced the kind of beautiful and evocative writing that I wish we saw more of in video games. Once again, I had to play this game. And this time, I did.
I wasn’t disappointed. Actually, I was utterly blown away in spite of expectations. Over the scant few hours I spent, I was utterly engrossed and by the time I reached the end, aided by the companionship of an anonymous fellow gamer, I was never more happy that I didn’t wait for a sale. I did myself a major disservice by putting off this piece of indescribable interactive art for as long as I had. For the price of a DVD, I got that rare experience that was truly one of a kind in a way only timeless works of art are.
So what kind of game is it after all? It’s joy in digital form. That’s what Journey is. If you haven’t yet played it, I recommend leaving your computer now, clearing a few hours, buying it, playing it, and then coming back to read this because the less you know, the more amazing it will seem. Here are five scenes that blew me away as I played them and how the spontaneous multiplayer interactions made the experience niquely mine. Spoilers.
It’s really more of a hill/dune than a mountain, really, but the first thing you do is climb a large mass of sand in the desert and survey a desolate landscape with a massive Himalayan mountain sporting a shining summit in the distance and you just know that’s the place you’ve got to go to. Why? Because it’s there. After taking a moment to take it in, you slide down the slope, leaving a trail of displaced sand behind you and no small amount of mystery in your thoughts. Who is this genderless, cloaked, Jawa-esque creature we’re playing? What is he or she doing? Where do I even begin?
The beginning of Journey is like playing video games for the first time. You have no idea what you’re doing. Aimless wandering and figuring out the strange new mechanics is your world. I amused myself at first by playing random piping staccato melodies with the one button that did anything. There’s a few ruined structures in the distance, guess that’s where we’re going. That sense of overwhelming mystery in this strange new world and of doing something unlike anything you’ve ever done before while learning from scratch makes that first level memorable in itself in spite of the fact that very little actually happens.
Very early in my game I met my companion. While traversing some ruins and perfecting my floating ability using the clusters of scattered cloth fragments swirling in the wind to boost my scarf-based power, I saw another player in the distance. I kind of ignored them at first, not really sure what to do, and as they approached the challenge I was still solving I ceased my freestlye melody making, maybe a little embarrassed to display to a strange gamer the same whimsy I flaunted in solitude.
Anyways, together we traversed the building scapes and gained the next level with him following my lead. We gained some more companions soon after. Some sort of apparently sentient kite-like creatures rose from the sands to frolic amongst us like airborne dolphins, emitting a piping sound not unlike our own communications. It was…..amazing. I don’t know why, but something about these things just made joy appear in my heart as they flew and dove into the sand and back out and swirled about us, leading us through the desert. In a moment of triumph, I managed to mount one and flew through a portion of the level aided by this strange friend. I could practically taste my companion’s jealousy as he tried and tried again to lure the creatures beneath him with his magical piping. The entire experience was just beautiful and fun in a way I’ve never before witnessed in a video game. All we were really doing was going from one point to another, but for once I didn’t care if I never got there.
Funny thing about Journey: there are almost no enemies in this game. Almost. While exploring some catacombs, we encountered some monstrous flying stone beasts somewhat resembling those giant snake things from The Avengers. And they did not like us, as they’ve apparently got a case of the aggros where magical cloth is concerned. They sweep their baleful gaze over the landscape and if they see you, gods help you. Not that they kill you. Instead they take a chunk out of your beloved scarf, which you build over the course of your adventure. The longer the scarf, the longer you can fly, and the cooler you look and feel. Losing any of it is a hobblesome badge of shame.
After getting attacked once, we were cautiously keeping to the shadows. There is no way to fight back. We were completely at the mercy of these guardian beasts patrolling our path. I led my companion safely through the passsage without further incident and ended up standing atop a slope with three of the things at the foot of it. We both stood at the top not knowing what to do. I looked all over for a way around it, but there was our goal, right behind these scarf-devouring abominations. We looked at each other for a while like “you go first”, and eventually I remembered how awesome the sliding in this game is and just went for it. The demonic bastards saw us, but we evaded them with a little finesse and attained our goal.
At this point, I’d experienced the comfort of companionship, the joy of flight, the rush of sand-surfing, the perils of huge flying monsters, and the beauty of pure, unfettered imagination and adventure. What else could this game possily throw at me? How about a hammerhead shark made out of flying carpet? And some jellyfish too because why the hell not?
Gaining the top of the gigantic cloth behemoth effortlessly cruising was another crowning moment for me in this game. The hammerhead was always my favorite as a kid and there was just this great feeling as I rode this thing higher and higher towards my goal. So cool. I’m not sure I’ve figured out the symbolism of the marine life and cloth motifs that permeate the game. Maybe it’s because cloth is amazing to animate (and abuse of its magic properties likely destroyed this world) and sea creatures are the best creatures. Or maybe I’m just too dumb to figure it out…
The ending. Wow. Where to begin. Having reached the frigid foot of our glowing Everest after a draining trek through the snow relying on one another’s body heat to preserve what little of our scarf power we could as the cold ate it away, braving more attacks from the serpentine stone guardians, being blown about by the freezing winds, we were there. But we were slowing down. The fierce winds continued blowing our once-proud scarves away until we had none left and we trudged like two Frodos without Sams up the face of Mount Doom until we both collapsed in death.
But when we woke up…yeah. I hope Heaven is half as awesome. Resurrected, scarf returned to maximum length, and glowing like a god of pure light, I rocketed through an exhilarating flight sequence filled with awe and beauty and even more flying carpet hammerheads. It was like I’d just taken a shot of pure, distilled happiness. I knew I’d left my companion in the dust, but I was having so much fun I offered only the occasional glance about me as I flew ever onward towards the summit. When I finally landed, I couldn’t help gazing down the way I had come, hoping to see my friend flying after me. But I was alone.
I waited what was probably a minute or so (but seems like half an hour in gaming time) not wanting to abandon the person who had shared this wonderful experience with me before turning away to continue. I took a few steps towards my goal and then, I heard a piping chirp and turned to see my companion barreling in to land just ahead of me. It was so good, you’d think it was scripted. As we slowly walked down the last path together, I began chirping staccato melodies in time with the swelling musical score, no longer afraid of being judged for my whimsy by an internet stranger like I had been at the start of our adventure together. And the other player actually joined me, offering a counter rhythm to my own, and I swear it sounded so good with the in-game music. So together we walked singing into the white beyond, our journey complete. Serious question: will anything ever be this perfect again?
Even if these were the only five things I did in the game, the feelings Journey evoked in these sequences would have been worth the $15. While watching the end credits, still awestruck at what I had experienced in a single gameplay session, it came to me that the game is a representation of life itself. We start out knowing nothing in this ruin of a world, learn as we go to use it our advantage, meet strangers with similar goals who become trusted companions and friends, and while we may or may not ever reach the summit of the mountain we wish to climb, it’s all about the journey, not the destination. And God willing, once we’ve given all we have to give, the ultimate culmination isn’t the acheivement of any arbitrary goal, but the satisfaction of all of the things we’ve experienced along the way. Things like riding on giant flying carpet hammerhead sharks. Thanks, Journey.