You stand in the middle of an endless ocean of sand. Your identity is unknown and your purpose is unclear. This is where your journey begins.
Some of the screenshots give the impression that Journey offers nothing more than a huge, static and dead expanse of yellow sand. These images can’t embody one of the essential truths about the gane, namely, that it feels alive. Gently shifting sands, robes dancing in the breeze and the subtle shift in colour as you leave one area of the desert and arrive in another combine to form a peaceful, almost melancholy sense of place.
With its bold colours, strong line work and deft use of light and shadow, Journey’s wasteland recalls the ethereal realm of The Wind Waker. Neither is realistic in its presentation, at least not in the traditional sense, and yet these titles feel so compelling, so authentic, in a way that games striving for photorealism do not.
The most important aspect of Journey is its cooperative multiplayer. At various points throughout your quest, you’re joined by randomly selected companions, never more than one at a time. You can’t see their PSN identities and you can’t reach them via headset or chat pad. The only way to communicate is via body language and what sounds like a high pitched bird call. Somehow, though, you slowly begin to understand each other.
You combine to solve simple puzzles, huddle together for warmth and come together to restore each other’s mana. Before long, you develop a surprisingly strong bond. It feels like the full potential of cooperative gaming has been distilled into these moments, these opportunities to perform small acts of kindness. This is a transformative experience. As soon as the credits being to roll, your companions’ identities are revealed, so if you simply must tell them to “die in a fire”, you’re not denied that right.
Gameplay involves only a handful of mechanics. You walk, you explore and you glide across the sand, sometimes at breakneck speed. Every so often you find a small segment of cloth and append it to your scarf. This ever growing garment enables you to glide high over the dunes, to reach previously inaccessible outcroppings and to more thoroughly examine the remnants of an ancient civilisation.
As stunning as this creation is, there are times when you perceive the limitations of thatgamecompany’s illusion. While the desert appears to extend as far as the eye can see, you don’t have to wander far before you encounter a fearsome wind that prevents you from exploring too far afield. It’s at these times that you become aware of the world as a construct, as a machine designed to deliver an experience. While this phenomenon may actually exemplify some of the themes of the game, it does feel a mite restrictive from time to time.
The tilt sensitive camera is also somewhat problematic. Imagine leaning over to pick up a drink only to return to a world spinning out of control. Unless you’re actively using the Sixaxis feature, you have to take great care to hold the controller perfectly still. Fortunately, the right thumb stick can also be used to guide the camera.
As you make your through the ruins, you being to ponder not only your own purpose, but the overall message underpinning the game. The title is surely a reference to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s observation that “Life is a journey, not a destination”. This game offers you the chance to immerse yourself in this concept in a way that other media cannot. It places you bodily in this dreamlike world and allows you to interact not only with the environment, but also with other lost souls as you pursue a distant goal, one which ultimately isn’t as important as the connections you form along the way.
Journey is a sandbox game, not only in structural terms, but also in a sociological sense. It is a beautiful, absorbing and innovative game. You should play it.