Video games get a hard time. They are frequently used as scapegoats for a violent youth, are dismissed as mindless entertainment and derided as artless compared to media perceived to be superior.
But the video game industry is a dark horse and it is becoming harder and harder for its detractors to dismiss as a mere distraction. Video games have been watching Hollywood closely and are now at the stage where they can outperform movies. Uncharted was hands-down more fun than the most recent Indiana Jones film, Mass Effect has crafted a far more engaging and deeper story than Avatar or any other recent sci-fi blockbuster, and now Journey proves that video games have the potential to be every bit as meaningful or as poetic as any piece of art or literature.
Journey is quite simply one of the most beautiful, humble and spiritual experiences you can get while plonked in front of a television screen. From its inauspicious beginnings to its emotional finale, Journey will grab you with its gorgeous simplicity and deceptively engaging gameplay.
The game is all about minimalism. As soon as you start, as a lone traveller in a vast desert, you get no instructions beyond three visual control prompts and it’s up to you to figure everything out. And it is so surprisingly intuitive, you will scorn every ham-fisted game tutorial that came before it. Journey doesn’t pander to people, instead relying on subtle guidance and direction, assuming a player will be naturally drawn towards the giant mountain with a white light in the distance. The result is an organic experience that offers a rewarding sense of freedom in an environment that is essentially quite linear. There may be only one way to go, but you will feel like you made the decision to go that way.
Another beautiful achievement by creators thatgamecompany is the multiplayer component. Other players will, at various times, show up on your journey, with no usernames or way to communicate with them. They’re just another solitary figure on the same journey as you. But the defining factor of the experience is that you know that figure is a human being and strangely, there can be a stronger sense of engagement with that person than if you could talk to them or see their username. I spent twenty minutes battling frozen winds on a snowy mountain with another gamer I know nothing about and as we huddled together behind a rock, I realised our shared experience meant more to me than any teammate I had fought alongside in a round of Call of Duty.
The graphics are absolutely sublime, and a surprising amount of variety is applied to otherwise sparse environments, but what really stands out in Journey is the audio work. The strings-heavy score is extremely lovely and the sound design is exceptional, and used to particularly shocking effect towards the end.
The gameplay may boil down to only two things (jumping and singing) and the game, by any standards, is tremendously short, but these things don’t matter. They somehow work in its favour to create one of the most rich, original and spellbinding experiences you can have in any medium. So often have I completed a game, watched the final cutscene with something close to boredom and gone to make a cup of tea, but Journey stuck with me long after the credits had ended.
I still had that cup of tea, but it tasted better than usual.