Very few games can transcend accepted tenets of player-to-player interaction, commercial considerations of cost versus time invested, and the very nature of video games as act of leisure, and yet Journey effortlessly glides through all such considerations and establishes itself as one of the most worthwhile interactive experiences ever created. More significantly, it stands as a powerful meditation on uniqueness and the meaning of individual identity.
At its core, Journey is about having a goal and seeing it through to the end. Players first awaken in a desert, surrounded by glistening golden sand; a brief trek up a small dune reveals a mountain standing silently at the edge of the horizon, framed prominently between the sand below and a hazy sun that seems, at first glance, to be a death sentence to those unlucky enough to be lost in the vast sameness of the desert. Soon, however, it becomes clear that this mountain, and perhaps even the sun sitting high atop its peak, is your goal, and for the duration of Journey’s two hours, you’ll strive to reach it.
Though thatgamecompany’s knack for movement perfected by hyperfluid animation and thoughtful play control has been evident since their previous PS3 exclusive (the 2008 masterpiece, Flower), it would be misleading to suggest Journey’s actual mechanics set it apart as anything special. You’ll spend most of your time walking or gliding from point to point, interacting with certain elements of the environment to progress further. And despite a very Shadow of the Colossus-y vibe given off by Journey’s trailer, the game’s landscape is no more open than Flower’s: this is, yet again, a wholly linear experience, with clearly defined stages strung together by impressive set pieces punctuated by brief cutscenes. Many of these set pieces are awe inspiring in the most classical sense, and I won’t spoil a single one of them here; suffice to say that I’ve never before experienced so much joy, so much terror and wonder in such a thoughtfully composed package as this.
But as impressive as these sets are, it’s the game’s multiplayer component, and the questions it inspires by Journey’s end, that truly elevates this experience to a level above anything offered by a game before. Consider my initial playthrough of Journey, wherein I wandered briefly alone before encountering another player who, for all intents and purposes, was identical to me. No server message warned me that a new player was joining, nor was there a nametag hovering nearby to set him or her apart from me. I simply stumbled upon this facsimile of myself, toiling away at the same puzzle that I was working through. The game offers no form of inter-player communication, save a sort of harmonic yawp triggered by the circle button. After sussing one another out through a series of playful gliding and yawping, we ultimately discovered that each would benefit from the presence of the other. We continued down our path toward the sun, sticking as close together as possible while occasionally drifting apart to explore off the beaten path or tackle a puzzle more efficiently. This decision to remain together through to the end was based solely on the primal human need to interact with another person. It was a kind of magic.
We went on like this for at least half an hour before the game took a turn toward darkness, which is when I first lost track of my companion. After breathlessly overcoming this section and realizing that I might, indeed, be alone, I was beyond relieved to see my companion catch up to me again. We yawped our excitement at seeing one another, and continued along together until the end of the game.
When the credits rolled, however, I discovered Journey’s greatest surprise: though I’d thought I’d experienced my journey with the same companion from beginning to end, in fact I’d actually encountered a total of four separate players. As it turns out, after that terrifying episode in the darkness, I’d never really found my original companion again. And it makes sense, when you think about it, as I’d waited around for him for a minute or two before an entirely different “he” caught up with me and we continued on together. I’ve never before been so struck by such a simple mechanical twist, and the implications it presents are astounding: if we are all the same on the outside, what sets us apart from one another? Is it small ticks in movement, or vocal patterns, or a willingness to exhibit patience with one another? What makes one person’s presence more comforting than another’s? Does it even matter when we find ourselves in such desperate situations as Journey presents? Thinking back on it, I feel a deep sense of regret that my original companion didn’t complete his journey with me, even though it’s very possible that he simply got ahead of me, waited around for me until someone he thought was me caught up with him, and continued on. Perhaps he finished the game without sitting through the entire credits sequence: maybe, in his mind, I was there with him all along.
Of course, we live in a world where individual identities are clearly expressed, gender differences generally defined, personalities easily managed. We don’t have to think about any of this, so we choose not to. The beauty of Journey is not in its physical trappings, majestic as they are, but in the fact that, in a medium where such a carefully crafted production usually serves as a catalyst for aggression, we are presented with a simple opportunity: to ask ourselves who we really are. Does Journey answer this question? Of course not. But, as the saying goes, it’s not about the destination, but how you get there. If you own a PlayStation 3, you simply must take this journey.