Jon Gracey's

Games That Rocked My World – #14: Journey

In PS3, PSN on October 9, 2012 at 10:20 am

Title: Journey

Format: PS3, PSN

Released: 13th March, 2012

Journey-cover-art

I am a crier. I tell you this in the interests of honesty. Films are my prime trigger (Have you seen “The Princess & The Frog”?? Apology accepted). But videogames? Rarely. They conjure up a wide array of feelings: wonder, excitement, anger, confusion. But emotions? I played through episode three of The Walking Dead: The Game recently, and was staggered to find myself in tears at a particularly gut-wrenching decision I was forced to make. This was interesting and new, at least within the realms of my gaming experience. And I was excited.

I do not have the time or inclination to get into the “games as art” debate. I have a pretty broad view of what defines art, which I have shamelessly cadged off Scott McCloud – summarised ludicrously pithily in an excerpt from his book “Understanding Comics” here:

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So with that out of the way, assume every game I write about (and indeed, every game ever made, and yes, that includes Solitaire) is art. Good or bad; that’s up to you. But let’s just say, for sake of argument, that your view of art lies totally at the other end of the spectrum: let’s say art to you is a Turner canvas, or Beethoven’s 9th, and nothing less. Play Journey.

Turner

Journey is what happens when a painting fucks an orchestra. It is uncannily beautiful. Brushed with autumnal hues of brown, orange and red, and sounding like a symphony is scoring your every step, Journey is a glorious work of art, by even the strictest of standards.

For those that haven’t played it, it’s a game with no dialogue, that tasks you with guiding your character – a cloaked figure – towards a mountain. That’s it. You can move, you can jump, and you can sing. And later, you can fly. There’s one key innovation, however: as you travel towards this unnamed peak, you are connected online to one other player, who wordlessly joins you on your adventure.

Temples

And herein lies the majesty. So much online play is about fierce competition, be it hideous griefing, (the concept of intentionally messing up an online game, for no personal gain other than revelling in another’s annoyance) or woefully abusive – and often perturbingly competent – kids kicking your ass at Call Of Duty. And yet Journey, by removing any means of communication with your ally other than singing a single note to get their attention, opens the floodgates for the best of humanity to glide through.

Journey is a very short game. Two to three hours to complete. I played it once in March 2012, and once more, in early October of the same year. Both experiences were stunning. In March, no one had played the game before – it was brand new – and as such, my ally and I were both taking our first steps into this beautiful and sometimes scary new world. I recall my companion taking a wrong turn on a mountain pass, so I jumped back down and guided them back. It didn’t benefit my game in any way. But I felt compelled to do it.

Jump to October, and things were different. My companion in this adventure was a silvery gold, instead of the deep red of standard players. His / her jump was huge; they had collected far more upgrades than the average player. And as I stumbled through my second playthrough, having forgotten all the nooks and crannies in the 6-month interval, this mystery player started – with no prompting whatsoever – to guide me around each level, taking time to show me the hidden location of all of these secrets.

Once, we had flooded a chamber with a strange translucent floating sand, which allowed you to swim through it. Having reached the top of the room, my partner dived back down into the deep, singing for me to follow. I did so, descending into a hidden room. From behind a row of flags emerged a strange, ethereal sand wraith, swimming through the mist. My guide waited until I had seen enough, then swam towards the exit. I had just been taken on an electronic tour of this world’s history. For no other reason than a friend wanted to show me. It was strangely touching.

Architecture

But you probably want to hear why I cried. It’s very simple: I love sunsets. I am routinely mocked for this. Fine. I think they are stunning, and I’ve no idea why. The first time I played Journey, I had freed a number of floating, flag-like creatures that swooped and soared through the air, chittering playfully. If you remain close enough to them, they grant you the ability to fly alongside, in looping, floating arcs that feel like that dream about flying we’ve all had.

Having progressed through the desert, climbing up dunes and through abandoned temples, we reached the top of a slope, and descended. Instantly we were flowing down sand, and through crumbling arches, the sun sinking lower in the sky. The music, which I don’t have the vocabulary to do justice to, leapt to merge with the action, morphing from aching melancholy to an uplifting surge, as I slid down the sandy mountainside, arcing through lines carved by my friend.

And then we rounded a corner, and the camera flipped to a side-on perspective. Beautiful, auburn sunlight bolted through the pillars of the colonnade we slid through, revealing an array of unexplored temples beneath. Carpet wraiths glode (just pretend it’s a word) through the sky, weaving in and out through the dust-flecked air. And I couldn’t help it; I just cried at the sheer beauty of it all. I realise I’m opening myself up to acres of ridicule here, but nevertheless it’s true. It was a powerful, almost tangible thing. Both utterly alien and totally natural, somehow tapping into something deep and primal whilst being completely modern and artificial.

Colonnade

And I can’t really explain it any better than that.

Play Journey. Really do. It’s two hours of your life, three at most, that are unlike anything you can do on this planet. A video game made of individual countless bytes of data, and think where it might take you. I’m not saying forsake art galleries and concerts, but don’t forget what £9.99 and a PlayStation controller can achieve.

If you’ve played it, let me know what you thought. Hey. Maybe I’m just a crier. But who can honestly say you haven’t wanted to fly?

If this isn’t art, nothing is. Except maybe Solitaire.

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