Like Flower before it, thatgamecompany’s latest opus Journey features only elemental game design – yet that’s enough. Also like Flower, it’s interactive in all the ways that matter. It’s no surprise it’s currently the fastest-selling PSN title of all time.
The setup is simple: a robed figure rises silently from the shifting sands of a trackless desert and walks forward into the headstone-strewn dunes. They are silent; they have no apparent origin or even discernible facial features beyond a pair of glowing eyes. We guess their mission from the cloven, gleaming mountain summit on the horizon. Between the sands and the summit are vast stretches of largely empty wilderness and long-abandoned ruins.
No reason for the pilgrimage is given, no concrete background for the pilgrim or their world is offered but that gleaned over time from reliefs and imagery. Journey is entirely wordless. Its emotional landscape is entirely dependent upon the player’s response to these mythic overtones – and the emergent narrative that evolves as they randomly encounter other players.
Journey’s robed protagonist can perform only three actions – they can run (or slide) through the environment, they can jump and glide with the aid of a quickly-acquired magical scarf powered by collecting scraps of cloth, and they can “sing,” a wordless call both signal and extended reach. Advancement is largely limited to adding length to one’s scarf. There are only a handful of hostile creatures in the entire game, and they can’t be deterred by violence on your part. In short, Journey is designed to immerse, not to dazzle with technical design or tactical depth.
And immerse it does, through a combination of plaintive soundtrack, stunning vistas, and atmosphere to spare. Journey is a parade of stirring visual poetry – a tide of sand turned to molten gold by the sunset, a mournful field of ancient cloth banners and flying carpets entombed in ice, the abyssal, moonlit depths of vaulted ruins. Rarely has the “sea of sand” analogy for the desert felt so fitting, between the fluid dynamics used for the billowing sand, the robed protagonist’s graceful gliding mechanics and often vertically-oriented exploration, and the seemingly living cloth streaming on the wind in shapes like trailing kelp, schools of fish, jellyfish and great leviathans.
Journey’s dictated narrative is primeval, but somehow it feels fresh precisely because of its minimalistic nature. The soundtrack even links several tracks to stages of the famous Hero’s Journey. Creatures and events experienced are simply but powerfully portrayed; each inhabitant of the wasteland has, for lack of a better word, a strong sense of personality, from playful flying-carpets and serene cloth-jellies to menacing, hungry enemies. Rather than a weakness, the total lack of spoken dialogue or outside context links Journey’s narrative to primal emotions. The narrative silently asks the player questions – mostly “how do you feel?” – making it feel both expansive and deeply personal.
Journey’s beautiful desolation quickly makes even a jaded player appreciate the value of companionship, and this is where the design became truly inspired. Anyone playing Journey while connected to the internet has a chance to encounter fellow travelers on the road – randomly selected players without nametags or any means of communication beyond “singing,” distinguished only by the glyph and tone of their song or any outfit embroidery they may have unlocked. No cooperation is required to progress; players can carefully keep pace with one another or race on ahead.
But rather than weaken the connection, the almost totally anonymous nature of these random companions seems to strengthen the theme of the game. In the vast wilderness, a single traveler is so very small. Players seem drawn to one another, and to help each other, merely because of common humanity – in all my three playthroughs so far, only one of my companions actually abandoned me. (Jerk!) The silent drama of two travelers struggling against an uncooperative Nature creates a compelling tale of survival and friendship, particularly near the end of the game where literally huddling together for warmth and urging each other onwards with song helps to fight the bitter cold.
By the end of all three of my runs, I felt a wordless affection for my nameless companions: the white-clad, magnificent wanderer who’d taken me under their wing when I was lost in a sandstorm and urged me onwards even when I faltered, the humbly-clad, short-scarf figure met in a tall shaft capering for joy at the final ascent, or the modestly-embroidered companion who’d I’d nearly lost in the snow after being mauled by a hostile creature.
At the conclusion, both wanderers walking side by side , it wasn’t hard to imagine our characters holding hands.