Sand, Snow, and Scarves.
Back when I started to think about video games as a legitimate art form, I was focused on one simple notion: that the best of any art utilizes their specific medium to the fullest. No matter how much I love the Harry Potter movies, JK Rowling’s prose is unforgettable in the books. Only a book can get you inside the head of character. (The Potter games…now those are forgettable.) Likewise, plenty of video games with great cutscenes evoke the thought, “Would this just be better as a film?” (If that game is The Last of Us, well, okay, that would probably translate well…)
One title that captured what videogames do like no other medium was Tetris. The objective may be simple (and simply addicting), but what other way was there to experience a series of randomly generated blocks? Tetris would never make for a great novel or movie. A series of falling tetrominos doesn’t scream "Read me!" But in its own way, it can be just as vital as the best literature or cinema.
Decades after a certain Russian melody drove us all mad, thatgamecompany began exploring interactivity with flower and in 2012 achieved masterpiece status with Journey on the PS3. In a way, what it achieved is the opposite what made the old-school era great. Old NES games are very much about making the player react constantly. A game like Journey is more, well, meditative. The best games of the last decade are been less about twitch gameplay and more about giving players a sense of living in a world, like the underwater city of Rapture in BioShock.
Further, Journey scales down traditional gameyness and is all the better for it. You can’t die and you’ll rarely get stuck trying to solve a puzzle. What you’ll do instead, better than in any other game I’ve ever played, is explore space. The vastness of space.
Not outer space, mind you. More the infinite space felt by approaching an endless horizon in a desert or the feeling of being lost in a snowy tundra. Your objective is to reach a mountain so mammoth in size that it seems to crack the sky. Along the way, you’ll use a magical scarf to soar above obstacles.
The graphics on the PS3 were pretty impressive and when upgraded to 1080p at 60fps on the PS4, no luster is lost. Tiny specs of sand glimmer in the sun while dank, dark caves feel old, authentic. The feeling of authenticity is everywhere in Journey. You might only light the occasional totem, but the immersion of every new location is palpable. With no dialogue, and only tangentially a story, the trek to that final peak is amazing.
Incredibly, the whole experience is done in the time it takes to watch a movie. About two hours. It should be noted that this is not the shortest experience of greatness I’ve had in a game. Playdead’s magnificent German expressionistic Limbo can be finished in about 30 minutes.
What has only been done in Journey, so far as I can tell, is the way players interact with each other. Occasionally, another being will pop up. Suddenly, this isolated quest becomes a team thing. Newbies, be on the lookout for a player donning white garb instead of the default red robes. These are the Jedi masters of the game, so you’d be wise to follow their lead. If you feel inclined, you can hit the ‘A’ button, which makes a strange indecipherable sound as the image of a rune pops up. It’s your only way of communicating.
At the end of the campaign, you’ll most likely be surprised to find that the one person who hung out with you was really three, or four, or more. What’s more surprising was that seeing all the people I’d come into contact with hits me emotionally. I don’t know them, but I ‘know’ them.
I played Journey a number of times when it was released on PS3. I even watched others play. And it was no less engaging to see how such a seemingly straightforward adventure always felt different, with every playthrough.
Playing again on the PS4 was, is, and continues to be just as remarkable as it was three years ago. Oh, and if you purchased it on the PS3, you now own it on the PS4. Hazaa!
Copy not provided by publisher. PS4 exclusive.