“To each his day is given.
‘Tis time that I fare from you.
Lost is my homecoming.
I was born for this.”
Sometimes art transcends its own medium.
It becomes less about its constituent parts and transforms into a creation that cannot be explained. The work is no longer brushstrokes on canvas, images captured in a photograph, edited scenes on film, black notes on a music sheet, or colors on a television screen. The work has become something that touches upon and moves every fundamental part of human awareness simultaneously, resulting in a mystifying moment of engaging with the work in real time, experiencing the story as if it is happening to you, right now, too quick for our gray matter to analyze and breakdown in the place of the observer-critic, but too elusive to be encountered again except in the most exceptional examples of art.
Journey is such an example of transcendent artwork. I cannot say of it that it is merely a video game. Somehow it creates a nebulous experience that goes well beyond the realm of digital graphics and what most games are capable of. Like a life-changing decision, like an emergency, like the birth of a child, Journey is almost indescribable to someone who hasn’t gone through it themselves. Although, I suppose that’s the purpose of this article: to explain how thatgamecompany’s award-winning Journey is a transcendent work of art. The thing is, it shouldn’t be.
Having suffered a much longer development time than expected, a tiny design team, stressful production ridden with delays and even company bankruptcy, Journey has a lot stacked against it. However, the end result couldn’t be better.
Journey’s narrative is told without dialogue. You control a nameless red-robed figure that awakens without explanation in the middle of a vast golden desert, drawn to a radiant mountain that dominates the horizon. Any time that Journey wants to impart its lore to the player it does so through visions and wordless glyphs adorning the walls of ruins which flicker suddenly to life and then are silent once again.
During the entire course of the game there are no spoken words at any time (except for the lyrics in the song that plays over the credits). The player is therefore left to their own imagination to bring their own interpretation to bear. This is a master stroke that lends Journey its intimacy and impact.
Journey carries many themes because of its level of subjectivity. However, both companionship and loneliness play a large part in the experience.
Given the vastness of the environment, you can’t help but feel a sense of wonder and smallness, helplessness, insignificance in the face of the wilderness and its unknown history. It is the same feeling of triviality you feel when you stare upon into the stars and the infinite blackness behind them. All until you meet a friend. Occasionally, you may run across another red-robed figure. You might have a hard time believing you’ve met a human player online because the meeting is so seamless it feels like you’ve met an NPC.
You can’t even see the other player’s username (until after the credits). The only means to communicate with the other player is through musical chimes and whistles, a tonal language that you must learn to use as best you can if you want some companionship from the other player. Again, another stroke of genius. Many online gaming experiences are plagued by prepubescent trolls armed with limited vocabularies comprised purely of ineloquent cuss words. Journey eliminates all of that to house a raw, streamlined relationship with another human being based on the game’s emotional arc.
At my first experience completing the game all the way through with another player, we were both obviously overjoyed and grateful to one another for the closeness we shared that my robed comrade took the time to draw a heart in the sand. I don’t know who that person was, but they drew me a heart. That one symbol was worth a thousand words. It’s the same feeling you get when a Journey friend waits for you to catch up or takes the time to show you all the secrets tucked away in the sands of the desert. Anonymity usually leads to viciousness and vulgarity on the internet, but in Journey the facelessness of your companion makes for a momentary friendship based on trust, reliability and the value of another human presence in a forboding and eerily numinous world.
The music-language of the red-robed figure is also used to interact with another unexplained element in Journey: floating red and gold cloth. At times the cloth seems to perform like technology and then again, it seems to be just as alive as you are. They speak. The cloths also allow you to replenish your scarf, which briefly enables you to fly through the air depending on its length.
I have never played a game before that meddled with my emotions, expectations and sense of awe quite like Journey did. Not only is that due to its visual presentation and bare style and gameplay, but credit must go to Journey’s score and pacing. All of these elements combine to produce something unforgettable. Even more so. I’m a Christian and I have to say that Journey was quite nearly a religious experience. The final climb up the snowy ridges of the mountain, soaring into the deep blue zenith toward that mysterious peak as the music swelled, drew up its tempo and rose into a climax was for me something like visualizing what going to heaven is like.
I’m not sure that any other game has ever stripped away all of the complexities of numbers, words and explanations and delivered something that touched me so far down that it brushed against the heart of what it means to be human to me. Very few entries in the visual arts have ever occupied such a place in my personal experience, and I doubt that I shall ever find another work like Journey.
The 8-Bit Review
The graphics in Journey are ruled by minimalism.
There are no stats plaguing the screen with ugly displays of HP or MP or points or money. There are no informational menus to sift through. Everything is stripped and streamlined and all that’s left is the cinematic presentation. The few environments to be explored in this too-brief wonder are each rendered with perfect mood, color and detail, glowing and glistening and dripping with sensory magic. Journey is a masterpiece for the eyes.
Featuring iconic songs like “Don’t Stop Believing” and “The Wheel In The Sky”… you saw that one coming a mile away.
The Journey OST by Austin Wintory, nominated for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media in the 2013 Grammy Awards, is a cello-led fusion of eastern influences that adeptly avoids any plain identification with any particular culture, religion or people group. It is not only a beautiful and emotional score but is also one of the best implemented. It was designed to be able to react to the player’s actions throughout the game and indeed as you experience Journey it is very difficult to tell when one track ends and another begins. Austin Wintory indicated in an interview that this was indeed intentional and that the soundtrack is supposed to feel like it is “unfolding in real time”. Few games can make that boast. It’s one of my favorite soundtracks to listen to while studying or writing now, or even just to have on as ambiance in the house. Journey is a masterpiece for the ears.
The fact that you are not explicitly told what to do and how to do it leads to the experience of discovery, which unfortunately most games rob their players of due to an overabundance of sometimes downright condescending tutorial information. Journey does not treat you like a child. The joy of discovery is an element that makes Journey all the more enjoyable when learning how to interact through the limited capabilities of the red-robed figure. It taps into intuitive decision-making. You’ll find yourself automatically trying to make your musical chimes in rhythms and patterns when trying to communicate with another player. What’s more, gliding feels like gliding. In a game that is all about the feelings it engenders rather than the mechanics or narrative or strategy, all of those elements including the gameplay end up contributing to the feels of Journey. Everything is designed toward an emotional connection, rather than the technical, and flight feels like an escape from the constant pull downward of earth’s gravity, such as you only remember in your dreams.
Perhaps the singular reason why this gameplay score is not a 10 in my opinion is because its online multiplayer feature, while thematic, is totally unnecessary from a technical standpoint. Sure they can help you jump higher or recharge your scarf faster, but you can get through the whole game without making any friends. Just like real life. Only thing is you’ll be lonely.
The way Journey tells its story is ingenious. Mystic visions of a presumed past and iconography scattered throughout the world are the primary means of how this game constructs its narrative. That, and the little clues dropped by the setting and environment around you as you progress toward the irresistible mountain. But what is at the mountain? Why are you drawn to it? What happened in this world and why are you journeying across it? All of that is for you to find out and to not find out. The narrative will answer your questions, but not all of them. It may in fact leave you with other questions. Here’s what I think it’s about: (spoiler: highlight to reveal) Long ago, the stars seeded the world with life: vegetation, animals and eventually the robed entities of the visions. The robed people began to build their cities and in the process they discovered how to harness the plant-animal creatures that in the game appear to be made of sentient cloth. As they developed a civilization, they destroyed their ecosystem which caused a scarcity of the cloth plant-animals used in their technology. Becoming greedy, the robed people warred against themselves and annihilated their own race. Their souls returned to the stars that had formed them. Over time, their war-machines that had been left master-less broke down or else wandered aimlessly in search of more victims. These are the snake-like enemies you encounter on your journey. Dust and sand eventually covered over the ruins of the ancient cities, and the bodies of the robed people that had exterminated themselves. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of years later, the stars send (reincarnate?) a single soul back to this post-apocalyptic land: the red-robed entity under your control. Your purpose is to seek the mountain, to climb it, almost in a kind of pseudo-religious atonement/penitence (there is a track on the OST named Atonement), to learn (re-learn?) of the atrocities committed by your ancestors. Once you reach the mountain (Heaven, Nirvana, Paradise, Valhalla, etc.) either of two things happen, depending on your interpretation. Either you are sent back to the stars and reach purity/perfection/enlightenment, becoming perhaps one of the white robed figures in the visions or merely a star in the sky while another soul is dispatched to undertake the pilgrimage (again, there is a track on the OST named Apotheosis), OR you are sent back to the beginning of the cycle to undertake the journey again. Again and again and again. The latter theory is in my mind the more likely but it is the most tragic. It is almost as if, if this theory is indeed true, that you are being punished for what may be an eternity for the sins of your fathers.
Play it yourself and come to your own conclusion. However your conclusion turns out, you will be forever changed by a story without equal. But it is the fact that you are not specifically told what occurs on that mountain that is the real gem of its narrative. Journey will not break its own rules. It will not destroy all of the awe and wonder it built. It does not show you the face of God.
Online Play: 10/10
Journey’s online multiplayer interaction is so refreshing and different in its seamless execution, you’ll remember the presence of the relationships you made for the space of a few hours even if you’ll never know the person behind that presence. Being stripped of your emojis and emoticons, restricted to a language of rhythm and music ends up being the best thing ever. You’ll wish there were more interactions in life like this where mere emotions meet without the tangled misunderstandings and misuses of spoken language.
I couldn’t get enough of Journey after I completed it the first time. I still couldn’t get enough after I completed it again, this time with a friend beside me. Even after I found the (spoiler: highlight to reveal) secret white robes that allow you to fly higher and more easily than ever, I still wanted more. I ran through this game half a dozen times in a short period and the only thing that stopped my insatiable appetite for this unique quest was the fact that Journey is a very short quest. There isn’t much difference playing it through multiple times except for a few minor cosmetic changes. It’s the brevity of Journey, which may even be a theme in and of itself, that lessens somewhat its already imposing replay value.
You simply will not find another game exactly like Journey. It is thematically, emotionally, visually, audibly, kinetically different than any other video game, heck than any other sample of the visual arts, that you have ever met. I hope my review has made that abundantly clear.
My Personal Grade: 10/10
Journey is an icon. Journey is a saga. Journey confounds categorization. Journey is simplicity and minimalism. Journey embraces emotions we may have forgotten. Journey taps into innate, fundamental human experiences that we all share. Journey reflects back upon you, gives you glimpses of what it is like to be a conscious being with desires we sometimes have no words for. Journey draws upon archetypes repeated throughout our complicated and sordid past. Journey plays with the philosophies and theologies that the philosophers and theologians of countless cultures have played with for centuries. Journey is a masterpiece, a magnum opus, an achievement, a victory cry, a pinnacle of what can be done in the industry of gaming. Journey should stand and will stand not only as a testament of the creativity of our race but as an allegory of our history. Journey’s only flaw is it is too short and it will leave you wanting much more. Journey is a work of art.
Journey transcends its own medium.
Aggregated Score: 9.8
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