Since 2007, Thatgamecompany has been part of a three-game contract with Sony. Beginning with Flow, then Flower in 2009, the studio’s work has brought them both success and acclaim. With the release of Journey, the contract comes to an end, and there will certainly be questions about what steps the company will take next. Before that though, one question must be asked first. Is their latest offering any good?
In the middle of a desert in an unknown land, a robed figure gazes at a mountain that dominates the skyline. After a beam of light begins to emanate from its peak, the robed figure rises from the dunes and sets off towards the mountain and its summit, unaware of the locations, creatures and questions it will encounter along the way.
If it feels like there’s very little to the plot, it’s because the game is heavily focused around ambiguity. Journey has no dialogue, and what you see, hear and discover is entirely open to interpretation. Despite being somewhat linear (strong winds will blow you back to the initial path if you stray too far into the desert on either side), there is plenty to explore, and being guided in this way fits in with the overall goal of the game. Mechanically speaking, it’s easy to get into the game too. There are very few controls to learn, and each appears only when you need it, fading from the screen when it feels like you’ve learnt them. This is the type of tutorial all games should strive for: one that is practically seamless.
There are three types of action in-game. Walking (or sliding down embankments), vocalising a chime, and flying or levitating by way of a coloured scarf. Holding down the button for a chime creates a greater sound, both in volume and size, and can be used to discover game world relics, unlock the way forward, or draw the various groups of cloth floating throughout the game world towards you, which not only help you but add power to your scarf.
Cut-scenes appear only at key moments in the game, highlighting your progression or revealing more about the history of the world. Like the rest of the game, what you see is open to interpretation, and building the story yourself makes Journey both personal and deeply engaging. While there’s no combat in the game, challenge progresses, with each new environment offering something new. Ambiguity can also be found here, but this presents a problem. Later on, there are enemies to encounter and they can bring you close to the brink of death. Once they do though, they stop abruptly. Surviving this is certainly a relief, but what isn’t clear is whether this abruption is part of the game, or something built-in so progression continues regardless. In short, it felt like Journey was going easy on me. While it’s the only real problem I have with the game, it’s the one that’s stuck with me.
Online co-op is very detached. That might not sound like much to anyone who’s played online before, but in Journey there are no microphone or headset capabilities. No words are spoken. The only sound tool is the chime. Even a player’s online ID isn’t revealed until the game is finished. In short, you have complete anonymity, and whether you choose to interact with anyone, and how you do so, will reveal a lot more about yourself than your gameplay.
The aesthetic is an entity all of its own. One material in the game is used in so many different ways, and with so little changed. Describing everything the environment does and lets you do could easily fill a few pages. To summarize: The development team seems to have decided on one texture, one type of surface, and then come up with as many ways to engage with it as possible. The result is a rich environment that, like the surface you walk on, seems to shift and change with each new area you find yourself in. Taking on a completely new dynamic and look that feels different, but doesn’t appear forced each time the game transitions.
In contrast, character design is constant. Figures are instantly recognisable and compliment the overall design, while the mysterious creatures you encounter each act uniquely, moving and responding in a way that really brings them to life. This is most notable with the cloth, which takes on different animalistic forms and can draw out different emotions based on their actions alone.
It’s difficult to talk about the music for the game without retreading the same wording for graphics. Composer Austin Wintery has said that he wished to be as culturally unidentifiable as possible, and with Journey he may have succeeded. The score blends seamlessly, never feeling out of place, while the effects give weight to each action. From the constant trudge through sand to that distinctive chime, each one has its place, and careful thought has gone into making sure they don’t jar or crudely overlap. Most striking of all is how the score tells the story. Plenty of soundtracks capture key moments or events in-game, but few seem crafted to actually relay the full tale outside of them.
Whether by happy coincidence, or simply another example of the creative unity the game seems to enjoy, Journey’s story is successfully told through the music alone, adopting a similar method found in classical music. This doesn’t mean that the game itself is redundant. Rather, it merely means that listening invokes the same sense of emotion and ambiguity found in gameplay. A feat most other games might fear, or fail, to reach.
The game feels perfectly priced, delivering a lot but asking a fair amount in return. What is especially appealing about the content is the potential it has to reach a wider audience. If playing the game doesn’t appeal to someone, the soundtrack just might, rewarding them with the same level of satisfaction while helping a studio continue to create great content.
Journey is an epic, in the traditional sense of the word. A classic tale of one individual searching for a distant goal, while traversing insurmountable odds to reach it, the game compels the player to ask, question and ponder its various themes. Despite a possible issue with challenge, the game delivers a great experience and is one of the most memorable of the year so far. If you have access to the game or know a friend who does, I highly recommend it.
AAG Score: 9 out of 10
+ Immersive and engaging story
+ Environment dynamically changes as you progress
+ Aesthetic and music score blend seamlessly
+ Co-op experience quite unique and blends with the rest of the game
- Unclear whether moments of change in the level of challenge are intentional, or the game going easy on you
Reviewed and Written By Andrew Jones