Accolades like Best Score, Outstanding Innovation in Gaming, Best Visual Arts, and Outstanding Online Gameplay quickly piled up for Thatgamecompany. Their creation, Journey, piled up awards including game of the year from IGN, Gamespot, D.I.C.E Awards, and Game Developers Choice Awards. Gaming forums had a difficult time describing why this game was so good. General terms were used, like emotional, beautiful, or that Journey compares to a long-awaited book. The most used term for explaining Journey was spiritual. In all my years of gaming I had never heard a game described with the word spiritual. Intrigued, I picked up Thatgamecompany’s renowned 2012 PlayStation 3 hit to find out for myself. Is it that good? And more curiously, is it a spiritual video game?
Welcome to the desert. The sun sparkles off of the shifting sands. Wind distorts the view of hundreds of mysterious markers in the sand. Suddenly a spark shoots through the sky. It speeds along the crest of the dunes. Out of the desert you emerge, as a crimson robed figure with a hidden face. And with that introduction you begin to freely roam the vast desert. Barely visible in the haze is two stone tags with dancing ribbons. When you stand upon the hill a ginormous mountain with a glowing valley at its peak beckons you. Your journey has begun.
The gameplay is seemingly open. You explore each area as you see fit. Hidden in various ruins are wall sculptures. There are also glowing symbols that extend your scarf. The scarf is never explained but becomes a clear visual representation of your abilities and life force. It seems to connect you with the world around you and the length of flight. Each area you explore is littered with floating scarfs or ribbons that appear creature like. Interact with these floating ribbons and you will move faster, open new paths, or fly along the wind.
The game is broken up into stages marked by a triangle and a ring of tag stones. When using your illuminated symbol these stones light up and a visual story is told through two dimensional carvings. Are these stories from the past, or future? Details are not explained. As the story develops, a white robbed character makes an appearance. Are they a parent? An elder? Or sage guide? An enemy? Your imagination is in charge as you decide what you want the story to mean.
The controls are eloquently and simple. You are able to jump/fly and you can also send out an aura or tone. This “move” is punctuated with an illuminated symbol above your character. Doing so activates story walls, ribbons, or can be used to communicate with other players.
As you progress you will eventually see another crimson character moving about. I watched them move and wondered, is this an AI? Another person online? Do I need to stay with them? I was perplexed. I followed and joined the other for a while. We danced with the ribbons, found secrets, and surfed the sands in unison. Then for time’s sake I had to leave that play session. I got on another time and they were gone. Several stages later I ran into another robbed person only to have them quickly run off. My hunches about it being an actual person were later confirmed in the closing credits when Journey informed me of the user id’s of the other two players. I enjoyed the connection with other players, but appreciated the freedom to come and go as I pleased.
No review of Journey would be complete with out mentioning the music. Each movement of the score matches the sense and feeling that the player experiences in that moment. Adding your tones is like blending your song to the music of those who have come before and those yet to make the trek to the mountain top. The music is never overpowering but blended gently into the fabric of the game. Thatgamecompany earned every award for the soundtrack.
I want to touch base on a few of the complaints for Journey. The primary complaint is the length of the game. I too originally lamented that the experience only lasted a few hours. Modern games often average gameplay of 7-10 hours. Extending gameplay, while seemingly ideal, would have caused two issues. The first is game play would have become repetitive or need to be expanded. Having control simple is a beautiful aspect of the game as the control scheme, and learning it, do not inhibit the actual experience. Ultimately, I have come to the conclusion that the short game play is idea so it can be completed in a single sitting. Breaking up the experience as I did looses the companionship and flow of the game. These are two keys to the game which are not worth sacrificing.
The other primary complaint noted was that of pace. As I noted in a previous article, pace is crucial. The key for Journey is that it keeps its pace steady. The only awkward moment for me as a player was when I came across the first and only enemy in the game. It felt abrupt and out of context. The purpose for the change was clear as it signaled the final act of the journey. The feeling of tension and fear replace the sense of wonder and exploration. Thankfully, the experience is brief and is simply helping set the stage for the climax. Overall the pace is spot on. Journey knows what it is and owns that to the fullest.
Returning to our original question, is the game spiritual? The game is designed to elicit emotions in the gamer. Connection is certainly part of that. What the connection is to is up to each gamer to interpret. This could be a connection to the universal through the mythical mysterious story told and experienced. Or it could be a connection to humanity through companionship and wordless bond with another person during the game. Or maybe the connection is to beauty through music and visuals. For many these experiences would in fact qualify as a spiritual experience, depending on your beliefs.
Journey is a beautiful experience, masterfully crafted to draw forth emotions and create connections. The astounding visuals coupled with the powerful symphony create the canvas for gamers to play upon. This game needs to be played by all, preferably in one sitting. If you have not had a chance to do so, grab the collection of Thatgamecompany games for PS3. Journey has reached classic status for me, and shows that video games can truly be an art form.