The sound of stringed instruments from a wuxia film summons forth a close-up shot of sand granules so fine that they sparkle like diamonds under the sun’s beams. The camera zooms out and strafes parallel to a field of destabilized miniature obelisks before switching once again to an overhead shot of these pillars where a star interrupts the serenity by thrusting ahead. The camera shifts into the star’s POV, racing over the sand until the camera abruptly shifts a final time into the face of a genderless, anthropomorphic figure garbed in almost full burqa with only footless legs exposed. The camera does cut as it does during the introduction, but merely circles around the crouched figure and prompts me that the game is ready for me to take over when a silhouette of a PS3 controller appears in the top left corner of the screen. Having no clue where to go with no sense of direction, I subconsciously scale the sand dune immediately before me and in the direction that the camera had rotated, gracefully surfing down the other side of this dune to scale the next, where a few of those obelisks await at its crown. To my delight, Journey’s logo greets me there.
I cannot run. I cannot jump. There is no attack button. All I can do is emit various pitches of chirps similar to those of a woodwind instrument. Proceeding, I encounter an obelisk field. Is it the same as the one during the introduction? Perhaps. I press on, spotting the stone ruins of some previously regal structure in the distance. Half a minute of walking brings me there, and I climb to the top, arriving at a stone structure resembling a right triangle with a glowing glyph in front of it being encircled by several sheets of cloth whose embroidery favor my Avatar’s burqa. Further investigation results in my absorption of the sigil, apparently charging my small scarf as the illegible letters are illuminated. I still cannot jump, but I have been granted limited flight as I spirit my Avatar a short distance where more cloths await. I grow bold in my wonder, and charge up my “chirp” into a “chime,” bursting into a half-sphere around my Avatar and provoking the cloths into such a frenzy that they hoist me into the air without a further button press.
Slightly amused and still not quite understanding the objective of the game, I proceed to another dilapidated, but mostly intact structure where I accidentally reveal a hidden mural with this same chirp/chime charge that had aroused the cloths. Ok, so charging my chirp/chime is how I interact with the environment. Got it. The art on the mural is not of Egyptian hieroglyphics, but certainly influenced by them. I recognize the prone figures as similar to my very own Avatar, but little else clicks with me. When I tire of this display, I descend into a valley that resembles a sort of arena. More cloths await their awakening and I oblige, charging my scarf and launching myself into the center structure where another glyph awaits absorption. Again to my delight, I find that the four stiff flags at the top of this structure break down into dozens of cloths after their awakening, and enticing them launches my Avatar into the air like the vortex of a tornado. I am able to collect one more glyph before encountering a slanted stone in the form of a right triangle similar to that encountered at the first sigil. However, this place differs in that it is some sort of shrine, surrounded by miniature obelisks similar to those drowned in the sand, and the triangle is preceded by three illuminated stones representing the glyphs that I have collected. I once again chime in the center of this arrangement, and my Avatar sits in meditative fashion as the obelisks activate in a flurry of symbols and icons, sending it and me into a half scene, half flashback animated by the same kind of art aesthetic seen in the mural encountered earlier. It shows a glyph transforming into a sort of zig-zag. I wonder what this means.
The scene ends and I am placed into a massive arena. I walk and fly around, depending on how many more cloths I encounter and free/segment, until I arrive at a notably large flag. I activate it in the same way that I have done with the others, though instead of fragmenting for my personal use, the cloths formed fly over to the pillars in the center of the arena, forming bridges. Ah, so that is what I must do to cross this room and move on! I have to build bridges! I methodically make my way around the arena, making sure to free every cloth, to collect every sigil. I succeed, and I am rewarded with the experience of surfing across the bridges—I had forgotten that they were comprised of the same material that charges my scarf. Now I was experiencing some kind of “super mode” preview as the entire body of my Avatar emanates light as it crosses. I encounter another shrine, and witness another cutscene of the zig-zag representing a source of power for a nation of people. This cutscene concludes, and after crossing the threshold of the door, my Avatar exits into an open desert with the camera panning in such a way as to place a mountain split by the light in the center of the screen with my Avatar to its left. I feel elated in that I have identified what will be my final destination, and that was before I discovered over the next hill the flying carpet inspired by Disney’s Aladdin, also sporting colors and patterns reminiscent of my Avatar’s burqa. It escorts me to where its friends are both trapped or hidden, and I liberate them to create my own flock of carpets which coo among each other, some of which respond to my own chime by hoisting my Avatar up for a ride or nuzzling my digital self to charge my scarf so I can fly along.
This entourage leads me to a citadel where I encounter a person who looks just like I do. We chirp and chime at each other, unable to communicate any other way, running in circles around each other. I take note that contact charges my scarf the way that the cloths do, and try to lead us both through the menacingly dark and crude citadel up to the next right triangle stone. Another flashback cutscene welcomes me, followed by a gorgeous setpiece where I can speed surf across (or fly over) the sand to the tune of the cheerful string and woodwind instruments until I spill into an enclosed arena. As it turns out, my ally is leading me rather than the other way around, because s/he aids me in reaching a glyph that s/he apparently did not need. I’ll admit that I was suffering from some serious scarf envy and burqa envy, because theirs was excessively long while mine was only moderately so. Call me slow— I don’t care because I was distracted by all the other details of the game—but It was only after collecting this seemingly unreachable glyph that I finally noticed that they expand the length of my scarf, and thus, the length of time that I could fly. Once acquiring this, my “friend” did whatever was needed to liberate some more cloths so that we could resume our sand-surf across the desert glossed with deep tones of the sun’s dusk rays in by far the most sublime scene that I have seen in any HD game. I could go on to describe my trek, including the terror of the antagonist dragons aroused by my passing-by, the mystery of a setpiece that simulates an ocean as the player plays conduit to ancient machinery, or the desolation and despair of the final stretch through the tundra that is the mountain, but all of that must be experienced, not recounted.
Still, this would not be a true “Backloggery Beatdown” if I did not include some exposition of the ending! In the latter setpiece of the above paragraph, the Avatar (and its companion where applicable) is noticeably subdued by the cold. The splendor of the elongated scarf withers into a tattered fragment of what it once was as one scales higher and higher up the mountain toward the light only for the light to disappear, leaving the Avatar stranded far and away from is apparently natural environment that is the desert. There, the Avatar slows literally to a crawl before falling face-first into the snow, frozen. Dead. Journey pauses to let players absorb the gravity of the situation, that one has come all that way for nothing, and to ultimately fail. Okay, I’ll admit that that is a strawman. Video game convention demands that when playing a game, there must be some sort of objective(s) either generated by the game itself or by the players themselves, from The Sims to Minecraft to Command & Conquer. Journey defies all of that by following the traditional formulas of item collecting, puzzle-solving, and enemy fooling, but the primary objective is not to get to the top of the mountain as the third scene reveals makes obvious. The objective is the journey itself: the exploration, the wonder, the jarring of emotions through the various setpieces. The only way to fail at this game is to not feel. Whether gamers find themselves holding their breath in utter shock as I did in the presence of the fallen Avatar atop the mountain, or shed a tear, or even laughed at its pathetic fading, I believe that these are all appropriate responses as long as apathy is not one of them.
What happens next is even more debatable. Is the Avatar dead or alive? Are the large white-robed Avatars its ancestors? Guardians? Angels? Devils? I like to think of them as guides in a Carl Jungian-like “Collective Consciousness.” I do not play Assassins Creed (because Tenchu is the only “assassin” franchise for me), but my little exposure to the franchise has me suspecting that the player-character assassins function in similar ways by being able to access both the past and future familial and cultural experiences from a fixed dimension in time. Now before anyone goes cross-eyed (or recall a certain notorious franchise on the DS which explicitly pulls this off), that is as far as I am going with that idea. Alternatively but in a reasonably related way, Journey may very well be the most positive take on hell or purgatory that I have ever encountered since reading Milton’s Paradise Lost or further back with Dante’s Divine Comedy, especially when compared to other modern representations of purgatory or hell such as in FNAF. Our Avatar arises, its soul rejuvenated, the scarf of its lineage as the last of its kind restored (which would make any companions external manifestations of the guides), and violently launches upward where the dragons partially responsible for the extinction of its people cannot go, into the splendor that is what the Avatar’s civilization once was or at least aspired to be, perpetually powered by virtually everything, granting limitless flight in the most explicit spectacle of Asian inspiration in the game, just in case the invasion of reds and golds were insufficiently convincing. Here, it is important to note that even during the ending, That Game Company is consistent with its exploration narrative, allowing players to lose their way if they should so choose. Eventually, the Avatar finds the light that had been sought, and walks into it, converting itself into the energy necessary to complete the cycle once more.
The “silent queues” in Journey such as those that I have narrated in the opening paragraphs of this post are important components of the game which contribute to its magnificence Admittedly, Journey does cheat a few times with the PS3 controller silhouette, but the game never breaks its silence to tell me what I should be doing. It is a game that accomplishes what any aspiring artist should do: show, not tell. From the opening sequence, Journey shows players where to go with its camera queues. It shows players that it is beneficial to collect glyphs by hiding the first few in plain sight and outright giving the player the first one (though it is possible to skip; not one glyph is required to finish the game). It shows players that finding and freeing cloths is how one progresses in the game. And if these non-verbal queues should fail, seamless multiplayer element of the game—where players can drop in and out of the game at a moment’s notice—ensure that novices will not have to persevere the journey clueless and alone. One need not request an ally. It just happens. I thought my benevolent companion was the same person throughout my first experience with Journey—yes, the first time one plays, it is an experience, not just a “playthrough”—but by the end of the game, it turns out that my companion was actually several people. Not prompting when people have entered or exited the game contributes to its atmosphere. There are times in Journey when one forgets that they are not watching a 3DMark tech demonstration, but playing an actual game.
Journey is simply an amazing accomplishment in digital multimedia, let alone video games. There are only a handful of games in the past generation that showed me something different, and Journey is one of the few, the proud, that blew my mind. After completing it for the first time, I did not merely witness the credits sequence—I marinated in them, paralyzed in awe by the masterpiece that I had just endured. My trance breaks when the credits end, marked by the shooting star from the opening sequence gracefully descending over the horizon, quite possibly where the Avatar first emerges, beginning the game again if one should so choose.
Beautiful. Simply. Beautiful. Never have I experienced a more enthralling experience condensed into just over an hour in duration. Never have I been more embarrassed for waiting so long to play a game on my backlog. I wished I had played it sooner when the rest of the gaming world was still hyped about it, but I knew that it had borrowed some of its source material from Team Ico (Ico and Shadow of the Colossus Collection), and I wanted to finish those games first. After finishing Journey, I wanted to tell my friends though I knew they had already moved on. I wanted to tell my wife; I wanted her to watch me play or play herself. I want everyone who owns a PS3 (or PS4 on PSN) to play this game. I endorse it. I encourage it. I demand it!