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Released: March 13, 2012
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Back in 2006, thatgamecompany entered into a three-game contract with Sony. The fruits of that contract have already been great – Flow and Flower are both must-plays for PSN users – but Journey, the completion of that trinity, is easily the most beautiful game I’ve played.
Where most “beautiful” games would simply be content in looking pretty, similar to some beautiful girls you may have met in school, Journey provokes a range of passionate responses from absolute terror to unbridled joy. It’s wonderful.
You begin your quest as the camera pans across the glistening sands. Dunes rise and fall, seemingly forever, in all directions. Getting up from a seated position, your character – we’ll call them the Pilgrim – makes their way towards the only discernible landmark, a cloth streamer waving in the distance.
This landmark leads to another, and another; structures dotting the horizon that serve as your only indicator of progress. From the very beginning it instills feelings of loneliness. You begin alone and, for all you know, you’ll end alone; slogging up and sliding down each sand dune. This loneliness plays into Journey’s beauty perfectly.
On occasion, however, you’ll be joined by a stranger. You don’t know who they are, only that they’ve embarked on the same lonesome adventure as you. That’s all you need to know. A bond is formed between players as they silently make their way across the sands.
The loneliness intermingles with moments of pure joy as you race down sandy slopes, or leap from a precipice into the blinding sun. It’s exhilarating. There are moments that were obviously constructed to inspire awe. They’re incredibly successful in that endeavor.
These moments of elation are contrasted with scenes that fill you with a wholly crippling fear. Malignant entities will force you into the shadows. I caught myself holding my breath for fear of being heard. This feeling is amplified when playing alongside someone else. Countless times, I’ve watched as my companion failed to make it to safety and was demolished. He just wasn’t fast enough…
Maybe that’s a touch melodramatic.
But this emotion, injected into a mere two hours, is paced flawlessly. The flow from area to area makes it nearly impossible to get up mid-session, and the way you’re immediately ushered back to the start once you finish definitely makes it way too easy to stay lost.
All of that passion would be lost on a broken game and, thankfully, Journey’s technical bits (you know, the GAME part) play their role perfectly. In typical thatgamecompany fashion, there’s a choice between analog and sixaxis controls. In Flower, I loved the feeling of freedom provided by the tilt controls. Soaring through open fields and twisting the controller was a crucial part of my experience with the title. In Journey though, it doesn’t feel quite as good.
After your pilgrim has left terra firma, tilt control is a wonderful thing. Fluttering through the sky, your cloak billowing in the wind, is a joy. However, that feeling is lost when you’re rooted to the ground. If we’re being honest, twisting a controller in that fashion is far from comfortable. When you couple it with flight and free exploration though, it takes on a different form. I found it to be fairly unwieldy.
It’s a good thing that has absolute no bearing on how jaw-droppingly wonderful Journey is.
There’s very little about this that’s explicitly ‘gamey’. There are things to collect and hidden locations that will count towards a trophy, but that’s largely secondary. I hesitate to refer to any game as an “experience,” but Journey is so much more than a simple game.
I always avoided the Games as Art debate simply because, while I do believe games are art, there’s very little in the way of empirical evidence supporting that claim. We, the gamers, may view certain games as artistic achievements, but, it’s rare that a game is universally acknowledged as ‘art.’ Journey is that game.