If you haven't played through Journey
yet, stop reading this now. Just stop. Go away, play it, and come back to this blog when you can. This game is too beautiful and well crafted for me to spoil even the smallest aspect of it, and I don't want that blood on my hands.
I picked it up on launch day and played it the next evening. It blew me away like I never imagined it would. I'd skimmed the Destructoid review
, and I remembered only two things from it: there is sand, and you meet another traveler. While both of those things are true, I was totally unprepared for the range of emotions I felt as I played through.
Within my first 5 minutes, I was hooked. I walked through the sand and stared, hypnotized, by the way the grains shuffled around and away from my spindly legs. Climbing to the top of a dune, I stood there for a while, watching that obdurate wind pushing me back. As I stepped back onto this side of the dune, my person slid gracefully down: my first glimpse of exhiliration abundant in the rest of the game.
Stepping outside the game for just a second, I noticed how well it drew my attention to the next thing to go do: a lone feature on the top of a nearby dune. Subtle, not breaking immersion (except for overthinkers like me).
The whole game changes, of course, when you meet your companion. As I said, I'd heard this from the review, but I wondered how they would achieve it. Clearly, this game wouldn't have a matchmaking lobby or anything like that. It would be disguised, I knew.
I entered the area where you build several of those carpet bridges. It was basically at this time that I discovered I could tap the circle button to chirp quickly (as opposed to holding it down for that "shout"). I was merrily jamming on this button as I drifted down to the ground. Something caught the corner of my eye. Is that... is that another person
? They were just milling around, now chirping back since they heard me.
Of course I ran right over and we started bonding. We walked around, visiting the various features in the area. Thinking about it, the design of this matchmaking is utterly brilliant. They give you a large area with several similar tasks, which necessarily take you many minutes to complete, due to travel time if nothing else. At any point in here, a second person can join and chip in to finish the tasks. I'm not sure I've ever seen such a complicated game implementation detail disguised so elegantly.
My companion and I, we stuck together the whole while, flitting to each carpet thing to activate it. At times, one of us would break away with a series of chirps and lead the other to one of those glowing scarf powerup things. With nearly no communication whatsoever, we just naturally fell into exactly what the game wanted us to do. In the absence of a pathological troll, I imagine this simple, team-building interaction to be the natural progression at this point. The way they steer you towards it is, once again, very smart.
For quite a long time, neither my companion nor I would jump or float, because the game had made us to understand that the limited scarf power is something of a precious commodity, to be hoarded in the way that gamers do. Eventually I experimented and found that being in close proximity to my companion mutually recharged both of us. I tried to convey this discovery to my partner by heedlessly jumping and recharging by him, but I don't think he got it until much later.
That's okay, though; interpersonal skills kick in, and I adjust my playing to account for his lack of understanding. How many games implicitly influence you think about these kinds of things? How many do it without having a button that makes your character holler, "MEDIC! HEAL ME!" This is probably a contentious point. In a game like Halo
, I might understand a teammate's weakness and try to make up for it with my playing. I wish I could articulate why it just doesn't feel the same.
One of the reasons I think this game is so great is that it evoked so many different emotions that I didn't expect, let alone in a 2 hour game. I felt exhilirated every time the game took me through one of the "luge" sections. I felt trepidation in the caves, especially in that brief period when the eye of the dragon turns red, and you're not sure what will become of your partner. I felt awe at some of the landscapes and spectacles they put before you, like the illuminated lantern of a tower. And finally, I felt a pang of grief, at the loss of my companion.
No, I don't mean at the end of the game. Premature.
We were close to the end, in the snowy heights, and had just battled our way up the slope, slowly, huddled together, darting from scrawny rock to rock to escape the wind. Finally, we came to the bridge across the top--crumbling, in disarray. We started to make our way across. Halfway there, my companion slipped
. As he dropped over the edge, I must have--in real life--exclaimed something, possibly profane. I gave it no thought, and jumped after him. In my mind, there was no other choice: how else would he climb back up without my warmth? He would be doomed. He needs
As we both alighted on the ground, I imagined him straining to see far up to the bridge above. He tried to fly straight up, a note of desperation in his efforts, since he had lost part of his scarf earlier in the caverns. I tried to help him fly. I chirped "3, 2, 1, go!" and we both took off in perfect unison, but it seems you can't recharge each other in mid-air. We would have to take the long way back.
His character waited for what seemed like forever, just standing. I could practically see him exhale a sigh into that frigid air. Finally, he settled on the ground, resting, and I knew what was coming next. With the bite of cold, his body frosted over and disappeared. Only a sense of resignation lingered.
Later I thought back to this moment and realized, wryly, that he had rage quit
When you think about it critically, the game gives you very little to do
. You walk around and explore. You progress through the areas. The levels are all totally linear and barely disguised as such. Some are even mostly on-rails. About the only independent things the game gives you to do are finding those scarf upgrades and shrines.
But even as little as there is to do, I feel the game would have benefited from streamlining the scarf collecting. Usually the scarves are off in the distance, and you'll catch sight of them glowing brightly. What I hated
is that every time I saw one, no matter where I was, I fixated on it. The immersed, experiential part of my brain got rudely shoved aside by my finely-tuned gamer brain, which understands what has to be done. It's an upgrade
. I have to get
it. Why? Because collecting
... why else?
Worse still, I feel like it broke the fiction a little. From the beginning of the game, you see your ultimate destination: the glowing light-volcano in the distance. Your character seems single-minded in his drive to reach there, braving all odds. Why would I detour? People don't take a detour from a pilgrimage
. That's how I ended up viewing Journey
by its conclusion.
I loved Journey
. It's probably the first thing I've ever played that made me just sink in and almost
forget that I was even playing a game.