I’ve played Flow and Flower before – two of Thatgamecompany’s earlier games, both imbued with an ethereal feel and gameplay unlike anything I’d seen. More a meditative experience than traditional titles, they teeter on the fine line between art project and bona fide video game. Both were compelling in their own ways, but I didn’t feel the need to revisit them.
Journey, on the other hand, feels more like a regular video game, collectibles and all. Yet it still has an ethereal quality that marks it out as other – and stirs more emotions in its short timespan than most other games manage in tens of hours. Upon finishing, my first motivation was to start it all over again.
The simple gameplay is beautifully explained without the need for words of any kind (indeed, I was irritated by the regular appearance of ‘Saving’ in the top corner, a needless use of a word when the game otherwise does so elegantly without them). A mysterious mountain looms in the distance, and your simple task is to guide your berobed avatar towards it. That’s it. Holding down the X button will launch your avatar into the air, and you can fly for as long as the patterned symbols on your scarf remain lit. Certain collectibles make your scarf longer, and allow you to fly for longer. Holding down the O button elicits a sort of chant that can activate objects.
The game mostly sees you hunting for objects to activate in order to unlock the path forward, and really there’s very little more to it. But it does an astounding job of creating a strong worldfeel, and of drawing out intense highs and lows of emotion. At one point you find yourself surfing down an enormous sand dune in the company of some playful fabric eel things, skimming through archways and leaping off rocks for the sheer fun of it, and it’s simply joyous. Later, you find yourself trapped in a scary underworld being hunted by monsters, and the feeling of menace and fear is palpable.
One of the chief ways in which the game draws out these emotions is through the sumptuous orchestral music – the original soundtrack is phenomenal, and was rightfully nominated for a Grammy award. The graphics are similarly stunning, and the sweeping use of colour – from the descent down the dunes in the golden sunset to the creepy blue caves of the underworld – really affects how you feel about the game.
I love the way it never explains itself, too. You’re left to make up your own mind about what the journey represents, and what the various things you encounter actually mean. It’s a refreshing change from tiresome cut-scene exposition, and all the better for it. I’m a big fan of leaving things unexplained – the world would be better off without midichlorians and better with far more films like David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.
I was worried that because the game came out four years ago, I wouldn’t be able to experience one of its signature features – meeting other people who are playing at the same time, and wordlessly teaming up with them on your shared journey. However, I did manage to bump into a handful of other players, and it was fascinating to wonder what they were thinking. Was this their hundredth playthrough, or their first? Where were they in the real world? All I had to go on were their movements – was that straight line sprint for a collectible an indication that they were an old hand at this game? Did they play it every night, perhaps as some part of their daily routine?
Like reasoning through the mystery of the game itself, I loved the way I had to impose my own meaning on the actions of others. And although I perhaps wouldn’t go so far as to pronounce Journey as profound, it’s certainly unlike anything I’ve ever played before.
Better Late Than Never is a regular series in which we play through landmark games many years after their debut, after missing them the first time around. Does the praise heaped on these famous games hold up in hindsight?