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Journey (PlayStation 3) artwork

Journey (PlayStation 3) review

"ThatGameCompany have proved that it is possible to create a gorgeous and exhilarating game that does not rely on competition but celebrates the joys of online collaboration. "

The internet is a place of anonymity, and many online gaming interactions are characterised by fierce rivalries, factions, and underhand dealings where the worst of human frailties seem to reign free, shielded by that lack of personal identification. Yet Journey takes this apparent ability to abscond from personal responsibility to a new and unusual level by removing ALL identification from those met playing this game. It's an incredible leap of faith taken by the creator, Jenova Chen, and one that works with astounding results.

The aim of the game is to complete your "Journey", which is achieved by moving forwards a distant mountain. You begin the game in a desert, dressed in hooded red robes of some kind of monkish middle eastern acolyte, with no facial features, and yet this fragile figure is instantly familiar and reassuring. The desert stretches out in all directions, so it seems, but as you climb the first sand dune you see a distant mound, beckoning you with a cloth waving in the breeze. This is how the game works, each location shows you the way to go, with broken bits of walls, half ruined and empty buildings and towers, or just from a light shining, indicating the way forwards. And of course, there's always that mountain, beckoning you.

Help in reaching the goal is found from your scarf, that lengthens as you pick up what are called "glowing symbols" along the way, allowing you to jump and fly rather than walk. You may also find support from "companions" who will appear in your game if you play online.

As you traverse the desert, watery underground passages, or snow filled ravines, you're sometimes joined by another figure, in the same red robes: a cipher of a human being in the expansive landscapes through which you glide and slide. You don't know their name, you cannot talk to them over a microphone and you cannot communicate with them at all, except through a musical note that chimes when you press the circle button.

This has become known as chirping, and its bird-like quality is very apt for a game in which you flit around, half jumping, half flying, with your scarf trailing behind you. What happens, with no guidance from the game at all, is that you find yourself on this journey with a nameless companion. I had no idea who these figures were at first. They suddenly appeared and then disappeared as I wandered around, not knowing what I was doing, beyond that insistent urge to travel on, ever upward, towards the mountain.

Then I found myself at a new location where someone was sitting on the ground. I knew one of the trophies was to meditate with another for 20 seconds, so I sat down besides them, hoping they would stay still and understand. They did. I didn't even chirp and neither did they. We waited and then moved off into a snowy landscape. And somehow, we continued to travel together, occasionally losing sight of each other through the winds that blew snow at us, and sent off course by huge serpentine beasts that roared above us and would crash into us if we didn't hide away. Eventually we reached a long climb along the edge of a towering castle like structure. The wind was fierce, blowing us back again and again, but I found myself waiting for my companion if they were blown back further than me.

In a sudden powerful gust they were swept off the path, falling down a cliff wall, and I soon followed them. We somehow struggled back on course and ended up in a snowfield with lightning crashing, hardly able to see anything for the snow and wind, our scarves torn to shreds, covered in snow, our slow progress reflecting our ice-covered robes, the red turned white. I had no idea what was going to happen next, but we were together...

This might sound overly dramatic, but this kind of experience is common amongst players of Journey. We form bonds with our nameless companions, and share something meaningful. The game can be played solo, although some of the trophies require online connection, but it's this contact that makes it so unique. At the end you're shown a list of all those who have joined in your journey, and it's possible to contact these people then, if you wish. Or not. Trophies are awarded for companion online play so staying with a companion has a degree of self-serving about it, and it's not purely altruistic, but even so, the experience of battling against the forces of nature with a nameless other at your side, is something very special.

Journey is a linear game, and you soon discover that the apparent vast landscapes of desert or snow are in fact strictly hemmed in with invisible or visible walls. Winds blow you back if you attempt to venture out of the playing area, as was the case in Flower. However, the feeling of space is well conveyed, and it's fun to test the boundaries to see just how far you can go. Some areas are much more tightly constricted, as when wandering through an underground passage, hemmed in by walls with huge fierce stone statues impassively gazing down on you, or swimming up through a misty sandy sea that surrounds a temple tower. The space feels open, but there are encircling walls that you cannot pass.

Although the environments appear to be huge, you can pass through them all very quickly since you gain additional flying power as your progress, in the form of an elongated scarf. Those glowing symbols act as extensions, and each one gives you more freedom of movement until you can fly around with a long scarf trailing behind you, which gives a lovely magical feeling of freedom. Collecting all symbols grants you the reward of "transcendence" and you can adopt a white robe and scarf that gives you an even cooler look with its shimmering patterns of gold, and enables you to generate even more flying power.

The game is designed to be played many times. Its short length (taking on average about 2 hours to complete) means that you can play it in one sitting, and then replay to find all the symbols, acquire all the trophies and just have fun, jumping and flying around with the sheer exuberance of it all.

Compared to Flower it lacks the glorious colour palette, but that makes you give even more attention to the artistic achievement. Watching the shimmering sand sparkle and flow around you, sand surfing down into the depths of an abandoned ochre city, leaping from a ledge into the setting sun, which lights your surroundings with a bronze and golden glow that makes everything feel very alive. It's like moving through a living painting, and indeed, you do bring paintings to life as, at the end of each chapter you're shown a kind of wall painting, resembling an Egyptian hieroglyphic mural, telling the story of your progress.

All this glory is amplified with the marvellous soundtrack. Sometimes it's just the throbbing notes of the chiming, and at other times, such as when surfing, the music soars with you. The track at the very end of the game features a woman's voice singing a kind of hymn of praise that is so lovely it nearly had me tears (not for the first time, either!). It's meant to be an emotional experience, and it is. It's different for everyone, of course, but it's surprising how moving sharing a journey with a complete stranger can be, especially when you can only chime at them.

I could make a comment about how this might be a good method for solving world problems: forget the divisions of language and culture, and just chime together, but that would be to take the lessons from this game too far. It is, after all, just a video game. But any game that creates the degree of harmony and fellow-feeling amongst jaded hard core gamers, and is just as accessible to casual players, thanks to the simple and intuitive controls, must be doing something right. ThatGameCompany have proved that it is possible to create a gorgeous and exhilarating game that does not rely on competition but celebrates the joys of online collaboration.


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Community review by threetimes (March 19, 2012)

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zippdementia posted March 30, 2012:

Hey, Threetimes, I just wanted to say I've been reading your faq for Journey and I really like it. Especially that bit about the guy drawing the heart in the snow, that's both poignant and hilarious.
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threetimes posted April 02, 2012:

Thanks. I could have written a lot more about all the companion stuff, but I couldn't resist adding that bit.

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