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Journey (PlayStation 3) artwork

Journey (PlayStation 3) review

"The aim of Journey is an attempt at engendering empathy without overtly inserting it. Rather than rely on story to build empathy with a virtual character, Journey offers us the opportunity to empathize with the general human condition."

In Phillip K. Dick's famous novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, there is a religion called Mercerism. By gripping the handles of an “empathy box,” a person would be transported to a virtual world in which they struggled endlessly up a mountain, their only guides being the silent personas of other people holding their own empathy boxes and taking the same journey.

I wonder if Jenova Chen, creative director of Journey, ever read that book, because Mercerism defines the game. Journey is about climbing a mountain and the symbolic struggle represented by that. If you've played Flower you will be well prepared for the formula. There is a powerful opening, a dark climax with a washed-out color scheme, and then an explosive orgy of hues and expression at the end. Music, like it was in Flower, is a tremendous part of the game, serving perfectly to set the mood in each scene and to lend voice to the emotions that the game engenders. I cannot fault Journey for its formula just as I cannot fault the obvious metaphor of the mountain, for these are formulas and metaphors that we understand on an instinctual level to represent the journey of our lives. When it is treated with such grace, as it is here, the formula can be forgotten and replaced with appreciation. If the end of my life is half as beautiful as the end of Journey then I shall walk towards it with my head held high.

As soon as I finished the game, I realized that it would generate a lot of acclaim but that individual reactions would be polarized. There isn't much room for middle ground on Journey. The best way to describe it, I think, would be as interactive art. Journey is heavy on the symbolism and light on the gameplay. This will either impress you or annoy you and the game is short enough that it leaves little room to maneuver between the two feelings. For instance, those who are impressed will instantly find their attention held by the enticing depiction of an ancient desert full of sifting sands and endless horizons. Those who are annoyed will ask why there are invisible walls blocking off any exploration of those horizons.

I believe that anyone can appreciate the effort that has gone into crafting the aesthetic. It is a calming aesthetic. So calming, in fact, that I fell asleep the first time I played it. The game didn't mind. It simply sat my character down in the sand and played soothing music until I woke up. Waking up to its desert landscape felt no more unfamiliar than falling into my dream. The distinctions were blurred. The visual direction captures the kind of deliberate imprecision that fills a dreamworld. The screen is constantly filled with little activities in the corners that you seem to catch with a subconscious awareness rather than your watchful eye.

Despite this beauty, I was ready to be annoyed. I was not particularly enamored with the linearity and the emptiness. It felt a little bit like playing Shadow of Colossus without the colossus. Everything about Journey goes against what I would logically call successful game design. It follows an incredibly slow pace for only being a couple of hours long, it is focused on seeing instead of doing, and the accomplishments feel staged rather than earned. Aside from demonstrating keen aesthetic, I simply wasn't sure what the point of the game was. It was beautiful, but it wasn't moving.

Then something interesting happened. My journey began to have a story. I had a couple of encounters with other players that were the most memorable co-operative experiences I've ever had, and they didn't involve shooting zombies. I met someone in the ruins underneath the desert and ended up journeying the rest of the way to the mountain with him. When I first met him, I was the more powerful of the two. I could fly further and faster and would often lead us towards the next area, chirping at him in an oxymoronic attempt to encourage his progress. I also sacrificed for him, using my character as bait to lure off the flying sentinels that guard the mountain. By the time we reached the base of the mountain, their attacks had left me the weaker one, barely able to stand, and being led on through the blizzard by his chirps. The only way I was able to make it was because he stayed next to me the entire time, quite literally warming my character and giving me the strength to go on.

I saw my friend die on that mountain. This was not a scripted death. One second he was leading the way ahead of me up a wide snowfield. Then suddenly one of the sentinels swooped down from the sky and crashed into him with a scream. The impact tossed me into the air as if I were light as the snowflakes drifting around me. When I tumbled back to the earth, my friend was gone. I searched the area for 10 minutes, chirping for him frantically like a parent who has lost a child. You can't really get a game over in Journey, so to this day I don't know if he disconnected from the game or if we just lost each other in the storm. It doesn't matter. Either way, I had still lost a friend.

I met eight people in my journey and never more than one at a time. I don't know if that was by design or if I just happened to play at times when others weren't logged on. If it was by design, I cannot help but wonder if it was a limiting mistake. It would have been incredible to see thirty or forty people making their way up that last part of the mountain, all struggling towards that final goal. It certainly feels like Journey's vast emptiness was meant to be filled with those kind of numbers. Empathy only takes two, though. I'll never know the name of the first person I met but I'll never forget getting caught in an updraft with him at the edge of the desert. Without communicating that we were going to do it, we both started twirling around each other in concentric circles, drifting and weaving with the sort of coordination we associate more often with birds than with humans. We danced together in the wind. I've never done that with someone in a game before and it was beautiful.

The aim of Journey is an attempt at engendering empathy without overtly inserting it. Rather than rely on story to build empathy with a virtual character, Journey offers us the opportunity to empathize with the general human condition. In my mind, the experiment was a success. To those who are inspired by the game's delivery of this message, Journey will demand repeat playthroughs. Not because there are multiple paths up the mountain. Rather, it is because there is one path up the mountain and it is one that you know is shared by all who are journeying.

Not all art makes sense, but struggle does make sense. There is something innately human about struggle and that is what Journey taps into. In Mercerism, the journey goes on forever. At the top of the mountain, the traveler is cast down to the underworld and from there has to repeat his journey. To rise triumphant is to fall disgraced. That was the revelation of Mercerism. My revelation in Journey was this: that the journey of my life is as similar and unique as everyone else's.


zippdementia's avatar
Featured community review by zippdementia (March 30, 2012)

Zipp has spent most of his life standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox there. Sometimes he writes reviews and puts them in the mailbox.

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If you enjoyed this Journey review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!

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Suskie posted March 30, 2012:

This is a pretty fantastic review. Made a vivid and extremely convincing argument for your side while leaving little doubt in my mind that I would not personally enjoy the game. Thanks for writing it!
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zippdementia posted March 30, 2012:

Thank you, Suskie, and thank you for reading the review. I am really pleased that you came away feeling the way you did, because I very much wanted to highlight both sides of the argument here.

I originally wasn't planning to write a review for Journey. I didn't want to play it with reviewing in mind. Then I read this site's "Have you played Journey?" thread and saw the discussion between True and Roto. That they held two such opposite opinions on the game stuck with me when I sat down to play it. Each scene I was thinking of how each different party would be taking the game.

Until the last scene on the mountain, anyway. I couldn't think about anything else other than my unnamed partner in that scene. That's how I knew it had finally affected me, without a doubt.

Despite having been so moved, I am left with the very clear idea that, despite its acclaim, Journey isn't for everyone. I don't think it can be fairly criticized for being what it is and not something else, yet the fact remains that it is not "something else." I mean, a thousand people can tell you how great the Mona Lisa is, but if your soul is not moved when you see the piece, then it doesn't mean anything. Acclaim lends no value to something. It is all about how we feel and what we are looking for.
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Linkamoto posted April 02, 2012:

I really enjoyed this review. I loved the way it flowed, almost in the same fashion as you describe the game. Thanks for the read, very well done. I really wish I could hear the music. You make it sound so wonderous.
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zippdementia posted April 02, 2012:

I almost posted this in the review itself, but it broke flow. Check it out, though:
Journey by Austin Wintory
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zippdementia posted April 02, 2012:

Also, if anyone really likes the music I know where you can get a download link. You can PM me.
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JonDavila posted April 02, 2012:

Nice review. Almost exactly my thoughts on the title aside from the Dick novel stuff (never read it).
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Linkamoto posted April 03, 2012:

Absolutely gorgeous music, thanks for embed.
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zippdementia posted April 03, 2012:

Sure thing, Miyamoto-san. I originally was going to base my review entirely around the music, but when I recorded the first paragraph (I've been using my iphone to voice my reviews before writing them), it came off sounding like a mixture between a snob and a stoner. So I abandoned that angle. In the end I didn't get to say nearly as much about the music as I wanted to.

I actually think music doesn't get enough of a feature in most reviews. I understand why. After tackling gameplay and characters, it's often time to move right on to some kind of finale. Graphics may get a paragraph but sound is often given only a brief mention or (more commonly) none at all. And it is admittedly difficult to fit sound and music into a review without jarring the reader (or boring them). After all, music is something that has to be experienced. It's very hard to recreate its effects in words.

Yet music is undeniably important. Often when I come back to a game years months or years later it's because I remember the music. Chrono Trigger's soundtrack has been responsible for more playthroughs of that game than anything else. Hell, all week I've had Secret of Evermore digging at my mind for a playthrough and all because of Jeremy Soule. If only Penguin had reviewed that game instead of Golden Sun.
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goatx3 posted April 20, 2012:

i'm not a master review critic, so i'm just gonna say spot on review for a truly landmark game. so glad i fall into the camp of people that appreciate it. i think i'll go play it again now, thanks.

ps. i'd love to download the soundtrack.
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zippdementia posted April 20, 2012:

Glad you enjoyed the review, GX! I played the game five times in fairly quick succession and have finally put it down for a spell. Sometimes, writing a review feels like the perfect ending to a gaming experience for me and sates my thirst for the game for a long time. That it is making others "thirsty" in my stead is great!

I've sent the link.
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WilltheGreat posted May 01, 2012:

I hadn't even heard of this game. Now I have to check it out.
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zippdementia posted May 01, 2012:

Hey, Will! Miss you around here. Glad the review convinced you.
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WilltheGreat posted May 04, 2012:

Okay, wow. Just finished first play-through of Journey.

That was something else. I got all teary near the end there, wondering if I'd lost my friend. But I found him again in the end, and we chirped a song of victory. :)

That was incredible. Zipp, thank you for introducing me to this game.
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zippdementia posted May 04, 2012:

Hey, Will, it was my pleasure. Thanks for reading and taking my suggestion and, even more, for letting me know! There's nothing like knowing you led a friend to a good game.
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WilltheGreat posted May 04, 2012:

One other thing:

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zippdementia posted May 06, 2012:

YES. I feel bad that I didn't even mention the incredible cloth whales, but I also think it's something that's more awesome when you discover it on your own. The whole water theme was entirely unepxected in a game that takes place in, well a desert.

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