Game review 🎮: Journey

I played Jenova Chen’s Flash games (primarily flOw) when they were hosted on his uni’s server in the early 2000s, so I’ve been interested in his studio, thatgamecompany, ever since. I’d wanted to play Journey since its PlayStation release, but never thought it’d happen since I don’t and won’t own a console. So I was overjoyed when it finally made it to Steam.

I don’t know how else to describe Journey save that it’s a myth or allegorical story in video game form. You play a pilgrim on a quest to a distant mountain, and you encounter joys and suffering along the way as you climb toward the mountain’s summit. The game is pretty short, at most 2 hours if you’re wandering around enjoying the sights.

That’s all there is to it — but what an experience that is! While the game is delightful, the greater meaning comes from whatever you experience and remember while you’re playing. At the risk of sounding esoteric, the game is a kind of gateway to self-reflection. Indeed, it’s more about your personal thought/emotional “journey” as you play, than the surface goals of gaining achievements or completing the game (although the ending is thoroughly satisfying).

Gameplay-wise – the more I play video games in general, the more I discover: the simpler the game on the surface, the more dense and meaningful every gameplay action is. Journey is this kind of simple game. There are no voiceovers or text: the story is told in images, music, and gameplay, all of which are elegantly done and allow for lots of symbolism and layers of meaning. Graphical and auditory cues are subtle but meaningful once you recognize them. The controls are accessible in their simplicity. The game levels are integrated into the story, the few collectables (for achievements) are fun to find and have in-game benefits. The soundtrack in particular is atmospheric and evocative — it won multiple awards, even got nominated for a Grammy. Everything you do in this game is purposeful.

Half of the gameplay experience is the companion you encounter partway through. It’s probably not a spoiler, but I started the game with zero prior knowledge, so discovering what/who that companion really is was a wonderful surprise. This alone makes the story so much more compelling and gives it big replay value.

I think Journey is less of a “game to be played” than a story or myth to be savoured with a controller in hand. It moved me in ways that reading good literature or fiction does. (I got the same feeling from another game, Kentucky Route Zero, even though it tells its story quite differently.) This is a game I know I’ll revisit periodically, to savour and mull over.

Cross-posted at We The Players.

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