I’ve set myself a personal challenge to complete one game a month in 2019, a mixture of larger studio published games and more independent titles to provide variety and avoid repetition. From one of the most well-known and praised titles to a more niche release, this year will provide me with the opportunity to enjoy a range of games within my collection and review them retrospectively. Enjoy the next 12 months.
Release Date: March 2012
Finished: June 2019
Released in March 2012 on the Playstation 3, from thatgamecompany studio as part of the three game contract between the company and Sony Computer Entertainment, this seminal and award winning title saw acclaim from both fan and critic alike, cited often as one of the greatest games released for its direction, audio, innovation and artistic approach. With the release of the eight generation of consoles, this ground changing title found a new audience transitioning over from its principle competition, and as a welcome move allowing users upgrading from its previous console to experience Journey once more for free. I was always aware of this title as one of the seminal titles of the Playstation console, wondering, enviously with my xbox 360, could it live up to the acclaim and prestige it had generated on its release. I’ve always held a certain self restraint concerning these exclusive titles, adopting the mentality that should I have the means to experience them I would as a matter of course so avoiding any reviews or media on the game. Journey was one such title I opted to avoid spoiling for myself, the others being the Uncharted series, The Last of Us and the various titles from Team Ico despite their positive acclaim. To an extent, with the exception of the opening screen I had experienced very little of the game since its release in 2012, and having transition from Microsoft to Sony on this current generation of consoles, to date this was one of the titles I wanted to experience in its purest form with no expectations or spoilers clouding my judgement. To use a slight, adage, I wanted to experience this Journey how others viewed this game on its release, no strategy or input to direct my actions or shape my experience.
Last year, as part of the Video Game exhibit at the Victoria and Albert museum in London, the first part of the exhibition was in relation to the design aspect of the game, specifically focusing on a number of Sony exclusives and how and why certain design choices were made and utilised. Despite my best endeavours, the first portion of this was devoted to Journey, the optic shifting away from the gameplay and focusing principally on the design choice and criteria behind it. I was intrigued, frustrated slightly with myself for indulging in the creative aspect and breaking a fairly strict policy I had embraced however, it did shed some light on this game and I wanted to explore. Of the main elements of the exhibit that I would come to discover held a significant importance was the studio developers insistence on creating accurate and believable sand physics and presentation in the game. You were afforded the opportunity to peak behind the curtain to use an old analogy, and view the games creators visiting and exploring various desert locations and sand banks to study and view how sand particles reacted to movement and footsteps, having now experienced this game in its entirety, though I will come back to the point later you can certainly see the end result of this dedication into the research phase of the game, and can understand to a degree why it ran past its initial release window. Other items available at the exhibition included creative notebooks used during the design process as to the direction the game would take, a fascinating insight into the minds of the individuals who produced this game. One of the simple joys of experiencing Journey from the beginning is the entire lack of direction or guidance as to what is going on and what, ultimately your focus and drive to persevere through the experience. Despite a brief run time, I finished it easily within three hours, it leaves a lasting impression on the user. The impact on the player was clearly chartered and factored into the design process. Having reviewed a number of gaming Art Books over the past twelve months spanning a number of game series and genres, consistently one of the sheer delights has been to view the creative process and work that goes into bringing the title to our screens. However, largely they are a very sanitised and selected release, the perfect design images and evolution, leading down a creative path but never letting you peer to far into the process so to speak. Why it was interesting to attend this exhibit as I described at the time was just the availability to see the raw material and notes of titles such as Journey, Bloodborne and The Last of Us, the imperfections and directional choices you didn’t get to see or find out about reading an art book or watching a brief documentary. I’ll openly admit, I couldn’t understand a great deal of what was scribbled down but as with any creative process or endeavour, you can appreciate it on a different level when you witness the impetus in bringing it to fruition, it’s no longer another game from a faceless studio, its a team of dedicated and focused staff exploring the various elements to shape the product they want to release. It personifies it I suppose and that makes it a very intriguing game to experience.
Without any guidance or fanfare you begin your personal Journey standing in the heat of the desert, a nameless, voiceless figure without any direction or indication as to your destination. I wasn’t sure what to expect or indeed what to do, I know I had some control on this individual so instinctively, studying my environment located a visible point in the foreground and began moving towards it. There doesn’t appear to be a clear or implied visible wall or barrier to course correct you, it was just an intuitive move. The game presents you with a series of basic challenges to overcome with a few clues hinting to the events that have transpired around you. I would presume, an apocalyptic event that has reduced the world to ruins with crumbled and broken structures littering the desert environment. There is a great sense of loneliness around you, visually I was grateful for the tone and colours used, in a world devoid of life there is a certain tranquility about the desert that is inviting to a degree. One of the games hidden advantages you come to discover having completed the title is the presence of other players who share the same world fleetingly and appear at random in your title. It’s never explained who these individuals are, seemingly acting on their own accord, at first I presumed a shadow or reflection of myself, only having completed the title did I realise they were other visitors with their PS Network names revealed in the end credit. That someone witnessed my first Journey was a little intrusive but also, with the removal of voice chat and the only means of communication a base sound and iconography also a welcoming gesture in its own right. As you overcome the opening challenges, the game gradually introduces more complex elements including guardians, the games one main threat that have no other purpose seemingly than to destroy any moving or living thing. They have an occasional appearance and never represent to much of a hindrance, whether its possible to die or not I couldn’t comment, all I do know I found my scarf reduced to cinders when they caught me on one occasion. With the exception of a brief map based light puzzle that reveals your progress and direction of travel, there is never any clear direction what is transpiring, I guess that is part of the beauty of the game. You are on a Journey, as the name implies, whatever awaits you or why you set out on that path is never really explained, the one factor you are drawn to is a mountain in the background. As a motivational factor it is your principle draw. Having survived the desert and a brief interlude gliding gracefully down the sand dunes you find yourself beneath the surface and the optics changed once more, alluding perhaps to a water based environment or area, I was never entirely sure how to best describe it. The pillars of carpet you unlock through your harmonics seem to shift and move like seaweed beneath the water surface, it certainly had the feel of swimming but I genuinely couldn’t tell at times. It was a different focus from the warm sand dunes and as you pushed forward through here you emerged on your final ascent towards the mountain top. Beyond the obvious tactile difference you cannot experience in real life I imagine the dedication to detail on the sand particle physics evidently assisted in the snowy terrain. It generated a certain recollection to the mountain level in Twilight Princess for me, as with that title you push forward against the dangers of both the environmental conditions in the form of strong winds and gales that can easily push you backwards and the presence of the ancient guardians seemingly intent on ensuring you don’t reach the mountain summit. With my best efforts I continued forward, and then subverting expectations somewhat you are overcome with fatigue and the cold as you reach the top collapsing into the snow dunes. It is only the intervention of ancient beings that restore your energies and allow you to press forward eventually reaching the light at the top of the mountain. From there you are transported back across the various areas as the end credits pass, revealing the various users and players who shared your journey before being given the opportunity to start a new journey. I wish I could share some, revelatory illumination as to the purpose and consequence of your travels, perhaps to use a very old metaphor, the destination wasn’t important, it was the Journey.
On review, I was reminded of my experience at the design exhibit and the focus on the sand particles, quite simply the design aesthetic and appearance at times is astonishing, a mixture of quasi religious iconography and text permeates the ruins and structures within the world alluding to a strong spiritual influence on the environment around you. The colours chosen as described during an interview with the game’s designer Jenova Chen, were specifically structured around the classic three act narrative methodology, the bright warm hues in the opening chapters signifying optimism and growth. Your descent into the lower structures seeing a change to darker tones and colouring before finally shifting as you begin your ascent towards the mountains summit. There is a plethora of tones and shades throughout the game reflecting the various arcs, a very deliberate choice by the designers that opted for certain religious and cultural connotations from the middle east, the warm red and yellow tones in the opening chapters created a sense of warmth and safety. Whilst perhaps the attention to detail is lost somewhat during your first journey through the world, there is a remarkable focus on the sand particles and physics as mentioned before, creating somewhat of a duality with the more basic flat tones of the background. The sun reflecting off the sand looks remarkable, absolutely stunning, during the sequences when you surf down the dunes and watching the surface part around you is an amazing sensation to experience, a tonal contrast to your descent into the levels below. As your journey progresses and you enter the underworld and caverns the visual tone changes to a more dangerous and colder palette of blues and greens. You do, feel, the tonal shift of the game having grown accustomed to the warmer colouring of the earlier stages of the game. Whilst you had encountered one of the guardians earlier in the first section I did find they became a more pronounced threat appearing in greater numbers. As described before the lower caverns does take on a more aquatic tone even if this isn’t explicitly put in detail. The scarfs you free through your harmonics react as weeds and vines beneath a waters surface, the later sections of the level involve a tower challenge as you ‘swim’ upwards manipulating the structure although there isn’t a sensations of danger or a threat to your wellbeing, you simply sink down lover into the map. It was an interesting visual direction and choice to take. The third section of the game as you begin your ascent takes a tonal shift once more as you move towards the mountains summit. I have to applaud the colour choice in this section particularly, as you climb higher, your pace slows as your energy is drained from your body by the cold and fatigue, your vision reducing and the colour draining from the world. As you reach the climate and your Journey concludes, colour returns to the world, I loved this approach, such a fantastic use of art and colour to support and drive the narrative, a stunning visual experience.
A Perfect Experience?
My intention to approach this with no prior experience or knowledge of the mechanics and narrative of the game I feel served me well to a large extent but equally, I do feel there were elements I felt could have been better implemented to create a more understandable experience. Firstly, the length of the game whilst creating an impact in its duration was noticeably short, even with no knowledge of your goals I managed to finish this within three hours and whilst, to an extent this was offset by the fact the game was obtained through the Game of the Month deal through Playstation Plus, had I purchased it at retail I would have been somewhat disappointed at the length of the title. I do find myself asking what I would have extended or added to increase the duration, the game for what there was did spend an equal measure in each act, perhaps weighted to a degree more for the first two parts given the impact on the user whilst the last part with the deterioration of the experience was somewhat reduced in length. The name Journey does elicit a certain sensation and drive to move forward and persevere against the natural conditions around you, as with Flow and Flower there isn’t a standard narrative but through intuition you do grasp the basic principle of moving towards the object in the horizon. The inclusion of other visitors to your game wasn’t explained and does create a curiosity when you first play the game, was it an illusion, a shadow, the deterioration of your mind and psyche as you find yourself succumbing to the elements around you? With no clear indication what part they play in your quest, it was a nice touch but not really understood until you had completed the game. The controls were simple and easy to grasp, the game introducing new mechanics gradually and utilising these further into the game as you progressed, objectively it didn’t fully utilise the gamepad and did feel somewhat redundant having a wealth of control inputs but only needing one or two buttons. Whilst I would struggle perhaps to introduce a new section or way to extend the length of the game, I could envision perhaps an extension of the flight mechanic or ability. It was a strange limitation to introduce this ability to the degree it was but certainly felt artificially ‘curtailed’. Which is to say if my character has the means and ability to fly through the liberation of scarfs, to then be constrained in my flight duration with the exception of certain sequences did feel like a design choice as opposed to restrictions of my ability to perform. A subjective critique perhaps but with a limitation of actions available to your character and the one area that did feel unique and exciting curtailed it did leave me feeling somewhat frustrated to find your moments soaring through the air coming down to earth with a disappointing conclusion. The score, composed by Austin Wintory is an accomplished composition, orchestrated in collaboration with the games designers to create a dynamic experience. Whilst not utilising a traditional central theme it has continued to gain resonance with an appreciative audience, most notably a live concert tour of the games soundtrack in conjunction with a rendition of the game provided by Sony with the audio score absent. Quite simply, faultless, composed and performed to be unobtrusive but an integrated aspect of the games experience that elevates the entire game to another standard.
I was unsure what to expect on my first Journey, a game that has received critical praise across the board from both user and reviewer. Clearly there are tangible and positive qualities to praise, a few subjective points to highlight and draw attention to. In the last six months I have reviewed and played a number of similar smaller and more personal, gaming ‘experiences’, titles different from the typical definition and perception of a video game title that resembles more a small scale project of love and ambition. Certainly you can see the influence and genesis of this title in a number of titles released subsequently, for me personally in Old Man’s Journey completed in April which followed a similar narrative and approach of a central character undertaking a journey without any description or rationale when you begin. Journey was an intriguing prospect and had a great deal of prestige surrounding it, for me personally having picked up elements of its design and evolution during the gaming exhibition last year which highlighted the methodical nature of the games creators in their presentation of sand physics for example. The art work and aesthetic of the presentation is genuinely stunning, I’ve used purposefully two of the dusk time shots of the light reflecting off the sand particles, that attention to detail on the interplay between light and texture elevates this game for me beyond a simplistic presentation. I thoroughly enjoyed the music, it was an integral aspect and stands alone as an accomplishment and well written piece of musical composition. Quite rightly the game is regarded by many as a genuine classic and within the pantheon of all time greats, is it faultless? certainly what faults do exist feel more like subjective issues although notable on a number of different platforms.
The game does feel short, arguably in contrast to cinematic offering you can enjoy a similar shorter, moving, motion picture with a shorter runtime so length and duration doesn’t necessarily equate to quality, this certainly feels like a quality game and I would commend anyone to experience this arguably using the approach I undertook, which is to avoid any spoilers or information in advance and just play it. It’s a memorable experience, providing insight into the direction of Sony as a company in showcasing and supporting the development of these smaller, impactful titles and creating resonance and connectivity with the user base in associating the console with the support of independent small studio games. Having experienced a number of large, open world games since January which in contrast to Journey do tend to support and show you the direction of travel to such an extent they largely feel as if they are playing themselves on occasion, there was something refreshing to the virtual palette of being introduced to this world with your nameless, voiceless character and being left to your own endeavours to undertake your Journey as you saw fit. I would have perhaps enjoyed, some form of connection or understanding who my visitors to my game were, not realising until I had finished these were other users on their Journey sharing my world as I experienced it for the first time. As with other post apocalyptic titles such as Horizon Zero Dawn or Breath of the Wild, I was filled with questions around the world around me and the events that transpired to leave it in such a state, although with the focus more on the spiritual and mythological nature that curiosity was tempered somewhat. It left me with a renewed drive and impetus to continue to push my boundaries beyond my traditional gaming experiences and just enjoy the simple pleasures of a beautifully designed and choreographed title, here, Journey succeeded beyond measure.
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