The Transcendence of a Video Game Journey

I don’t have to mention the current state of the world, or that everyone at Couch Bandits has been cuddling up with their game of choice. But while wrapping up my samurai sojourn in Nioh 2, Sony did something interesting: as part of their Play at Home Initiative, they made Journey a free download.

This might catch a lot of you off guard as to why I’m excited about this when compared to my usual reviews. “A short two-hour game about robed people walking across a desert?” Well, if Jake’s obsession with Animal Crossing proves anything, it’s that you don’t necessarily need complex mechanics, a deep narrative, or brutal difficulty. Sometimes, all you need is the essentials and a world that compels strong interactions, both with the game and the people you share it with.

On that note, in the spirit of Journey and its unique approach to co-op, along with its Steam release being just around the corner, I’ve decided to rope in my friend Tyler from the Pumpkin Copter Cast for this adventure. Together we’ll be sharing a recollection of our travels: the euphoric highs, the crushing lows, and everything in between that culminates in one of the finest gaming experiences we’ve ever had.

Now that people are paying attention thanks to that last sentence, where does the appeal of Journey come from that warrants such praise from the people who played it?

Ben: For me, the appeal of Journey lies in the power of how it makes an honest commitment to player engagement. thatgamecompany already had experience with flow and Flower, using motion controls in providing an immersive experience, but with Journey, they eschewed them and, by doing so, eliminated any and all barriers between them and the players. You might think letting players fend for themselves with minimal guidance would turn people away due to a lack of direction, but this game and the similarly open-ended Minecraft show that sometimes, the best instruction is no instruction.

Tyler: I think one of the reasons for the praise is that Journey is a very successful example of “less is more.” By making this game solely about this journey the robed figures go on and nothing else, the team behind it are able to focus all their creative energies into making the journey as visually and musically memorable as possible.

How would you describe a game like this in terms of mechanics and design?

Tyler: In terms of mechanics, Journey could be given the very basic description of a linear platformer where the end goal is to get to the peak of a mountain you see in the distance. The visuals and music that go along with that platforming elevate it to something special.

Ben: Something else that elevates the experience is its approach to co-op. You might not even notice this at first, but you can run into other robed travelers over the course of your playthrough. These are actual other human players, but there’s no ID or voice chat for communicating. But speaking with other travelers never causes headaches, a testament to how the level design facilitates cooperation without relying on ham-fisted switch puzzles or incentives. If that’s not a reflection of how people will help each other despite their differences, I don’t know what is.

What moment stuck out the most during the first playthrough?

Ben: I’d gush about the finale, but that would be considered a spoiler, and it only works in contrast to my favorite section: the caverns. There’s a moment where you find yourself in blue-tinted sand, surrounded by ruins and awe-inspiring dragon-esque creatures. It accomplishes the rare trick of feeling trapped underwater without awkward controls, and reflects how contrast, with meaningful highs and lows, makes all the difference instead of keeping the dial always turned up to 11 (or, God forbid, 12).

Tyler: In the first half of the game, there’s a section where the robed figure slides downhill. At the peak of this sliding section, the figure goes into the ruins of a tower. While sliding to the base of the tower, the camera shifts 90 degrees to the right, and while the robed figure continues their descent to the bottom, the light of the setting sun reflects on the sand and lightens up the screen to such a degree that you can almost lose track of where your character is. As the figure picks up speed, the music continues to swell, and once it peaks, the robed figure floats gently down to a new area. The intense music fades away, and once you reach the bottom, the music has faded completely—the only sounds you can hear once you’ve landed are your own footsteps and some very faint ambient sounds. Every time I play through Journey, this part always sticks out the most to me.

Journey isn’t the first game of its kind; a lot of indie games amount to walking through pretty spaces, and when Death Stranding tried taking the “unity among differences” theme mainstream, it didn’t exactly work out. So, what makes this game special compared to the rest?

Ben: In a word: honesty. Most of the indie/”arty” games I’ve seen over the years had a certain air of smug superiority about them. No one likes being condescended to, especially when a developer or their fans play the “you need a high level of intelligence in order to appreciate its brilliance” card. Subverting expectations is one thing; insulting the audience is another.

Journey never comes off as needlessly hostile. Instead, it welcomes all walks of life, so to speak, with the power of abstraction. Anyone can easily understand and beat it in just a couple hours, but that works in its favor. I don’t advocate carbon copies, but if you want to make your games “accessible” without dumbing down the experience, that’s how you do it.

Tyler: Having not played Death Stranding, I can’t speak toward that title. As to why I think this game has stood out more than others with a similar style, I have a few theories. The first being that while it is just “walking through pretty spaces,” I think because of how much care was put into the visuals and the music, you get the impression that you’re traveling through the ruins of what was once a massive civilization.

Secondly, as I stated earlier, the game focuses on the journey and nothing else. No NPCs you meet along the way, no side quests or anything that could cause you to stray from your primary goal. The game is about how you, the robed figure, will traverse to the top of the mountain and why they’re doing so. With nothing else in the game but the primary goal, thatgamecompany was able to focus everything on making the journey as memorable as possible.

Which games would you recommend as similar to Journey, in terms of the overall experience or of the same overall quality?

Ben: In terms of minimalist Zen, I can’t think of anything better than Tetris Effect on the PS4 for similar reasons. There’s no multiplayer, but the combination of addictive Tetris mechanics and abstract visuals go a long way in providing similar emotional highs. Celeste also sticks out as a sterling example of mechanics used in service of a grand narrative without coming off as ham-fisted or needlessly patronizing.

As for an experience similar to Journey, the best I can think of is Ashen. Think the minimalist visuals and seamless co-op of Journey mixed with the ever popular Dark Souls loop of brutal difficulty in an open world. Given how much Souls and Journey have in common (no, seriously), it works a lot better than you’d think.

Tyler: This might sound a bit odd, but if you want games that have a similar pure experience to Journey, I’d recommend Doom (2016) and Doom Eternal. This may seem like I don’t know what I’m talking about, since Journey is about a robed figure traveling through the ruins of a mystical world, and Doom (2016) and Eternal are about killing demons in increasingly absurd and violent ways, but I promise this comparison is built on a sound foundation of reasoning. I love Journey because it’s about just that, a journey, nothing more and nothing less. One of the reasons these two new Doom games are so widely praised is that they also focus on a single thing: killing demons. Every game mechanic, element of visual design, and piece of lore is constructed for helping you kill demons or getting to the next group of demons to kill.

Journey and the Doom games each focus on one thing, and as a result, thatgamecompany and id Software can put all their resources into delivering a near-perfect execution of it. The simplest ideas are often the best, and Journey and the Doom games are a testament to that.

Have you played Journey? If so, let us know what you think of the experience! And a big thank you to Tyler from the Pumpkin Copter Cast for contributing to this discussion.

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