Thursday, April 26, 2012

Review: Journey (PS3)

I used to persistently need the latest video games simply because I was driven to have the new thing.  Now, I'm content to wait months, even years after a game's release to pick it up, knowing I'll pay significantly less for it.  Despite this, I stay up to the minute on the ongoings of the game industry and see a renewed value in playing games upon release that have significant online integration or a collective sociocultural metagame.  The third-person wandering/jumping simulator, Journey, is one of those critical zeitgeist titles that not only has everyone playing, but also musing about.  In what has become a rare case for me, I actually got to spend a decent amount of time with a truly contemporary game; enough to play it through more than once and watch other people play as well.  It's a special game that strengthens and validates my convictions toward games as an artistic medium.

Journey is thatgamecompany's third PS3 game, and also their best.  You play as a robed figure with a glyph-laden scarf which determines how high you can jump based on its length.  The measure of your scarf can be increased by finding hidden glowy things throughout the world.  Other than that, the basic task is to explore the sand-covered landscape, traversing platforms toward a shining mountain top that seems many miles away.  If online, sometimes another human player will join your game and play along, but you don't have to stay together if you don't want to.  There are a few pitfalls and some light puzzle solving, but the bulk of what makes Journey special is what it does with this seemingly bare-bones design.

The easiest parallel between Journey and works from a different creative medium is film.  I can't think of another title that has executed cinematic gameplay to such a loyal extent as Journey.  Given 2011's proclivity towards silent film, the comparisons are all the easier.  Journey contains no dialogue, just chirp tones that can be used for communicating with an anonymous online partner.  Much like Melie's fantastical works, thatgamecompany created a world of constant visual wonderment: a cinematographer's utopia.  You have control over the camera most of the time, but at key moments the game takes over.  This could be to show a particular action sequence from a flattering angle where the sunlight optimally beams through archways making your sandy path glisten, or to frame the mountain top that serves a your destination in a way that makes it seem ever-distant.  The game's duration is on par with a typical full-length feature, making replays feel like rewatching a beloved film out of your home video collection.  You know how the plot goes, but it's exciting when your favorite scenes pop up again.

The multiplayer component of Journey seems like the kind of mechanic that would be at odds with this cinematic flair, but it actually supports it.  Because players' interactions are so limited, there's no way to grief your partner that will ruin their experience.  You could chirp a lot, which would be strange, but there's even a stage in the game where that ability is all but shuttered.  At worst you could attempt to leave the other player in the dust or simply disable the online feature.  At best you make your way through Journey and complete it as a twosome.  There's something to be said for playing Journey solo.  It's a solemn, contemplative experience: quiet and a little sad.  As a pair, there are plenty of scenarios that, ironically, I can best describe as dialogues:

"Wait up."
"OK, I'll stay here."

"Let's do this."
"I'm ready."

"This is crazy!"
"I know!"

"Where did you go?"
"Over here.  Coast is clear."


"There's something down there."
"Follow me."

"Oh man, this is it."
"Let's go together."

The way in which I generated theses words in my mind is akin to writing speaking parts for characters in a painting.  Imagine Seurat's Sunday Afternoon where you get to play as the pet monkey.  If only a phoenix made of ribbons would emerge out of the water.  The point is that Journey stirs your imagination, during play, to fill in the gaps it purposefully creates with its minimalist approach.  I haven't played another game that does that.  You build a relationship with the other character making completion of the game's trails more emotionally resonant than the solo experience.

I've noticed a number of critics not just reviewing the game, but recounting their playthrough(s) of Journey, as if there's significant variation in the stories to tell.  I mean, how different could they be from mine?  It's not like Journey has MMO levels of complexity to its online interactions and player agency, yet people are compelled to spin their personal tales.  I only refrained myself because I've seen so many other writers touch on the subject, and people are saying rather similar things.  Surely this is an intended outcome of the game's design, making the player feel like they've taken on some sort of trek, albeit virtual, that had them invested enough in the game world to empathize and identify with the characters.  Are some players just being sentimental or is Journey designed to evoke sentimentality from those willing to participate in the silent melodrama?  For me, it's the latter.

Part of what makes Journey open to these types of responses is that it limits the number of technical hiccups that could possibly break the mood, shifting the focus on the characters literal forward progress.  The action moves with a serene fluidity, allowing you to build momentum and glide along with an exaggerated tangibility that feels just superhuman enough.  My main gripe with thatgamecompany's previous title, Flower, was how much time I spent missing my targets and having to stop and slowly turn around, with only the Sixaxis controls at my disposal.  With Journey, not only are motion controls optional, but when speeds do ramp up you can simply enjoy engaging with the slope instead of having to meet some objective all the while.  The resulting achievement is that moment-to-moment gameplay in Journey maintains a consistency in your character's relationship to the world and keeps players' attentions focused on those interactions.

At the end of Journey, the game tells you the usernames of the actual humans you played with, which is the right amount of metadata to allow into this game, and presented at the right time.  It's as if the game knows you could be about to disconnect with its world, and pulls you in one last time to say, "Yes, you just finished a video game, but something real happened here."  My reaction to this was to press "start" and do it all again.

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