Kinda 'Journey' I Had To Take
The visionary pioneers of 'zen gaming' ThatGamingCompany, are due to release a magnificent new game soon called SKY. I'm sure it'll become one of my favourites, but I'd like to shine a very bright illuminating light on what I consider to be their masterpiece, JOURNEY.
While many other games are going for photo realism and your success is measured by your body count, Journey rewards you for patience, curiosity and in a very subtle way, being a compassionate person. I won't reveal much about the plot but I'd like to share with you how some of these unique qualities are presented and rewarded.
In a nutshell, you are a novice of some sort. You wake in the desert and there is one all present object before you... a mountain with a glowing peak. You don't know why you must go to it, but go to it you must. Along the way, you encounter ruins submerged in the shifting dunes. Within those ruins lies your purpose and the motivation you'll need to make a Journey.
Visually, it is breathtaking. It's oppressive desert is a stylised depiction. It is minimal and actually kinda low res (though it is 5 years old now). None of that takes away from its immersive charm. The sand you tread through - and sometimes ski down through the dunes - is utterly magical. The way the grains catch the light is perfection. Even though the landscape alters from level to level, this beautiful desolation is always represented.
Why are the visuals so important? Because there is no dialogue. That's right. Not a single voice can be heard. You do not talk to anyone. They do not talk to you. You have one method of communication. Two really.
You can SING. Each player gets a unique note and hieroglyph identity. And you can DANCE. That is to say, you can show happiness by jumping in the air and spinning around. I'll get back to that shortly.
Journey would not be Journey without it's score. So often the soundtrack to a game is a handful of shitty pieces that loop endlessly depending on your progress. The original score by Austin Wintory is absolutely stunning. From stirring cellos to swirling strings and at times, frightening thunderous percussion. I downloaded the album immediately, and I use it to write, meditate, drive and generally provide a soundtrack to my Kinda mindful life.
You are given no backstory or mission in Journey. No weapons, obviously. Your only assistance comes in the form of Egyptian styled hieroglyphics at key points. They reveal elements of the story but are quite difficult to decipher. As a general rule, their message becomes apparent soon enough.
This is one of the great aspects of Journey. The assumption that you're not an idiot. You're curious and you'll figure it out.
And now to the point I brought up earlier. My experience playing the game for the first time lead me to an unexpected encounter. The whole game is about solitude, but there, amid a ruin, I heard a note. Different to mine. Sure enough, another novice like me joined in the fun. It sung to me. I sung to it. In Journey, your 'health' is indicated by your scarf. It has bright white glyphs on it but they fade over time, reducing your power to jump among other things.
So when this friend sang it's note at me, my health increased. I returned the favour. And of we went singing and jumping - over and through obstacles that would have taken ages to completed alone. I'm not a big gamer but there was something about the actions of my cohort that did not seem to be game generated AI. After a while, this stranger vanished. There would be another juncture later on where it would return and I was thrilled to welcome it. I even sacrificed myself in order to let it pass ahead a very ominous portion of the game. I came around and completed that level eventually, satisfied that my friend had made it through.
So here's the thing about the end of Journey. THIS IS NOT A SPOILER. As the credits roll, it stops to pay homage to those players that you collaborated with. Wait. What?
They were real. Real players doing multiplayer assists on a game that is not designed to be a big blast fest for international gamers.
This is subtle. And all the more special by crediting these silent players in a tribute. Best yet, by my count, I spent time with 2 other entities, yet 4 were listed in the credits. How often was my journey assisted by an unknown benefactor? How often did my progress benefit them. Should I send flowers or a hamper?
I have played it many times since - but careful not to overplay it - and there has been one occasion where I went through entirely on my own. It was also fulfilling, but just a little sad to not hear another player's note. The kindness of others was missed and I was hoping to greet someone new with my note and send them dancing into the air.
JOURNEY manages to do so much with a very minimal game. And yet, low key is what makes it so profound. It is not the most famous of games on the PlayStation 3 - it's native console - but I would confidently say it is the most loved. Player reviews often describe it as magical, a ritual to be savoured, even a religious experience.
Unless I'm mistaken, it is only available on PS3 but it can be downloaded via PS4. Crank up the graphics. Put it in surround sound and get utterly lost.
I really hope that zen gaming becomes a thing. I believe what ALL GAMERS SEEK is immersion, escapism, renewal and yes, achievements that are valued and recognised. Journey does that effortlessly in ways that creep up on you. It's no adrenaline rush but it gives your senses a feast.
And it gives your soul a bit of a hug as well.