Does Journey fit nicely into the theme of retro games? No. Probably, years from now when casual gamers have forgotten that any platform ever existed other than the PS5 and the XBox Pi, we can all come back to it and marvel at how an old-school game surprisingly still entertains us, but for the moment, it remains at the forefront of advances in technological, narrative, and musical progress. Did Anne decide to play through it this morning while I needed something to write about during the time it takes me to finish Shining Force? Welcome to my blog! Look forward to a Sega Genesis review within the next week!
While I have more praise for Journey than most games, the initial description of what it is sounds about as appealing as clipping expired coupons from the supermarket to add to your grandma’s “collection.” Developers and copywriters slap together promotional tidbits like “storytelling without words” or “a cerebral, haunting experience” or other such nonsense. Lead developer, Jenova Chen, claims he wanted to escape the modern idea of video games as being “shoot, kill, win,” so he built Journey around metaphorical themes of life and death. The main character, a little jawa/bird creature, appears to the player in a desert. He/she (shklee?) spies a tall mountain in the distance with a glowing pillar of light. The rest of the game is simply the journey to that mountain.
Ignore that description. I’ve seen sacks of flour with more pizazz than that. The game does push envelopes, yes. It doesn’t keep score, pit you against enemies, punish poor gameplay with “game overs,” but it does retain a lot of the aspects of video games that make it enjoyable to play. It stresses exploration, with the main character able to find hidden glyphs that increase the length of its scarf, which gives the player the capability to fly short distances depending on that length. In addition, some stages have monsters that can shorten the scarf; however, since it only cuts it in half, the player can never entirely lose it, and the normal course of the game doesn’t require flight anyway.
I’ve often ridiculed the concept of high definition, since most people have low-definition eyes. Yet I have to drop all pretenses for this game; the high definition world it creates adds every detail imaginable to the exploration. Furthermore, the fully orchestrated score interacts with the player, changing seamlessly to match the emotion of the main character and its actions at any given moment. Lost for witty comments to make here, I find myself slack-jawed and dumbfounded at the sheer brilliance of the composer (Austin Wintory) and programmers.
All though I will argue the storytelling value of plenty of video games dating back to the SNES-era RPGs, Journey may be the key to introducing the “electronic narrative” into the literary canon. While the storytelling-without-words aspect takes itself much more seriously than Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, the game does it using the full advantage of the technology, something that no movie or book could do; it uses social gaming. And it uses it well, which surprises me. The game connects to the internet and matches up two players who happen to be playing through any given point at the same time.
This accomplishes several things worth mentioning. First, it reduces the urge to look up a walkthrough. More experienced players–as denoted by the level of design on their cloaks–tend to show less experienced players where to find glyphs, several of which the player can’t actually reach on their own. Furthermore, players discover in colder levels the value of huddling together for warmth. All the while, the only “verbal” communication available is a small chiming sound made by the O button. Without giving away too much, this feature of the game actually expands the story, again making me react with deer-in-the-headlights amazement.
Still, the best feature of the game also doubles as its most frustrating, as you’ll often get paired with players who somehow manage to express their amount of sheer idiocy with only actions and a small chime. Having gone through the game a few times, I consider myself more of a mentor-player, and on one playthrough I attempted to show a newer player some of the secrets that others had shown me. At one point, this guy started chiming like crazy, presumably to get my attention, then started walking over and over into a rock wall. Figuring I should derive some meaning from it, I too walked into the rock wall. Nothing happened. I chimed a few times to get his attention, then got frustrated and left him still bashing his head repeatedly on the rocks, and I finished the colder sections of the game on my own.
The game often induces a calm feeling when I play it, but much like family, the stress level and frustration entirely depends on the random people you get stuck with, except you don’t have to worry about awkward Thanksgivings with them. It also affects your actions as a player. A considerate mentor figure on your first few plays could turn you into a kind, caring, father figure to another newbie down the road, just like encountering morons and jackasses could set you down a bad path where you cooperate with no one, keep all the glyphs to yourself, and end up smoking, getting tattoos, and riding your Harley up and down the mountainside at all hours of the day and night.
I do plan on saying more about Journey (hopefully more entertaining, but good games are actually much harder to write about than bad ones), but as I mentioned before, this could make video games more literary, so I’ve put it on my Intro to Literature syllabus this fall–that’s right, come to the University of Minnesota Duluth and we’ll teach you video games! Until then, the game doesn’t cost much, and you have your choice of downloading it or buying the three-pack with Flower and…uh…that other game. Although the impact wears off with subsequent playthroughs, Journey should leave the player with an emotionally soothing feeling upon finally reaching the mountain.