A figure sits in the sand. Motionless yet determined in a meditative pose. The figure has clear bright eyes, and is awoken by a gentle tilt of the controller. It is actually impossible to tell who the figure is as the dark red poncho-like suit covers the entire face and body. There is only the wind, sand and sun here, and in the distance there is a hilltop.
The sand spreads as we moves forward, and as we reach the hill, it becomes more straining with each stride. Not felt but seen as we make our way forward with each heavy step on our slender legs. We reach the hilltop and sees a mountain ahead. These were our first steps on a journey of exploration.
Thatgamecompany are something different and unique. With titles such as flOw and Flower, the Californian studio has positioned themselves as a true pioneer with their tranquil and atmospheric downloadable titles to PSN. Their last game was 2009's Flower, a game that divided players and reviewers into two camps. Some found it too easy and saw it as pretentious New Age drivel, while other found bliss with something as simple as playing with the wind.
Journey is different from Flower in several ways. The main reason is that we're now in control or a physical entity, but also because we have clear goal in front of us. The mysterious mountain with the divine light, and it gives us motivation and a framework. Moving through the desert is not just a transit, it's a constantly changing world where the wind hapes the dunes and the paths in front of the player.
It has a minimalistic feel to it, everything from the understated music to the warm glow of the sand and the breeze that makes the red dress dance around around the mysterious avatar. You will find additional pieces of fabric you can add to your garment and it will allow you to soar through the air for a short period of time.
It's got a very minimalist feel: understated music; warm glow of sand; rushing wind.
On your way you'll find pieces of fabric blowing in the wind that you can attach to the dress like a scarf, and the dress can be used as wings to soar for a short time through the air. You make your journey through the ruins of lost civilizations. The ruins hide ancient scrolls that can be activated through prayer, which may help to form a magical bridge out of old pillars.
It was there that I saw him. A figure similar to my own, standing in the middle of the desert and also paving a way forward. In an otherwise empty and lonely landscape, it was quite liberating to see another player who played independently of me, but we shared the same world and a common goal.
For Journey does not have to be a journey inward. Other people also populate the world, but you never know who they are. There are no PSN names, chat features, Portal 2 like utilities or any other information you can access. But you can share your experience with these anonymous travel companions. There is nothing to distract you from your common goal, and it creates a rather unique relationship, where you help each other out, wait for the other one to catch up, and even if you have no way to connect with the other person, it forges a special bond.
When you finally reach the mountain top a cold wind sweeps in that will freeze your dress if you go there alone. Two players together can heat each other and overcome the cold. And if you manage to reach the end it will be revealed who you shared your experience with - and perhaps you've found a new friend for life.
The two hours or so it takes to complete your journey takes you over snow-covered mountains, through dark caves of underground cities, and various desert formations, all of which will take your breath away. If you look at the game from a purely technical standpoint it may not be very impressive, but the few animations there are, are used to maximum effect, and as you slide down dunes or catch flying pieces of cloth, the emotions it evokes are like nothing else you can experience in gaming.
The main strength of Journey is that it challenges your imagination. The creatures you come across may be the wind, a kite or other players. You don't know anything about the background, there is no narrative, nothing to break the illusion, and you're left to figure it out and interpret it yourself. It affords the player the opportunity to dress the world with your own ideas. Conversely it can be very off-putting and alienating as players are used to being spoon-fed story and motivation. Many are likely to feel that this experience is just too abstract, and that's understandable as it's not a game for everyone.
But hold up a minute. Wasn't there something about it just being two hours long? Correct. From start to finish it's going to take you about two hours to experience Journey. And there isn't much of a challenge along the way: no boss battles, difficult puzzles or classic game mechanics to hinder your progress.
But that doesn't mean there isn't excitment and I found myself glued to the screen for the entirety of the playthrough. I went from being confused, to interested, to amused, touched...well basically the entire range of emotions. Journey becomes what you make of it and it's filled with whatever you choose to fill it with. And maybe, just maybe our paths will cross as we make our way towards that distant mountain.