Journey is the latest game by thatgamecompany. If you don’t know them, I hate you, but you probably know them as the people who made the unique artistic games Flower and flOw. Since that time they’ve been hard at work on Journey. It’s been a year since I first saw it in a behind closed doors breakout at E3 2010. I was stunned by the game’s unique look and feel, and I had trouble describing it for the preview. Now I’ve actually played the game, and I find it even more difficult to effectively convey what exactly Journey is to you, but I’ll do my best, so please bear with me.
There is certainly more of a narrative in Journey than in Flower or flOw, but not one written out in any manual or delivered by a narrator. The world itself tells the story for those who take the time to discover it. For example, near the beginning of the game you come across a graveyard, implying that there were, at one point, many more of the cloth people you play. The ancient ruins as well, also tied to cloth and resonance with your character, hint at a once-glorious race, now fallen to dust and ruin. There is no spoken or written dialog in the game, and this carries over to the multiplayer as well, which I’ll address later.
The controls are simple and intuitive. You walk with the left analog stick, and you turn the camera with the sixaxis. I know some of you are probably wondering why they didn’t choose to use the analog stick instead, but the sixaxis controls are smooth and immersive. The only other buttons used are X and Circle. X allows you to jump when you have gathered scraps of cloth or resonated with nearby cloth creatures. You are grounded unless you have gathered this strange resonance energy, but when you gather a lot of it you can launch yourself quite far. Circle can be used to create sounds, and the sounds vary depending on whether you tap it or hold it down. This also allows you to resonate with cloth floating high above you in the air. When you do resonate with certain cloth scraps they increase the length of your scarf and make it glow, signifying the ability to jump.
It should go without saying, but a lot of the appeal of Journey is in spending time walking around and exploring the alien world. Last year in the breakout Jenova used hiking as an analogy to describe how you might meet someone else or continue in a solitary manner. This analogy also works well for how you choose to approach the world. You can choose to power on toward the mountain as fast as possible, or you can take your time and explore the environment. I strongly encourage the latter, as like Flower before it, the game is better taken as a whole experience than a pure bum-rush to the goal.
Part of maintaining this experience and sense of wonder is the decision to have no voice chat or names in the multiplayer. Instead you can just encounter other players randomly as you play, and your communication with them is completely non-vocal. You can resonate with them using the Circle button, and this will allow you to leap just as you would resonating with other cloth creatures. This non-vocal communication with a stranger really adds an interesting dynamic, which felt a little like Ico to me, although perhaps made more poignant by the fact that the other person was an actual human, and not just AI.
Journey is simply a beautiful game. It looked great last year, but another year in development has made a stark difference. Everything flows perfectly from the sand to the cloth, and the art direction is unlike anything I’ve seen in a game previously. In addition, the music is beautiful and haunting. I played it with headphones on in Sony’s media area, and despite being surrounded by hundreds of people I was able to get completely lost in the game. In fact, when our time was up I had almost forgotten where I was. Few games I have ever played have excelled so much at making such a powerful expression through presentation in such a short time. You can look forward to playing it later this year.