Platform: PlayStation 3
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Journey is destined to be a classic, I think, but I found it more confused than anything. It worked for me until about four-fifths of the way through, and then something happened that made me stop caring.
So, Jenova Chen is a sort of indie-celebrity game designer and the most famous face behind Thatgamecompany, which did flOw and Flower, both PlayStation Network PS3 exclusives, and an earlier game Cloud, which I never played. Journey is the final game in the company’s three-game exclusive Sony PSN trilogy. All of Thatgamecompany’s games shoot for experimental gameplay, though having played flOw, Flower, and now this, they’re growing steadily less experimental as they go. To the extent that Journey disappoints me, it’s because it’s insufficiently experimental to be a satisfying non-game experience.
In Journey, you play as a sort of stylized hooded nomad figure, and you start in a desert. There is only one notable landscape feature nearby, a tall sand dune with stone tablets or gravestones or something set atop it, so the obvious thing to do is head toward it. You can head away if you want, but head too far from the game’s goal and a sandstorm builds up and pushes you back on track. This was my first disappointment with the game.
Anyway, crest the sand dune and you’re awarded with a title screen and another, much larger obvious goal, much farther away—a mountain with a pillar of light at its peak. Go a little farther and you find a magic floaty rune that grows a scarf from the back of your nomad’s hood and allows you to jump and float. Over the course of the game, more such runes will further grow the scarf, allowing you to float longer. The visual design for floating is like a cross between a manta ray and a sheet floating in the wind, and jumping is very satisfying. Moving in general is satisfying in Journey—trek across open desert, struggle up hills, slide down slopes effortlessly, glide through the air—so they got the interface right.
What’s less satisfying is the environments. Rather than being a trek across what feels like an actual expanse, the game divides itself up into distinct levels, each with a goal you must meet to progress to the next. It didn’t feel like, well, a journey to me. It felt like a video game. The intrusive goal-oriented gameplay—hit these switches, grab the collectibles, avoid that enemy—cut through the sense of place the rest of the game worked so hard to maintain. Also, for most of the game I thought they were going for an absence-of-narrative thing, but the final act establishes that there is a story—some intentionality to the universe beyond the agency of my character—and I just wasn’t going to be permitted to learn it. The shift from pure travelogue to obscured narrative brought me further out of the experience at the exact point it was trying the hardest to catch my attention. I played through the last level thinking, “Oh, come on.”
A lot of my disappointment here is my own fault—I brought expectations to the game and it didn’t meet them. But given that the purpose of marketing is to inspire expectations in the market, and given how heavily Jenova Chen and Thatgamecompany are promoted by Sony as prestigious independent developers bringing literary merit to the PS3 game library, I think developing expectations was forgivable.
Journey is worth your time, if only for sliding down sand dunes, but don’t go into it expecting total unconventionality. Now that the PS3 exclusive contract is up, I hope Thatgamecompany does something weirder and less expected with its next project.
This review is based on a copy of Journey provided by Sony for promotional purposes.