There are games within the industry that are quickly forgotten and there are others that remain within our memories forever. It’s somewhat expected for a few games to either go under the radar or quickly become a vague remnant within the various memories engrained into our minds, but what I find impressive is when we see a game that has a steady amount of hype only to see it be released and ultimately garner the full praise it deserves.
Given the nature of the industry and how things can be over hyped it’s somewhat standard for some games to be given the royal treatment immediately from when the first teaser image or horribly edited trailer is made public. But when a game that’s a bit different from the rest of the pack receives widespread praise then that’s something that makes me proud to be a gamer for once since it shows that this generation isn’t entirely ruled by what the market standards dictate.
For the second installment of Six Months Later I decided to take a look at a game whose artistic beauty, enigmatic nature, and captivating gameplay managed to appease both the high standards of critics and gamers alike: Journey. The third game from thatgamecompany, Journey was a small dark horse of sorts since it was a game that was trying some unique things, in particular how gamers interact with each other and how they play a game. But in the end the team at thatgamecompany proved that they knew what they were doing as the game was simply exceptional from top to bottom.
Whoever Said Video Games Can’t Be Art Is Looking Silly Right Now…
The debate that video games either can or can’t be art may be something that’s as tired as which console or franchise is the best. However repetitive the topic may be when it’s brought up from time to time, it is an important thing since it helps validate the medium of games more or less. We as gamers may not need “approval” from someone to tell us that video games can be art, but in the grand scheme of things it does help to have people look at games the same ways as they do fine pieces of art.
Not every game out there can be artistic in a sense as Angry Birds isn’t on the same level as a Pollock or Dali painting, but Journey on the other hand is on a different plain of existence. Delving into an ancient world that has been ruined by an unknown cataclysm is entertaining in itself, but seeing the world enveloped by sand and it’s ever constant presence is what makes the game truly impressive. Besides the technical marvels of seeing sand flow off of mountains or subtly shake as the mysterious main character is walking, Journey is a game that is a true piece of art.
Best of all, in a generation that has featured dozen of design tropes, brown/grey being the main color used, or existing designs feeling tired and rundown, Journey was unique in every possible way. Far removed from looking like anything else on the market at the time of the release, and still now for that matter, Journey strikes an amazing visual chord whose only immediate comparison in my mind would have to be the works of film director Tarsem Singh.
Again, we may find ourselves in that tricky spot in which the definition of art needs to be redefined more or less to suit the medium of video games, but literally each single shot, vista, and moment in Journey is a piece of art. Simply looking at the way the world is designed is a beauty as thatgamecompany created the world not only to be practical from a design perspective, but also be breathtaking to look at.
The way the simplistic design of the character works in tandem with the environments, the color palettes, the lighting, and the subtle visual effects is amazing since each element is composed like a masterpiece painting. Some of us may be familiar with the slightly artificial feel games have in their level design as things just happen to be placed in convenient areas and so on. But in Journey the world feels like it’s this far off place that actually exists since nothing feels too artificial despite the fanciful design of things. Every single element in Journey feels like it has a purpose yet was designed and created with such care that in the end it creates a series of classic images that I’ll remember for as long as I’m alive.
A Land Of Mysteries, Sorrow, and Intrigue…
Besides the artistic wow moments Journey provided, the game isn’t all flash as it wasn’t intent on simply showing some cool moments that came across as an elongated tech demo. There is an underlying story in Journey that in traditional thatgamecompany fashion isn’t spelled out in big glaring letters nor is it entirely obvious at first. While not as esoteric as what was in flow and not as direct as in Flower, Journey tells a story that manages to do what few games have done successfully in the past – leave it up to the gamer to surmise what’s going on.
It may not be good for a game to have its narrative be open or up to the imagination of the players since in some cases people either need to be told what to do, how to feel, or blatantly be told what’s going on. In the past we’ve seen a few games pull it off properly and in a classic way such as Ico, but Journey takes things to the next level by having absolutely no dialog of any kind and exposition sequences that are only brief interludes showing animated art. The direction thatgamecompany took in Journey was honestly a bit ballsy since the game is more story driven compared to the past games created by the company, but the end result is impressive – even today upon repeat playthroughs.
Set in a place that isn’t too foreign but isn’t connected to one place or time, Journey’s story is interesting since it combines fantastical aspects with a story that has light commentary on industrialism. Things may not be painted out in an obvious fashion, but the underlying tale of Journey and how the world may have brought its own destruction upon itself is an interesting one that doesn’t feel too forced or repetitive given how things unfold.
The less is more approach taken in Journey does pay off since it makes the game more intriguing but not in the sense that it felt like gamers were being toyed with. Slightly reminiscent of what filmmakers such as Nicolas Winding Refn (Valhalla Rising, Drive) do in their films, Journey gives enough narrative motivation and context to everything while still letting the player soak things up and interpret things in their own way – actually thinking independently for once and not just sitting there as they mindlessly watch everything unfold.
Gameplay Redefined But Not Too Unfamiliar…
We’ve seen dozens of games try to do something different in how they present an experience to gamers but very few of them actually succeed in whatever they were striving for. There may be countless reasons as to why they failed, but often it may have been because they were simply trying to do too much. In the case of Journey, thatgamecompany took a rather novel concept and decided to make an experience around it that was simple, straightforward, and devoid of having to have perfect reflexes.
The main hook of Journey was that it featured multiplayer support but not in the same way as this friend invite, stat tracking, constant chatting generation may be familiar with. The notion of coming across another figure suddenly in one of the beautiful areas in the game and not being able to talk to them may sound like it’s idiotic since what’s the point of playing with people if you can’t communicate? But it’s this lack of communication which drives the multiplayer experience of Journey beyond what we’re used to since it fits the mysterious nature of the game and the theme of isolation. Not knowing when or if you’ll suddenly come across another life form in the seemingly dead yet beautiful land of Journey provides a thrill of sorts, especially when it’s decided to stick with this person and literally go forth on the journey with them.
Besides the way the multiplayer was handled, Journey is an interesting game since it’s so stripped down. As I mentioned previously, thatgamecompany really didn’t create elaborate design features since such a thing isn’t required in every game we play. With contextual climbing, the only main mechanic in Journey is jumping and unlocking hidden scarves or creating bridges to cross once glorious structures that now lay in ruins. At its core Journey is a platforming game but it’s also one with exploration since vast environments are offered to the player which may or may not be housing a few secrets. There may not be any elaborate puzzles or constant enemies to battle, save for some intense encounters mid-way through the game, but Journey matches to be engaging since it’s so easy to get into yet has this complex world to explore and navigate.
Thatgamecompany didn’t forget that Journey was a game as in some ways it’s the one game created by the company which feels the most like a game in its nature. Whether it’s climbing up a relic of a past civilization standing alone amidst giant sand hills to obtain a secret item, or even gliding downhill in between gate like structures that stand like relics, Journey does provide an actual gameplay experience and it’s one that I consider to be one of the best released in 2012 so far.
Was It Over Hyped Or Is The Game Really This Good?
When a game with a moderate amount of buzz is released it’s easy for some people to perhaps drink the cool aid and think it’s the best thing ever even though there may be some problems abound. Upon its release Journey received a steady flow of high marks from those within the games press and even went on to please gamers who bought it. Despite the high marks and praise the question may be asked by those who haven’t played Journey if the game is actually that good. To answer such a thing in a simple manner I would have to say yes.
As a game that took true risks in what the narrative was, the artistic choices made, and it’s attempt at providing unconventional multiplayer support, Journey is a true triumphant of gaming as it’s a flawless experience. Games may have a few kinks here and there, but Journey is practical devoid of any issues since it controls wonderfully, has a terrific pace, and doesn’t out stay its welcome by being too long. Some opinions may have it that the game should’ve tried more things within its exploration/platform basis, but what’s in the final product isn’t a determent to the overall quality that’s there. Each stage in the game isn’t simply a repeat of what was previously experienced, outside from the inclusion of sand, as different colors are used and the tone may be entirely different. So while we may not have gone on a Myst like adventure in Journey, the game still excels in providing variety whose impact doesn’t decline on a second or even third playthrough.
Considering the quality of the game and what we’ve seen on the PSN so far, I would consider that the hype and praise for Journey was entirely justified. Once in a while we do see a game surface which takes some chances, but it’s rare that the game is actually good or is as polished as Journey was. Even now six months after the game was released I’m still amazed whenever I boot the game up, even when I take my rose tinted glasses off and go into critical jaded gamer mode as I really can’t find anything to complain about; a thing which is rare in my case.
A Potential Sign Of The Future Of Gaming…
Journey is an exceptional game but it’ll be interesting to see what impact it has on the industry a few years from now. Currently standing as the fastest selling PSN game of all time, Journey was a true commercial success and it even went on to garner a Blu-ray retail release, which only happens for a select few PSN titles.
The success Journey received showed that gamers, at least those who game on the PS3, are open to unique experiences that can’t be perfectly placed in an existing mold. Will such a thing in turn spur other developers to take a chance with their projects and create something that is accessible but at the same time isn’t like anything we’ve seen before? Perhaps such a thing will happen, especially based on the success fellow PSN game Papo & Yo has received, but I do hope we see more games that capture the same spirit as Journey since it’s originality like that which will make the video industry thrive instead of languishing in mediocrity as it currently is.
More importantly it’ll be interesting to see the longstanding impact Journey has on thatgamecompany. Since the game was released in March several key figures at tgc have left including studio co-founder Kellee Santiago Thatgamecompany isn’t without its key figures as Jenova Chen is still there along with a few other veterans, but the studio no longer has the all-star team that created three of the most original games to hit the PSN. Now with a focus on creating multiplatform games, one of which may be a MMO, it’s going to be interesting to see where thatgamecompany goes from here based upon the success of Journey and what gamers expect from the studio.
It may not e possible to tap into the same magic that gave us Journey, and I doubt thatgamecompany would want to do an obvious repeat of what they’ve already done, but the stakes have been raised as gamers will likely expect something magical on whatever platform their next game appears on. Whatever the future may hold for thatgamecompany at least we can rest easy in knowing they gave us one of the most unforgettable games to be released on the PlayStation Network in the form of Journey.