Storytelling Without Words, or, Journey: The Loveliest Game Ever

Only two video games have ever made me cry. The first was The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, because I was twelve and it was the first game I ever really fell in love with and because I had very strong romantic feelings for a certain blonde polygon.

The second was Journey.

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Journey is the third game by indie game developer thatgamecompany, first released on the PlayStation 3 in 2012 and remastered for the Playstation 4 in 2015. I’d seen screengrabs and gifs floating around the internet for years, and being someone who is extremely susceptible to pretty things, had wanted to play it very badly. But being the owner of a mere Xbox 360, Wii and Wii U I had nothing to play it on.

BUT. Towards the end of 2015, life did me a solid. Sony announced a limited edition Star Wars Battlefront PS4 console, and thatgamecompany announced a remaster, launching within a few months of each other. I’d been looking for an excuse to upgrade to a next gen console for a while, and there it was. I put Journey on layby and pre-ordered my PS4 and on the 17th of November, dressed head to toe in Star Wars garb, I returned from the Star Wars Battlefront launch (my day job is in a video game shop… that’s probably relevant information) with my PS4 and my Journey (and, admittedly, Fallout 4 and an Asokha Tano figurine) under my arm.

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Journey is a game without words, maps or combat. It begins with a little figure in a red robe waking up in a vast desert. The figure is given one goal: to reach a glowing mountain in the far distance, and has only the ability to walk, jump and emit a musical chirping noise to get it there.

And so the journey begins.

I had expected Journey to be beautiful, but I was blown away by how beautiful it actually was. Not just in the visuals, which are stunning, but in the concepts themselves. The world of Journey is a world I haven’t seen before. The creatures are gorgeous, original and respectively frightening and empathetic. The enemies scared the bejeezus out of me the first several times I saw them. The allies are lovely: curious, friendly, comforting and occasionally pitiful, which is impressive given that they are essentially identical flying pieces of cloth. There was a point where I thought I’d lost track of my clothy guides and I was genuinely sad, because I liked being near them so much.

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What I hadn’t expected Journey to be, was moving. But holy crap is it. Without a single line of dialogue, without ever explaining the importance of or even giving a reason for reaching the glowing mountain, Journey creates a powerful, emotional narrative that takes the player through ancient deserted cities, subterranean temples and frozen mountaintop wastelands.  Through colour, mood and the most effective video game soundtrack I’ve ever heard, it played my feelings like Miles Davis played the trumpet. From euphoria to trepidation to fear and loneliness, from despair to hope to pure, exuberant joy. The tears I cried in this game were happy tears, and I am not a person who does those.

The strength of Journey’s story is in its simplicity. The backstory is for the player to deduce from the clues in the broken cities, and the importance of the titular journey is similarly up to the player to interpret. The ending is as ambiguous as the beginning. The journey is all there is.

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Journey can be played in two modes: solo offline, or online multiplayer. Now, I am not a fan of online multiplayer games in most situations – I play video games to get away from the real world and all the people in it, not to have them shouting in my ear – but Journey’s multiplayer is something kind of special.

Where the solo game is all about solitude in an empty world, multiplayer is all about companionship. From the second ‘level’ on, it matches you with one other player somewhere in the world. You don’t get to know a single thing about this person – there is no chat, no gamertags, no way of communicating but the chirping sounds you can both make. How you play is up to you, but this is a game that rewards cooperation. Huddling together in the snow regenerates your energy, each chirp restores the other’s power to float longer distances. Characters wearing white cloaks – players who have found all of the games secrets – will often help less experienced players to find said secrets. At the very end of the game, where your footprints leave clear tracks in the snow, it’s customary to leave each other love hearts and well wishes. To the credit of the game and everyone I’ve ever encountered in it, nobody has ever drawn me a penis. And that, my friends, is a rare thing.

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Journey is only a short game. It takes me about an hour to finish, and I’ve finished it something like twelve times now. But it’s a comforting game. Like a favourite book or movie, I’ll keep coming back to it and I’ll keep getting different things out of different play throughs. If you have the chance, or if you’re one of those people who are sceptical that video games aren’t worth considering as an art form, you should give it a shot. You might be pleasantly surprised.

BONUS: Here is the complete soundtrack, which is excellent for writing or relaxing to.

NOTE: This is not a sponsored post. I am not in a Journey centric cult. I just really like this game.

 

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