My ability to put off playing certain games is sometimes amazing. Considering how much I liked Flower and Flow, it is pretty much a miracle that I took this long to play Journey. I actually intended to play it as soon as it was published but ultimately I just didn't. There is this thing with me and artistic experiences - including games, movies and music - that I really do very often enjoy them a lot, but still never seem to find "the right time" to do so. We didn't come here for my self-reflection though - we had enough of that a few posts back - so let's talk about Journey.
I spend a lot of time talking about game mechanics and different systems in games. It might feel that there is not much space for such discussion in Journey. However, Journey is a spectacular example of one particular design principle: consistency. In part, its unwavering consistency is what allows the rest of the experience to exist. This consistency is created by theming every action in the game world similarly: pieces of cloth that are clearly distinct from anything else. Their significance to the player is clearly shown by including one such piece on the player character model. They do a variety of things in the game but because of their consistent design the player does not need any tutorials to figure them out. The familiar design theme of these gameplay elements is an invitation to interact and see what happens. As a journey, the game is ultimately about moving forward. The reason this sensation is so marvelously achieved is precisely this: the player does not need to scratch their head searching for interactive elements.
Journey is entirely about movement through enchanting landscapes. Although visual design is also a large part of its appeal, the sensation of different forms of movement is at least equally important. The player gets to frequently fly though the air and slide down sand dunes; they also get to drift in a stream of sand and to fight against a chilling wind. The atmosphere in the game shifts through both visual cues and gameplay. The biting chill of a snowstorm towards the end of the game is possibly the most powerful experience of weather in any game I have played. Although the player is simply moving through spaces, the continuous discovery of new landscapes and new forms of movement keeps the game fresh. By creating powerful emotion through gameplay mechanics, Journey is a central game in the "games as art" debate - to be truly recognized as an art form, games need to be artistic through what they have that other art forms do not: gameplay.
A post about Journey would feel rather inadequate without mentioning its multiplayer component. The mechanic bears some similarities with Demon's/Dark Souls because the player has no control over meeting other players. They will simply occasionally bump into others during their journey. What makes these encounters spectacular is that they serve no actual purpose in the game - it can be finished entirely without any help. Other players are there simply as traveling companions - and they are silent. Meeting others is just another piece of the Journey experience, sharing some of the digital miles with a stranger. It is a mere chance encounter of two travelers headed for the same destination. Although entirely meaningles and even void of communication, these encounters invoke similar experiences as chance encounters do in real life. The entire encounter is defined by its unpredictable nature.
Journey is a magical journey through mysterious landscapes but at the same time it is very much like a real journey. The game does not get in the way of the journey because of its transparent nature. Instead, the various gameplay elements enhance the game's artistic impression. In some ways it is the equivalent of The Straight Story - a surprisingly ordinary film about one man's journey - only Journey is about the player's journey. Instead of creating atmosphere through words, Journey creates it through actions. The person traveling through landscapes and meeting strangers is you. Games that truly create the experience of being on a journey are few and far between. A lot of times the experience drowns in a mound of side quests and endless action/puzzles - all of which distract the player from feeling the journey.
I recommend playing Journey and preferably doing so in one sitting as to not distract yourself from the experience. It is a short game - about the length of a movie - so this is entirely doable.