When you first start the journey, there’s no indication of where to go or why.
ThatGameCompany’s new PlayStation3 game Journey is a modest $15 title that quickly became the PlayStation Network’s fastest-selling, exclusively downloadable game ever.
Everywhere you look is golden sand, kissed by softly defused sunlight and a swirling breeze. It’s only when you spot a nearby hilltop flag snapping in the wind and push your robe-clad, stick-figure avatar in that direction—your feet crunching across the sand with each slip-sliding step—that you get any indication of where you should go.
The game’s surprising sales numbers beat out downloadable versions of everything from Mass Effect and Call of Duty to Mortal Kombat and Star Wars.
Cresting a slight hill, you’re greeted with the sight of a vast, majestic span of sparkling sand, crumbling ruins, altar-like stone markers and, far off, a glowing mountaintop that surely must be the objective for a wayfarer like yourself.
Reviewers have pointed out that, almost in spite of the game’s popularity, there isn’t a crazed villain or bullet-blazing AK-47 anywhere to be found in Journey.
And so you wrap your scarf around your neck, set your face toward the mountain and begin your own personal journey.
So what is it that’s made this uniquely crafted and rather short game—clocking in at around 3 to 4 hours—so popular?
Escape to Which Mountain?
The answer seems to be in Journey’s alchemy of simple gameplay, nebulous mystique and creatively surreal digital beauty. Gamers find themselves knee-deep in desert dunes, surrounded by soothing musical tones and the oddly calming sound of blowing sand. It’s almost like moving a character around in a piece of interactive art. But at the same time, it’s an appealing gaming experience that points out how far button-punching and controller-waving has come since Pong and Donkey Kong.
The controls are intuitive. Tipping the PS3 Sixaxis tilt controller (or pushing the analog buttons) turns the camera and affords panoramic views of every crag and crumbling structure. The left thumbstick gets things moving, and two buttons dictate the jumping and interacting duties. Trekking up massive dunes and sliding down the other side, you can almost feel the sun-warmed grains of sand sifting between your virtual toes.
As for your objective, it centers around a “magical” scarf that you wear. As you travel, you move through a variety of different areas containing glowing glyphs and floating cloth fragments that mysteriously swirl around you. These energized fabric bits add to your luminous scarf, which lets you jump and soar in the air for longer stretches as it grows. Those bits of cloth can also be strung together for other purposes, such as creating bridges that help you travel from the top of one broken ruin to another on your way to the mountain.
Magical Mystery Game
If Journey is starting to sound like a peculiar, serenely mystical gaming experience, well, it is. There’s a constant sense of being in the midst of an otherworldy quest. The challenge of overcoming obstacles and reaching the distant mountaintop destination soon begins to feel like a metaphor for our real-world sojourn as we make our way through life, overcoming obstacles while seeking truth and answers.
Along the way, you have brief, dream-like encounters with a towering figure who seems to be ever watchful of your progress. Is he the game’s rendition of God? Perhaps. But Journey never spells that out explicitly. Instead, this digital odyssey is built on a sense of ethereal wonder more than concrete spiritual teaching or definition.
When playing online, you may occasionally encounter another questing soul, a random connection with an unknown player who happens to be at the same point as you in their game. Again, much as it happens in real life, two humans crossing paths at school, at work, at the gas station.
There’s no need to worry about making the proper introductions or the possibility of trash-talking, come to think of it. You can only communicate through a musical tone. If you work together with this stranger, your scarves stay powered up and further your collective progress. But if you choose to head off on your own and go your separate ways, you’ll never see each other again. It’s a unique interaction, one that reinforces the idea that making relational choices always triggers consequences, of one kind or another.
It’s those kinds of options and experiences that make Journey an immersive and sometimes even poignant game. It’s simple, imaginative, beautiful and calming. After playing all the way through, I went online to get a sense of other players’ reactions. I found that Journey has impacted many—including hard-core gamers—in very personal ways, some even being moved to tears. Unique indeed.
No words. No painful deaths. No shocking visuals. No swearing. No mess.
Just a serene E-rated trek toward a virtual mountaintop experience.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.