Journey Review: A Medium Trudges Forward

I played Journey in one sitting for about two hours, and I haven’t played it since. That’s not to say I wouldn’t like to, but no amount of multiple playthroughs would compare to my first. The same can be said for film; as in Prometheus, we avidly seek the next segment of wonder before it all becomes too familiar. At a time when video games are constantly criticized for excessive violence and misogyny, a work like Journey is testament to the more artistic qualities of the medium.

Journey is the zenith of the video game as interactive narrative. Sony’s Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are precursors to this achievement. However, while Ico is a beautiful game, the artistic experience is hampered by problems with gameplay mechanics that, although forgivable for the time, stand out as problematic by today’s standards. Ico’s technical issues aside, here are three video games that bide between game and narrative experience, a fictional journey whereby the audience member reaches toward the catharsis of narrative.

So here we have Journey, where no two members of the audience will ever share the same experience. Similar experiences, but not the same. It begins the same, waking in a desert and approaching a distant mountaintop on the horizon. All around us, it seems the only direction to pursue. There are enemies, but none to fight by conventional means; there are behemoths to evade (or marvel at). Our anonymous hero is hidden by fluid robes and a scarf that lengthens by experience. Journey lets the experience of wondrous moments breathe. I wonder about Matsuo Basho journeying across Japan and seeing the world around him in three lines.

The distinguishing element of Journey is the online feature. At some point, the player will encounter another. There is no voice chat and no way to type to each other. Only the pip and pap squeaks of your character in rhythmic button presses. My encounter came in the second chapter, while wandering through the first temple ruins and into a sprawling desert canyon. Admiring my surroundings I saw trudging through the sands a black figure in the distance. I met the figure where I stood and after he or she stopped and we contemplated each other’s place in our journey, he continued forth. I watched for a moment and followed.

I followed for the next two hours (perhaps not by coincidence was the entire experience movie length), and we completed our journey together all the way to the end. At one point, our heroes trudged toward the top of a snowy mountain. Snows thickening, both of us having entered the mountains at faraway points, we began moving diagonally up toward each other until our avatars traveled together again to the next chapter. We stopped and waited on each other when the other would fall, and we competed in an acrobatic dance as we surfed a vast ocean of desert.

We had become a part of each other’s journey. At one point after first meeting I nearly logged off, unsure of whether I wanted to complete the journey that evening. I sat za-zen in the sand (a sign that the player is away from the game or about to end it), the next chapter ahead of us, a large tower stretching into the clouds. My companion stopped his tread and waited.

How would the experience have changed if I turned it off for the night? Maybe my companion would have encountered a new fellow looking upon the tower, or maybe he would have  completed it alone. I don’t like to think so. I think if I were to revisit this journey, I would take my za-zen in the canyon and wait for a new companion; I would lead him to the mountaintop as I was first led.

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