Journey [PS3]

I finished Journey last night. It sounds kind of funny to say that, as if it were some kind of accomplishment when it really isn’t. Journey is a very short, very easy game. I think my playthrough was about 3 hours. Certainly not more than 4, and I finished the game in 2 play sessions. Finished it, but not finished with it. It’s short enough that I’ll probably play through it at least one more time.

The contrarian in me didn’t want to like Journey. When it first came out the gaming blogs seemed full of gushing praise for the game. No game is that good, right? I tried it, thought it was OK, but then I put it down for a couple of weeks. I’m glad I did because when I returned to it last night it was as if I’d cleared my pallette and was approaching it fresh. And last night, I loved it.

The mechanics of Journey are so simple that it’s almost not even a game. You need to travel from point A to point B, running, sometimes jumping…and that’s about it. Your other control is a kind of “pulse” that you use to activate things. As you travel you’ll pick up emblems that add a scarf, or a scroll, to your character. Maybe its a scroll that looks like a scarf. I dunno. There’s definitely a paper motif going on. Every emblem you find adds to the length of your scarf, and your scarf holds energy you use for jumping. So the longer the scarf the farther you can jump. You replentish your jump juice by moving close to various paper creatures.

It’s all kind of soothing and relaxing, at least at the start. There’s some basic platforming to do, areas where you’ll essentially snowboard down sand dunes and sections where there’s almost a liquid feel to the air. It’s fun and it’s pretty and it’s very obvious this is the same company that made Flower.

What makes the game really interesting is the addition of a 2nd player. While (I think) you can turn off multiplayer, the default Journey experience has you paired with another player. This other player (always just one) looks exactly like you. There’s no character customization and no name. There’s no chat interface and no collision detection between the two characters. In fact the only way the two characters ‘physically’ interact is that when they come together they charge each other’s jump juice. The only way to ‘communicate’ (and I use the term loosely) is to fire off your ‘pulse’. I suppose if you wanted to get hardcore you could communicate via Morse Code!

What amazed me was how positive the experience of sharing the Journey with another player was. It turns out if a person can’t grief you and can’t talk, they’re actually good company! My first session was when the game was new and the other player(s) and I tended to trade off leading and following. Last night I encountered someone who was clearly experienced with the sections we were playing through. S/he was very patient, waiting for me at each step of the voyage, sending out pulses so I could see where s/he went. Even when I fell from a very high place and had to spend a good 5 minutes working my way back up to where I had been before my fall, my companion waited.

I was touched and grateful that some complete stranger would be so kind to me. That feeling, more than anything else, is what I took away from playing Journey. It isn’t like you gain points or karma or experience for helping another player (though there is a Trophy for playing through a majority of the game with the same partner) it was a person being nice to another person.

But my biggest surprise? Once you complete the game (and I found the ending rather moving, personally) you are told who you’d been partnered with. Turns out I’d had 8 different partners along the way and their PSN names surprised me. Some of them were exactly the kinds of names that I’d normally avoid/disregard if I encountered them in a lobby. From memory there were names like xXDirgeXx and KleenexUser, for example. What’s in a name? I guess not much. I felt a little ashamed of myself, knowing that I probably would’ve avoided interacting with these players had I been able to see their names. This made me realize how petty and prejudicial I am when it comes to gamertags, PSN names and character names in games. Interacting with these players had been a very positive experience for me in Journey; I would’ve cut myself off from that experience due to my own small-mindedness had I seen their PSN names ahead of time.

It’s not often that a videogame can cause you to take a long hard look at yourself. For me at least, Journey held up a mirror and showed me something about myself that I didn’t like. That’s quite a feat. I’m sure not everyone will have this kind of epiphany due to playing the game, of course, but as a worst case you’ll get to experience a beautiful, mystical world. Recommended, with the one caveat that it is very short for a $15 game. I found it absolutely worth it but if money is real tight you may want to wait for a sale or a price reduction.