The single greatest failure of game critics of the past half-century has been their inability to develop any sort of functional vocabulary to talk about games. Game critics lean heavily on a lexicon of weatherworn genres, buzzwords, and clichés to describe the supposed subjects of their profession. This lexicon serves us well within the narrow range of mainstream blockbusters: the first-person shooters, the action-adventures, the EA Sports. Even supposedly avant-garde indie titles can often be reduced to a mishmash of genres, a retro throwback, or some other remix of familiar terms. There are only so many ways to kill a virtual enemy or score points against an enemy team, and our gaming vocabulary becomes frustratingly insufficient when a game emerges based on something besides the total annihilation of Player 2 by Player 1. Most recently, that game is Journey.
Journey, designed by thatgamecompany, ought to be quite easy to describe; and to anybody besides a game critic, it probably is. Journey‘s basic actions are Move and Float. The joy of play comes from the effortless elegance of your movement and the exploration of Journey’s remarkably beautiful scenery. Your robed figure moves with a buoyant ease, sometimes hovering above the ground, sometimes flying over crumbled stone, sometimes sliding down the sides of sand dunes. The game’s movement is simple, but precisely tuned; thatgamecompany understands that movement by itself can be enjoyable, and other designers should take note of how graceful a game can be with a joystick and one button. Journey is not difficult – far from it – but demands your attention with subtly engaging obstacles. Optional collectibles hide in the nooks and crannies of the world, for players into that sort of thing.
If you’re signed into the PlayStation Network, an identical character travels with you, controlled by an online stranger. (You only learn your partner’s name when you complete the game.) You communicate with your partner by singing, tapping a button to emit staccato beats, or holding a button to issue a sustained note. You do not need to communicate or even interact with your partner to complete the game, and could (in theory) ignore your partner altogether. The appeal of this multiplayer feature might seem mysterious until you start playing. In practice, a second player becomes a welcome addition. Two players can help each other in small and sometimes surprising ways. You’ll quickly develop a simple language to communicate ideas, developing a brief but meaningful relationship. A single short note might mean, “Where are you?” A few rapid beats means, “Look at this.” Thatgamecompany wisely chose to eschew cooperative challenges and other mandatory teamwork – your partner can only help and can never get in your way, leaving the relationship blissfully positive.
Journey is in fact so simple, so stripped-down, and relies on ideas so familiar as moving from point A to point B, that we should consider incredible Edge’s claim that it “pushes the boundaries of what you consider to be a game.” The Joystiq review, for all its exuberance, is so vaguely superlative that the writer has to state, “I don’t want to be misconstrued as generic or uninspired when I say that Journey is an awesome game.” He goes on to say that Journey “raised the bar for video games as a form of artistic expression.” Writing for Kill Screen, Jamin Warren says, “you’re probably wondering what the game actually plays like, and honestly I wish I could tell you” – and I wonder why a writer is blaming someone else’s game for their inability to articulate a sentence.
Journey has received nearly universal praise among game critics, and for my comments above, I agree entirely with what most critics have to say. The game is wonderful, and I’d recommend it to everybody I know. But where I disagree, and where I think many critics err in judgment, is in calling Journey some kind of definitive, boundary-smashing event – because Journey is most assuredly not.
Journey contains no combat systems, no RPG elements, no trilogy-spanning sagas. You are not murdering hundreds of enemy goons or managing vast global civilizations. There is nothing ironic or postmodern about this game, nor are there any concepts we haven’t basically seen before. Journey uses a joystick and two buttons. You could play it on an NES controller. The essential pleasure of the game is navigating a virtual space, something we should, by now, be able to talk about. What is most thwarting about Journey is that it is incredibly easy to describe and to play, and we’ve forgotten – or never learned – how to talk about games like this.
Journey is exactly the kind of game I wish more people played, and it is exactly the kind of game more people used to play. It is accessible and enjoyable and minimally beautiful. There are no complicated 14-button control schemes, nor joyless stories about grizzled space marines defending humanity from ugly alien monsters. Journey hearkens back to the days of Adventure and Joust, when game titles were also their verbs, and when it took only a few seconds of playtime to learn everything you needed to know.