I played through Journey this week, and then watched my wife play through it. It’s an amazing experience, and definitely one worth exploring.
The whole thing is a bait-and-switch, really. The gameplay – the journey – isn’t the point at all. The whole game is a construction designed to create a shared experience between two complete strangers. (And if you don’t play it online, you’re really missing the point.)
The journey of Journey is beautiful, but not particularly revolutionary: there are highs and lows, a tense climax, and a joyous conclusion. But what I’ll remember are the companions I met along the way, and the fact that we experienced these things together. We explored and experienced, uncovered mysteries together, sang joyously to each other as things went well, and chirped curiously as we uncovered strange new areas of our journey.
I don’t mean to discount the game design, though; it works by keeping the difficulty even and the progress steady. It’s hard to get more than a few seconds behind your partner, so it encourages you to stop and wait for them to catch up. And seeing that moment of loyalty – seeing someone standing and waiting for you, wanting to be with you before they continue – is very powerful.
My wife had a particularly good companion. I remember one moment, where an accident sent her flying far away, injured. Her companion was nowhere to be found, and for a moment I thought the two games had disconnected. But then we saw the little burst of light that indicated her companion was calling out to her, and spotted the little red shape in the distance. They rushed over to each other, and huddled together for warmth, making little calls to each other.
It really became emotional when she declared that she was ‘Bird’ and her companion was ‘Bell’. Giving the characters names made it more personal, as we excitedly commented on the game in progress – “Hi Bell!” “Is that Bell? It is!”
All this comes from a game with very limited ways to interact with your partner. There’s no text, no emoticons. There’s one button which lets you call out. Any communication you do is based on context – how close you are to your friend, how loudly and frequently you call out to them. That limitation is important; it just wouldn’t be the same if you were voice-chatting back and forth to solve the puzzles.
In conclusion, it’s definitely worth the $15. There have been some complaints about the length of the game – only about 2 hours – but any more length would just feel like filler. It really does make the best argument for holding games on the same level, artistically, as film: you pay your $15, sit down for two hours, and go through a carefully crafted series of emotions and experiences. Is Journey any less of a worthwhile use of your time, just because it asks you to hold a controller and explore its story at your own pace? Of course not.