Journey is a short game. You play as a mysterious figure – he’s too vaguely defined to be a “character,” and describing him a “person” might be inaccurate, and even calling him “him” is assuming too much. You’re wearing a robe. You’re walking through a desert. In the distance, there’s a glowing mountaintop. The simplest way to describe Journey is to say that the game is about your trip to the mountaintop. I finished the game in a couple hours, which is approximately 30 hours less than I’ve spent playing Mass Effect 3, and I’m probably barely halfway through Mass Effect 3. But Journey doesn’t feel short. Mythic and mysterious, thrilling and terrifying, built on the double foundation of smooth technical proficience and a very human heart, Journey restores grandeur to the videogame medium by stripping away everything but the essentials.
Journey was created by thatgamecompany, who previously worked on Flow and Flower. In Flow, you played as a devouring worm-thing in a vaguely aquatic space. In Flower, you controlled the wind and blew pretty flowers through evocative landscapes. Both games were innovative, unique, and explicitly artistic – they were the first games that people could even barely justify comparing to the films of Terrence Malick, and they quickly become Evidence A for the proponents of the idea that videogames can be art. And yet, I always thought there was a slight gimmick quality to Flow and Flower. By downgrading narrative to near-abstraction, they weren’t so much games as they were eccentric control gimmicks. Which is fine: In an industry that has always been dominated by massive corporations, the mere existence of boundary-pushing projects felt revolutionary.
But Journey is much more. On one hand, you can look at the game as a remarkably thoughtful examination of all the basic mechanics of videogames. There are power-ups, after a fashion, and a “boss,” after a fashion. At first, the game almost feels like the latest entry in the new retro-canon: Downloadable mini-masterworks like Braid, Limbo, and Bastion which re-create primordial videogame genres with intriguing new twists. But those games explicitly harken back to an earlier era – in a sense, all three of them are about loneliness.
Journey, conversely, makes full use of your Internet connection, and it comes up with a multiplayer system that feels like a performance-art deconstruction of the roots of human interaction. Along the way to the mountaintop, you can meet other robed figures, controlled by real human people. But there’s no GamerTag floating over their face. You can’t even talk to them. You do have a button that makes your character shout. You can press it quickly to create a singsong rhythm. One of the central pleasures of Journey is seeing all the different ways that “shout” button comes into play. At one point, me and my strange buddy were singing together. Later on, when we got separated, I could hear the other person singing, but I couldn’t find them.
This week is an embarrassment of riches for people who love videogames. Journey is arriving just one week after the aforementioned Mass Effect 3. And although I’m a fan of Mass Effect, there’s a sense that the game reflects the absolute pinnacle of our decadence-in-decline videogame era. It’s a game with a running time longer than all five seasons of The Wire, with lavish background visuals and a huge voice cast; you play as a character of your own design who isn’t merely saving the world or the galaxy but the whole notion of existence; it’s less a single “game” than a series of distinct mini-games (“action,” “exploration,” “dialogue,” “fun with space navigation”), which means that it’s imperfect practically by design.
Journey feels different, at once more in tune with videogames of the past and more thoughtful about the potential for the medium’s future. A series of transcendent moments that carries you from the ruins of a dead civilization through semi-biblical trials and tribulations, Journey isn’t just the latest example of the Videogame as Art. It’s an argument that the best of videogames is still to come – and it’s a thrilling demonstration of how the medium’s unique qualities can add up to something like divine grace.
Exclusively available on the Playstation Network starting today for $14.99
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Read More from EW:
‘Journey’: The existential videogame that will blow your mind – EXCLUSIVE VIDEO
Gallery: Most Anticipated Videogames of 2012
‘Mass Effect 3’: First impressions (after 20 hours of gameplay)