Begin with a single step
‘Artistic video games’ is quickly becoming my favourite genre, because it’s increasingly clear to me that AAA developers don’t have any balls. They sink so much money into game development that anything less than a major hit represents huge financial losses, and as such they can’t afford to take any risks. So instead they pander to the lowest common denominator by creating games which last for dozens of hours and include every gameplay element they can think of, perhaps in the hope that throwing enough shit at the walls will result in something sticking. We gamers are to blame to an extent since we’ve come to expect a predictable bang for our buck, but it’s watered down all the individual genres to the point we’re they’re all starting to resemble each other. As usual it’s left to the minor studios or the indie scene to push existing boundaries by jamming their fingers in their ears and staying true to a single, initial vision. And every once in a while a previously unheard of developer strikes gold. If it comes to a choice between a game lasting only a few hours yet polished to perfection, or a colossal Skyrim-style open world full of glitches and bugs, Journey is Exhibit A when it comes to demonstrating why the former shouldn’t be rejected out of hand.
There’s no definitive story to Journey – you play as a cloaked humanoid figure which could as easily be male or female, human or alien. There’s no dialogue whatsoever to provide you with any hints. While there’s a handful of cutscenes which act as a transition between ‘zones’, these are purely visual and so heavy with imagery that every player will have a slightly different interpretation of what’s really going on. It takes a while to settle in with this style and you probably won’t arrive at your own conclusions after a single playthrough. Some gamers will inevitably be put off by that philosophical chestnut of projecting your own personality onto the player character, but all the same there’s enough there to give you the general impression of a message of self-discovery, character building, adversity – you know, all those clichés associated with journeys being more important than their destinations. But unlike many other artistic games, it’s in fine balance here – Journey is deep enough that you can read into it as far as you want to, but it also isn’t so distracting as to be pretentious. You’re free to make of it what you will without it much affecting your enjoyment of the gameplay.
Journey’s most obvious draw is the astonishing quality of its graphics, a demo of which could be used to sell high definition televisions. The adventure-style gameplay includes puzzles and platforming which takes you across a vast desert, slowly transitioning into ruins, caves, underwater caverns and an icy mountaintop that push the PS3’s hardware to its limits. It’s the light effects which are particularly breathtaking; the way the sun shimmers off the sand dunes, the horizon becoming indistinguishable from the sky in the blaze of a glorious sunset. And unlike longer games the highest quality graphics aren’t just reserved for cutscenes, but remain consistently brilliant throughout.
The much-lauded soundtrack is also very impressive, but not so much for its standalone quality as for how it’s used. Each of the tracks makes for good general listening but not to the point where you’d rush out and buy the CD. Instead it’s more how each is perfectly suited to its context and helps to shape and elicit all the right emotions throughout the relevant points of the game. Tense moments are enhanced by haunting, ominous music while more frivolous sequences are accompanied by a more appropriately upbeat track. But it’s the timing which astounds. You round a corner and a cymbal crash heralds a previously obscured ruin the instant that you see it for the first time. A few uncertain notes sound just as you see something beginning to move out of the corner of your eye. When you can master sound design like this, who needs dialogue? Context is everything.
In fact it’s the use of context that really demonstrates the cleverness of the developers at thatgamecompany. If you place a gamer in the middle of a desert with nothing but rolling sand in every direction as far as the eye can see, and then place a single rock in the middle of all that nothingness, that gamer’s instincts will inevitably draw him or her towards it. This is precisely how Journey begins, and it’s all that’s needed to drive the player precisely where and how the devs want them to. When you see the lonely mountain for the first time looming on the horizon like something out of The Hobbit then it’s perfectly clear that this is where you’re headed, no explanations necessary. Place a single shaft of light in almost total darkness to mark the end of a zone. That’s not oversimplification, that’s clever level design! It’s a matter of what I call the ‘cypher’, to borrow the term from Mass Effect, where playing video games for many years causes a gamer to form a complex series of impressions and expectations which they bring with them into every video game they play. It’s why Journey’s such an amazing experience for gamers – the developers are amazingly aware of this gaming culture and are able to manipulate it masterfully. What’s more they’ve crammed the game full of knowing winks to show off that they know exactly how you think. When I went out of my way to see how far the seemingly endless desert expanded, rather than running into an invisible wall I got blown back on course ass over end by a sudden howling wind. In another sequence you kind of surf your way down a huge dune and some ruined archways dot the landscape like oversized π symbols. Instinctively I made a slalom of it by steering between them, and sure enough a faint jingle accompanying the successful navigation of each archway broke the fourth wall as if the developers had intended me to do that all along. Gratuitous, sure, but a nice touch nonetheless.
Better still the minimalistic approach has the added benefit of appealing to both gamers and non-gamers. If video games are ever going to be taken seriously as an artistic medium, then it needs to bridge that gap – and games like Journey are going a long way towards achieving that. But ultimately Journey fails at the last hurdle because, despite its best efforts, there are still the inevitable reminders that it’s nothing more than a streamlined video game. On the whole the immersion created by the achingly beautiful graphics and sound is fantastic – for an experienced gamer. When presented with a puzzle to which the solution isn’t immediately obvious, a gamer will naturally experiment by trying each of their available actions. I mean, if you can only do two different things in any given situation then it makes sense that you’d try them both, right? And in Journey one or the other will assuredly work, but unless you make it perfectly clear to non-gamers precisely what they have to do through an agonising tutorial then the idea simply won’t occur to them. I sat my own mother in front of Journey to put this to the test, because I wanted to see whether it could win over a complete anti-gamer, but I was amazed to see how even its simplest puzzles managed to stump her. Controller tilting to turn the camera? Whoa, slow down, egghead. If Journey really is attempting to appeal to an audience wider than existing gamers then its one mistake is underestimating how broad that knowledge gap really is.
And I suppose it’s inevitable for a game taking so many risks, but even for experienced gamers I think that Journey disappoints in some of its minor aspects. For instance I was particularly frustrated by the developers’ decision to include trophies. If you’re trying to create immersion, nothing makes you snap back to reality quite as quickly as that annoying jingle that accompanies your having achieved some minor feat. If you’re trying to move gaming away from that expectation of instant gratification, then why ‘reward’ us for otherwise meaningless acts? If the journey’s supposed to be more important than the destination then why was my first trophy awarded for completing the game? I know it’s a small thing, but it just feels like a classic sell out where they’ve included particular elements just because it’s the done thing. And I was only just finished applauding Journey for attempting the exact opposite! Will it matter as much to gamers who don’t care about philosophy, art and such as I do? Probably not. But then they’ll be more likely to be put off by the comparatively short length, narrative ambiguity or complete lack of action. You can’t please everyone, I suppose.
Conclusion: I’m not going to kid myself into thinking that the achievements of any individual game will make AAA devs stand up and take notice, but for what it’s worth this gamer certainly has. Pound for pound Journey is one of the best adventures, and indeed one of the greatest experiences, that modern gaming has to offer. It’s not going to be for everyone but I completely take my hat off to the developers for having the guts to say, Y’know what? Bugger it, we’re not going to go with the flow and spend our limited budget on making as big a game as we can afford. We’re not going to buy into the inevitable complexity/quality trade off either. We want our experience to be perfect for what it is, and if that means making our game a fraction the length of a AAA title? So be it. And what’s more, they’ve damned near pulled it off. Superb.
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