If you’ve spent any time in the indie scene, you’ve surely spent part of it wandering through some beautiful, thoughtful landscapes. Narrative adventures that let their environments do the storytelling have indeed become quite popular over the years. Their origins can be traced to several sources, but a cornerstone of the genre has to be Journey. Originally released in 2012 and only recently freed from exclusivity on the PS3, Journey set the style and the tone for so many games that came afterwards. It suffers a little, then, in the comparison if you happened to play its successors first, but even so it’s not hard to see what makes this such a magical… well, journey.
You awaken in a vast desert, clad in crimson robes and driven by a vision of a distant peak. Setting out towards your mysterious goal takes you across a land of ancient ruins, strange machines, and breathtaking vistas. Towering gates and cliffs may stand in your way, but you can do more than simply walk, slide, and hop. Tattered tapestries found along your path can boost you high into the air, and some will join with your own robes to let you jump higher and glide further. They’ve got a mind of their own as well, which will become more apparent as the other inhabitants of this land return to life. And even when these beings are out of the picture, this is not a journey you’ll need to make alone.
It’s easy to use a lot of grand language to describe the places and scenery in Journey, because grandeur is easily its most striking feature. The desert you start in seems to roll on forever, with massive structures poking up from the ruddy sands. You can venture far afield from points of interest, farther than I expected, giving the place an enormous sense of scale. This sense only grows as you move on to new areas, with even larger landmarks and bigger spaces to explore. The graphics are simple but purposefully so, focusing on bold shapes and contrasts to draw the eye towards the most impressive forms. It’s a style that’s been widely adopted in Journey’s wake, so much so that I’m sure you’ll be immediately familiar and comfortable with it from the start.
As a founding member of this genre, you can expect to spend most of your time wandering these beautiful places. Your character moves at a decent clip, and the features and landmarks you find tell an interesting, subtle story about the world you’re travelling through. You can jump and glide as well, and both of these are enhanced by finding special scraps of cloth that join with your scarf to make it longer and lovelier. Other banners and tapestries of similar material recharge your floatiness, as well as exhibit some interesting behavior of their own. Your one other ability is to speak a sort of tone, which can be charged up to make it louder and interact with fabrics and other objects in different ways. There are some minor puzzles that make use of this, but mostly this is a game about making it from point A to point B, and enjoying the scenery along the way.
I mentioned before that this is not a journey you have to make alone, and that’s probably the most unique aspect of Journey. There’s a silent multiplayer system running in the background that pairs you with other players, providing you with a real-life partner for each leg of your trip. They’ll wander around the world the same as you, interact with the same things, and fade out if you stray too far from them only to be replaced by another later on. With no chat of any kind, the emergent communication that springs from the simple gameplay mechanics are a real treat, and I felt an actual kinship with some of the folks I traveled with. You can even boost each other using your voice which can make some sections easier or get you to new places, or simply help you move around faster with long glides.
I wouldn’t want to play Journey without this system, but it does have its drawbacks. There’s one puzzle sequence in a tower where my partner at the time ran ahead and did everything for us, which prevented me from exploring or interacting with the mechanics there. I feel like it’s probably the only place in the game where that could happen due to how the puzzle works, but it still dampened the mood. It’s also worth noting that, as strong as the game’s aesthetic is, it’s still a game from 2012 and this is not a remaster. This means there’s a fair bit of outdated design like invisible walls and poor collision in places, as well as some graphical roughness and blurriness in places. My graphics card didn’t seem to get along real well with it either, leaving a few areas blacked out when there was supposed to be some sort of environmental effect.
Journey is a landmark game, make no mistake, and a major reason we have so many great games like it now. It naturally doesn’t hold up quite so well when compared to more modern titles, and for my part it isn’t really the religious experience some people seemed to feel it was. I had the same experience with Abzu honestly, which is fitting since it was made by some of the same folks. Journey is beautiful and woven full of meaning, but I enjoy it more for the atmosphere and the relaxing gameplay than any sort of revelatory experience. Definitely check it out if you’re a fan of the genre and missed it before, and then join me in hoping that its clever multiplayer scheme makes a comeback someday.