Journey – In-depth Review


Welcome to an in-depth review of Journey,
an indie game released in 2012, exclusively
for PS3, developed by Thatgamecompany and
published by Sony Computer Entertainment.
This video will contain spoilers so I would
advise against watching it If you haven’t
already played the game.
What can be said about the mighty Journey
that hasn’t already been said!? Well…
hopefully a few things or else this videos
just a waste of time!
Journey is without question one of the most
acclaimed games of its generation. It won
numerous awards and accolades, including many
game of the year awards and is nearly always
brought up as a shining example of video games
as art, whenever such a discussion arises.
Not bad for a 2 hour long downloadable title.
But what exactly did Journey do to earn this
reputation as like, the ultimate indie art
game? What made it so special? What was the
game all about? With a re-release due for
PS4 sometime this year, what better time than
now to take an in-depth look back at Journey
and see if we can’t answer some of those
questions.
So let’s start off talking about the gameplay.
To me, gameplay is primarily focused on movement.
There’s a sort of elegance to the way in
which you traverse the landscape, there’s
a subtle joy in the fluidity of movement and
its clever how thatgamecompany offers freedoms
and restrictions to your movement throughout
the game. Early on, walking through sand feels
suitably weighty and sluggish and this is
intercut with little bursts of freedom where
you can jump and float through the air or
effortlessly slide down the sand dunes. In
the first proper chapter, after extending
your scarf a little bit, you’re able to
jump between cloths and ribbons and feel almost
as if you’re flying. Journey emphasises
this focus on the joy of movement by later
rewarding you with big sections of the game
that indulge you in that freedom to fly around
uninhibited or to slide down massive slopes
of sand. It also knows when to restrict your
movement however. In the underground section,
that huge monster is threatening not just
because of its size and because it’s the
closest thing to an enemy you come across,
but because your movement is limited. There
are no cloths or ribbons to help regenerate
your scarf’s powers and so if you use up
all your jump early on you’re not going
to be able to jump again at all for the rest
of the section. So if the jumping and flying
around evokes a sense of freedom, then suddenly
not being able to jump makes you feel trapped,
so the restriction of movement beautifully
accentuates the vulnerability you feel as
the monster roams the environment searching
for you. Similarly in the final chapter, the
game purposefully limits your ability to fly
around in order to create a sense of hardship
and struggle and helplessness as you face
the final stretch of your journey to the mountain.
But the gameplay in Journey is interesting
because, like so many other titles in the
indie art game scene, it sets out to either
subvert, or just completely do away with a
lot of the most basic approaches to game design
that we’ve come to take for granted. In
Journey, you can’t die, there are no real
enemies and so there’s no health. There’s
not really any difficulty or challenge whatsoever,
no puzzles, nothing that would impede your
progress at any point. So by removing any
kind of challenge or barrier to progress and
any kind of failure state, Journey has disregarded
what has got to be one of the most common
and fundamental aspects of video game design
that exists. It’s actually quite hard to
think of that many games which don’t feature
difficulty or challenge at the root of their
experience.
And it’s not just the lack of challenge
that makes Journey different; it’s also
the controls and your character’s abilities
being stripped down to an absolute bare minimum.
You have essentially three moves for the entire
game, movement, jumping and interacting. I
think by being so different in these ways
and by being so stripped back in terms of
gameplay it can make Journey quite a polarizing
experience for a lot of gamers. Without these
common gameplay mechanics and without any
real explicit emphasis on plot or characters,
some people will immediately question, well
what is it I’m actually doing, what’s
the point of it? Well the point of Journey
might seem quite elusive to some, but it isn’t
really a secret, if you look on Thatgamecompany’s
website they state what they are aiming to
achieve with their games quite explicitly.
At thatgamecompany, we design and develop
artistically crafted, broadly accessible video
games that push the boundaries of interactive
entertainment. We respect our players and
want to contribute meaningful, enriching experiences
that touch and inspire them.
I think it’s pretty obvious that they want
to create games that have a lasting and memorable
impact on the player, an emotional impact
and they go about it in a different kind of
way, hence pushing the boundaries. Some people
might scoff at that idea, some people might
read that and think Well great, but how does
any of that actually apply to Journey? Well
let’s take a look at how Thatgamecompany
delivered on those promises and why being
so different was necessary to achieve that.
I think it’s fair to say that video gaming’s
often quite a cognitive experience; our brains
are always working away in the background
while we play. What enemies are around me?
Where am I in relation to them? Which buttons
to press at the precise times? Which specific
move to execute out of a repertoire of moves?
We think ahead of time as we play; if I jump
here, where will I land and will I have time
to make the next jump? And obviously for any
experienced gamer this will all be second
nature, its subconscious but still, think
how active our brains must be when we play
a lot of the big games out there. The problem
is that sometimes, normally during a difficult
or intensive section, we can become preoccupied
with playing the game rather than just experiencing
it. I think you could possibly argue that
in some games, at certain points, that focus
on what you’re doing has a detrimental impact
on the atmosphere or tension, that it creates
a disconnect between the story and the gameplay
and takes you out of the moment. I think Journey
wants to avoid that and in fact attempts to
strip as much of that away as possible, like
it wants your mind to be at rest. Trying to
execute precision jumping with a complex set
of moves during a challenging platforming
section would only distract you from what
thatgamecompany were trying to achieve with
their game which was to make you feel something.
Or at least feel something different than
frustration or a sense of reward and accomplishment.
And I think this is one of the ways in which
they’ve attempted to create a meaningful
and enriching experience, by creating immersion
through, not just the usual devices like visuals
and sound and general atmosphere, but also
in the way that you play and interact with
the game, the nature of the gameplay.
So while the gameplay could be perceived as
quite simplistic, it’s actually something
that, to me, feels really highly polished
and refined. But at the end of the day there
are some people who want that cognitive experience
with a game, the challenge, the reward, and
that’s the reason they play games and that’s
absolutely fine. Journey isn’t for everybody.
But of course, being so different to what
we’re used to, it’s lead to accusations
that Journey is all style and no substance.
Well I certainly don’t agree. I think the
game has plenty of substance in terms of story
and themes, which I’ll get on to later,
but I think it’s fair to say in Journey,
the style is the substance, or at least a
big part of it, which brings us on to the
visuals.
Journey is a beautiful and majestic looking
game that you’re supposed to marvel at and
be in awe of and that’s kind of the point,
the stunning visuals are supposed to evoke
an emotional response in you and so if it
wasn’t as good looking as it is then it
wouldn’t be as evocative. But how do the
visuals evoke emotion? Well they work in a
kind of harmony with the rest of the game,
subtly enhancing every moment and every feeling.
Looking at the incredible animation; the way
your scarf blows in the wind reflects energy
and freedom, it helps to make you feel alive
which juxtaposes with the way your scarf looks
in the final chapter where it feels like a
weighty burden in the way that it drags behind
you lifelessly, heightening your sense of
struggle to reach the mountain. The animation
of the sand has a similar effect, the way
it moves beneath your feet so realistically
and blows around during the desert chapters
is, again like the scarf, sort of fun and
vibrant but the exact same effects during
the winter section feel gruelling and exhausting.
There’s also an excellent use of colour
throughout the game. The colour red, apart
from being the colour of your character’s
robes, is nearly always attached to objects
which you can interact with and that will
aid your progression in some way, such as
ribbons, cloths and flying carpets and will
generally either unlock something or give
you a huge boost into the air to reach new
heights. The game teaches you this association
with the colour red early on and so you’ll
subconsciously know what to interact with
or which direction to head in as soon as you
enter a new area just by the placement of
these coloured signifiers. Also because the
colour red has such positive and beneficial
connotations it creates a sense of welcome
familiarity, of safety. The use of white is
used to evoke a sense of power and life. White
symbols increase your scarf and enable you
to fly for longer. White is used when interacting
with things; activating objects and bringing
stuff to life, in fact everything alive in
the game kind of glows white as well, your
scarf, the flying carpets. It almost has a
mystical quality about it, and so the ancient,
wise looking elders who speak to you between
levels embody this feeling of power and wisdom
simply through the use of their colour.
All of this is subverted when you find yourself
underground in the tunnels as there is a distinct
lack of familiar colours. Dark blues and tints
of green make the world feel alien and make
you feel out of place. In the final chapter
colour is washed away and seeing the carpets
and cloths all drained of their colour, and
thus their life, is quite saddening and evokes
the theme of death.
To highlight just how expressive these two
colours are in the game, imagine you’re
brand new to Journey, you don’t know much
about it and as you’re playing you encounter
another player for the very first time. Try
and imagine if you can how different your
perception would be of that person if they
were wearing red robes compared to if they
were wearing white robes…
So whether it’s the warm and cosy feeling
of shimmering heat in the sun, the cold and
harsh snowy air constantly blowing against
you or the falling sand and sunlight beaming
down into the underground tunnels to remind
you you’re cut off from the safety of the
world above you, there are all kinds of beautiful
graphical touches throughout Journey that
help create one of the most striking and memorable
game worlds I’ve ever seen. In response
to the style over substance criticism, I’d
say the gorgeous visuals are not padding,
they’re not there to distract you from what
you might think the game is lacking in terms
of gameplay, they’re there to heighten the
emotional impact of your journey, to compliment
and accentuate every other aspect of the game
in a really beautifully understated way. Journey
in my opinion truly is a glorious accomplishment
in terms of art direction and I don’t think
I’ve even begun to scratch the surface of
its depth.
The setting of Journey is another interesting
one. Deserts are often used to represent a
vast emptiness, an endless trek in every direction;
it can evoke a sense of hopelessness. Journey
however doesn’t do that. It’s set in a
land that was once home to a great civilisation
that has been lost and by discovering along
the way various remnants of their culture
like murals and ruins, great monuments and
structures, the desert gives you a sense of
a once great and prosperous people and a rich
cultural history that has faded away over
time, a land of the past, a bit like how the
desert in Raiders of the Lost Ark evokes religious
lore from Biblical times. Maybe it’s the
way in which the sand blowing in the wind
and artefacts and structures buried deep beneath
the sand reflects the ancient civilisation
and culture being swept away or buried in
the annuls of history; it gives us that impression
of both life and death.
The level design is also clever in how it’s
used to guide the player. With the game offering
you nothing in terms of Head-up Display or
objectives or markers, the open expansive
environments encourage you to explore the
world around you at your own pace with the
great mountain in the distance always reminding
you what your ultimate goal is and where you
should be heading. When underground, the level
design does the opposite; by funnelling you
into one direction and forcing you to proceed
into the path of a huge monster, that contrast
with the outside creates a sense of claustrophobia
and confinement. And then after you come through
that darker section of the game you’re bathed
in a golden hue, allowed to fly around to
your hearts content which, combined the cylindrical
chamber which naturally guides you upwards,
creates this really satisfying feeling of
ascension.
And then there is of course the music. I’m
not very good at talking about music or articulating
how it achieves any emotional impact, but
it is, as I’m sure most will agree, an amazing
soundtrack. It has a beautiful and very memorable
main theme and on the whole is just a wonderfully
arranged and composed score. It reminds me
a lot of Shadow of the Colossus which is certainly
no bad thing. I guess it works so well because
the music brilliantly encapsulates all the
many different emotional tones that you experience
throughout your Journey. It can be joyous
and uplifting, it can be heart-warming and
melodic and at times, and I think this is
why it reminds me a lot of Shadow of the Colossus,
it captures this kind of sense of spiritual
or ancient power that has this element of
like tragedy and sadness about it yet at the
same time beauty. Like I said I’m rubbish
at talking about music, I’m sure someone
could do a really in-depth analysis of the
compositions and instrumentation but it isn’t
me! And it was the first video game ever nominated
for a Grammy so it must have been doing something
right!
In terms of sound, the chimes that you’re
character makes throughout the game are your
main form of expression, there’s no dialogue
in the game at all. These little chirps and
chimes, just like colour, are used to evoke
familiarity among everything you encounter,
to signify a sense of life. Most importantly
they’re used to communicate with other players
in your world. This is clever because language
is essentially a barrier and by doing away
with it, Journey is an experience that any
two people from around the world can share
and its themes are universal which ties in
with the broadly accessible part of the mission
statement.
And finally, that age old secret, what is
Journey about?
I think it’s safe to say the game is pretty
overtly about life and death and the circle
of life, maybe reincarnation, and there are
lots of very clever, sometimes very subtle
allusions to this throughout the game. The
most obvious indication of these themes is
of course the ending where it’s implied
that you die, and you have this wonderful
sequence which you could easily interpret
as an ascension into heaven. For me however
the ending represents the idea of being reborn.
I think it’s pretty significant that just
as you land at the top of the mountain and
begin to head towards the white light you’ll
notice your scarf is gone and you’re character
is just as it was when you started the game,
like you’re being reborn. And if you think
about that white light in terms of being reborn,
what it looks like, the shape of it, it’s
kind of evocative of something else to do
with birth…… and then of course you have
the shooting star coming out of the mountain,
travelling back across the world and landing
right where you begin the game which again
suggests maybe being reborn or reincarnation.
Personally I don’t think it’s literally
about being reincarnated, I think it more
represents the general circle of life, how
every second someone dies, someone else is
born. It’s also worth noting that the graves
you see scattered throughout the final chapter,
which again evoke the theme of death, are
also present in huge numbers right at the
very beginning of the game. Again, referring
to birth, and I’m having to go into a bit
more detail than I’d like, we all come from
one seed out of millions that don’t make
it and maybe that’s what these graves represent.
Possibly…it’s more likely they’re the
graves of the ancients who died before you
as this is what’s depicted in the murals,
reiterating the idea that with every death
comes new life, but it’s an interesting
thought nonetheless. There are lots of other
references throughout the game to this idea
of the circle of life such as the day/night
cycle; you’ve got the heat and the warm
colours of the sun which eventually sets and
is replaced with night time, the moon and
the cold, pretty evocative of a life cycle
to me. You may not have even noticed this
one but the long pieces of cloth that you
interact with throughout the game? They’re
often attached to the dead carcass of one
of the flying monsters like the ones you encounter
in the underground. I must have played through
the game about 10 times before I noticed that.
So the game is about life and death, that’s
great, but what’s it saying about life and
death? Well, you’ll have to bear with me
here as these ideas are pretty abstract, but
I think it’s exploring the idea of what
makes us human; something that makes us different
to all the other species on the planet. In
the cutscene just before the final chapter
you’re presented with a story of your journey
including what’s going to happen next. You’re
shown, before it’s happened, that you’re
going die at the foot of the mountain and
I think this is what Journey is about. We,
as a species, are aware of our own mortality,
we know that we are eventually going to die
and that death is a part of life. I think
because we are so aware this we have this
desire to be remembered, to leave a legacy,
to have some kind of impact on other people’s
lives, whether it’s just the people close
to us or on society as a whole. If you’ve
ever played The Unfinished Swan and wondered
why there’s a Journey Easter egg in there,
I think this is why, not just because they’re
both produced by Santa Monica Studios but
because it explores very similar themes to
Journey in that it explores our desire to
leave a legacy.
So knowing that our time here is limited I
think is a driving force of progress in our
society, we want to make the world better
for ourselves and for those who’ll come
after us. How do we do that? We create things,
we build things, we express ourselves through
art and I think that’s what Journey is a
celebration of, culture. You spend the game
exploring and learning about an ancient people
who died out a long time ago by discovering
the remnants of a culture they’ve left behind.
They’re never forgotten because of the things
they created. Through murals we learn how
they planted trees, built bridges, created
a civilisation and ultimately how it was all
lost. The world you inhabit only exists because
of those who have come before you and I think
that’s another theme Journey explores.
It wants to remind us that our lives don’t
exist in a vacuum; we’re part of something
larger and in that sense we’re connected.
We’re all born and we all die, we all, to
an extent share the same basic experiences.
And this idea of life being something we all
share is, I think, reflected in a number of
ways throughout the game. The white robed
figures you encounter represent enlightenment;
they guide you and teach you about your purpose,
show you that your journey has been travelled
many times before by others, show you that
you that everyone has to undergo the same
journey and that they all begin and end the
same way. The ruins of buildings you come
across reflect the treading of a well-worn
path; at various points you unlock flying
cloths and ribbons that aid your journey but
what about the ones that were already there
when you arrived, who brought those life?
Also your character has a unique symbol, different
every playthrough, that appears every time
you interact with something and it will be
different to anyone else’s who you encounter
in the game. Hundreds of these symbols are
seen frequently, during birth, during death,
they’re the stars in the sky in the murals
to reflect how you’re not alone in the world.
Which leads me on to what I think is the most
important way in which the theme of life as
a shared experience is reflected, it’s in
the ability to encounter other players on
your journey and to share the same experience
together. This is perhaps the most acclaimed
and lauded aspect of Journey, the way in which
the game encourages you to forge connections
with strangers without language and I think
it really tapped into something among gamers.
Yet I haven’t really talked about this aspect
in any detail and there’s a reason. When
I played Journey for the first time and first
encountered another player early on, I turned
it off. I stopped the game and signed out
of PSN, then started from the beginning. For
me I hated the thought of another player leading
me or influencing me, finding the games hidden
secrets or unlocking the path forwards; doing
anything before I had a chance to do it myself,
at my own pace. I wanted to experience Journey
alone. Now I’ve always done that with games,
I’ll play a single player alone before dabbling
with co-op, I even played through Left 4 Dead
with the A.I before playing online, so that’s
not new, but Journey was the first game that
made me think about that. Maybe it’s because
such a big deal was made on release about
the multiplayer experience, maybe it’s because
the game is a microcosm of life, but it made
me question and reflect on that part of myself.
I have always considered myself a bit of a
loner, I’ve always wondered if I’ll ever
find someone who I would want to spend the
rest of my life with. And it was that moment
I fell in love with Journey. It manages to
simultaneously explore and reflect themes
that are highly personal and yet vast and
universal in nature. I’d never experienced
a game that could have such broad themes,
such broad appeal and yet connect with me
in such a personal way.
So that was my interpretation of Journey,
thanks for sticking with me. Ultimately however,
I do think the game can be about whatever
you want it to be about. When the question
‘what is Journey all about’ is ever asked,
the most common response I see is ‘It’s
not about the destination; it’s about the…journey.’
Very clever because the game’s called Journey,
but seriously, as kinda cheesy as that sounds,
it’s actually pretty spot on I think. The
game could be about anything you want, that
big mountain could represent anything, your
dreams and aspirations in life that you’re
always working towards. That bit at the end
could be you achieving those goals. The monster
in the tunnel could represent anything from
the economic crash to cancer, losing your
scarf could be like losing your job or losing
a loved one. But at the end of the day it’s
not important what those things mean, if anything,
it’s how they make you feel.
So before I wrap up I feel I’d be remiss
if I didn’t at least attempt to demonstrate
some objectivity and address any possible
criticisms. If I do have one criticism of
Journey, and I do only have one to be honest,
it’s the Sixasis motion control thing you
use to control the camera. I think I can guess
what Thatgamecompany were going for, I talked
earlier about trying to strip the game down
to its most basic form and avoiding players
getting distracted or preoccupied with what
buttons to press and I can imagine the motion
control was another attempt at that, to make
it a more fluent natural thing but it just
doesn’t work for me. In fact I think it
has the opposite effect, pressing buttons
on a controller is a really natural subconscious
thing to do. Controllers are already designed
to be as ergonomic as possible in terms of
comfort and button placement so you don’t
think about the fact you’re holding it and
pressing buttons. That’s so ingrained in
me as a gamer that anything that steps outside
that realm becomes really immersion breaking
so I don’t like moving my hands to control
the camera. Apart from that, it feels a bit
unruly as well, tilting your hands doesn’t
offer the responsiveness, precision or feedback
that you get from using thumbsticks, I found
the camera often panned round a tad further
than I intended it to. Luckily you can still
use the thumbstick to control the camera,
which I did, but the problem is that you can’t
turn off the motion controls in the menu so
I often found myself swinging the camera around
by accident because I’ve tilted my hands
slightly without realising. Journey is a game
that’s very much about ‘the moment’
and it’s a shame that sometimes that moment
is interrupted because you’ve moved your
hand and thrown a well composed view of your
surroundings into disarray.
So that’s Journey then. I think it rightly
deserves its reputation as one of, if not
the finest indie art games in the industry.
I hope that if you’re a fan of the game
you’ve related to some of the things I’ve
said and if you’re not a fan of the game
and you didn’t get why so many people loved
it, and for some reason watched all of this
video, I hope I was able to convey and make
sense to you some of what makes it so appealing
to its fans. But either way, let me know what
you thought, if you had a different interpretation
of the game’s themes I’d love to hear
it! If you’ve enjoyed the video please give
it a like, let me know in the comments, all
feedback really makes a difference. And don’t
forget to subscribe for more in-depth reviews!
Bye.

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