Dismantle your preconceptions of gaming before you download Journey. It is not a game that can be accurately critiqued using our long-established critical language. It is not a game that warrnats an in-depth examination of mechanics, linearity, price or length: indeed, if you were to misjudge its intentions and simplify Journey to that level, it would emerge negatively. But Journey is not a game that invites negativity. It determinedly forges its own path, and crafts an extraordinary and vivid experience in the process. It is the rare game that feels inventive, unique, transfixing and – most vitally – moving.
You are a robed figure in a desert, and you must walk to a mountain. Therein lies the basic premise of Journey, and you’ll spend two hours traversing the wasteland: discovering new landscapes, curious mysteries and even the odd ambiguous revelation along the way. It would be unfair to describe any of these in details without somewhat diluting the joy of discovery that gives Journey a unique edge. Over every sand dune, around every corner, at the trough of an incline, at the peak of a climb: there is always something fascinating, something beautiful or something terrifying lurking. Frequently: all of this at once.
The colours are vibrant, and the amount of variety thatgamecompany squeezes into the relatively lean adventure is remarkable. The ‘mechanics’ initially seem simplistic by the standards we’ve come to expect. But there is no need to fear: there are plenty of gameplay surprises to cause giddy excitement, and all out of the few buttons you’ll press over the course of your time with your robed avatar. That word again: discovery. There is something thrilling about realising that the sliding technique that seemed like such a pleasant albeit empty flourish ultimately evolves into a brilliant, unexpected part of the experience. Even when your movements are confined to nudging the analogue sticks forward, the game never feels simplistic or basic: it is in full control of itself, and you will be immersed. A soaring soundtrack provides suitable accompaniment to your continued sense of wonder and your ever-increasing level of emotional investment.
A handful of traditional ‘game-like’ collectibles feel like the sole fluff in an otherwise admirably forward-thinking piece of software. Most inspired is its utilisation of online play. There is no matchmaking, no lobbies and certainly no deathmatches. Instead, you shall randomly encounter strangers as you march ever onwards. In purely functional terms, it’s almost a pointless addition (you can do little but ‘charge’ each others jumps). Yet your wordless engagements with anonymous other players is the game’s most important addition. It may sound utterly pretentious, but I struggle to find less fartsy language: this is perhaps the first example of spiritual co-op. Again, elaboration is tricky without ruining the (that word again) discovery. But during the game’s final sequence, the power is immeasurably magnified when you’re in good company. You cannot ‘say’ anything in the traditional sense (you can use a wordless ‘shout’), but quite simply you won’t need to. It’s a game that quietly grabs hold of your emotions, and you’ll be glad to have someone to share that discovery with.
Journey is one of those rare games that signal a bold step forward: a gaming world that is able to counter the countless blockbusters and genocide simulators with compellingly atmospheric, thoughtful and provocative experiences. It illustrates a maturity that non-gamers repeatedly fail to acknowledge. It’s perfectly considered in its brevity, entirely in control of its technology (bar, perhaps, a misjudged but entirely optional motion controlled camera) and admirably clear in its ambition and vision. There is no open-world, there are no sidequests, there is no leaderboard. Instead, we have two figures and their mysterious march towards a towering landmark, seeking to discover something enlightening. And who’d have thought that could feel so exhilarating?