Journey (PSN); or How Uncharted 3 Should’ve Handled the Desert Sequence
Thatgamecompany previously explored the beginning of life with single-celled and multicellular organisms in Flow, as well as the survival and resilience of nature in Flower. This year, the company returned with their bittersweet tale of faith, devotion, life, and death, in a vast desert, underground ruins, and blizzardly mountainous that directly contrast the settings of their previous games.
With no dialogue or on-screen text in the game, the player is simply handed the controller with a few on-screen illustrations to show you how to play (lasting all of three minutes). The game opens with a shot of the many gravestones littering the desert—other travelers who have failed, or so it seems. Our nameless, shrouded protagonist appears and gets a good look at a mountain in the far distance with a beam of light shining down upon it. The player takes over.
*LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD*
With no formal instructions the game becomes about exploration with well-worked-out physics. Like my first try at Flower, I didn’t get it at first. The pace, storytelling, and gameplay is so dissimilar to the games I play that I wasn’t entirely sure what to do or why. I could hop, I could emit a glowing field of some sort, but to what end, I didn’t know. Clearly, my goal was to reach the mountain, but I didn’t know anything about this character or what the mountain meant to him or her. A story is told through ethereal cutscenes at meditation points—areas of light that mark the end of an area. These sequences are unlocked by using your energy ability (pressing O) to illuminate the stones around the pedestal. In your mind’s eye you see a towering white-cloaked figure that reveals more and more of a mural depicting your story. What’s moving is that even having been shown what hardships the protagonist will face next, s/he continues onward with dedication, knowing that this pilgrimage—this journey—must be completed.
As you collect the handful of glowing glyphs scattered along the way (some hidden, some just out-of-the-way), your scarf will grow, granting you a higher jump and longer hovering time. This helps the platforming element of the game, and while you can certainly travel through with a short scarf, moving from path to path is easier and quicker with a longer jump. But beware: While your character cannot be killed in gameplay, there are several large creatures that will attack if you’re spotted, tearing your scarf. For me, this was very upsetting. I had such a long scarf!
Journey does a great job portraying the elements: The sand moves aside under your feet as you wade your way through, the wind will push you back, and your scarf will frost over when temperatures permit. You’ll navigate down the sides of sand dunes and barrier yourself behind large stones against gusts of wind. I even felt that many of the desert and mountain sequences rival that of Uncharted 2 and 3 on both graphical and emotional levels (the overdone mirages, plus Drake jumping into a gun battle after hours of dehydration took me out of it). The sense of beauty, loneliness and not knowing if you will survive the harsh conditions is ever present, and while there are no camps of gun-wielding treasure hunters or a bullet wound weighing you down, you are given a real sense of wear on your endurance as you go on. The quiet, wondrous music and soft sound effects help lock down this feeling—until you encounter another journeyer for the first time.
Other journeyers are real-life players, seamlessly connected in the background and brought into your game as if they were already there. You won’t see any PSN name hovering above their head in MMO-style, or any indication that they aren’t AI at all (except for their behavior). In fact, the better players will be indistinguishable from good AI and you might not even realize they’re actual people until the credits list the PSN names of others you’d encountered. Meeting a companion completely changes the dynamic of the game. Suddenly, the lonely, almost hopeless feeling turns warm—together you feel like you can reach this mountain. And while you may not know what the point of a second player is, you’ll quickly become attached and will learn to communicate by tapping the energy button as a beacon (or even as a way of showing your panic after escaping a large creature). They may show you where a glyph is hidden, or the most efficient route to move forward, or they might jump around on rocks for no reason at all. But a bond forms by the person simply being there. It’s a strange feeling you don’t often find in video games—other players usually exist as backup or to help you reach new areas. Journey shows no in-game benefit to multiplayer. There are no two- or four-player-only areas like in Littlebigplanet. Your companion is exactly that: a companion. Someone to journey with. Someone to share the beauty, the loneliness, the uncertainty with. And they can appear in any area. Once a player has joined you, you can travel together through each area, and even to the end, or you may be matched with someone else (and sometimes not even realize it’s a new player) should one of you quit, lose your connection, or move forward without the other.
The end of the game, I feel, must be more powerful with a companion. It’s bittersweet and beautiful, and having another player on-screen as it unfolds must further pull at your emotions (I haven’t reached the end alone yet so I don’t know how it feels in that situation). I was actually moved—something I absolutely did not expect two hours earlier when I didn’t even know why I was playing. There’s a joy in knowing what you’ve experienced together, and a satisfaction to having buddied up. You’ll feel like you’re a part of something, and this is a clever trick by the developers—all they did was pull someone else’s game into yours. While this may sound similar to Fable 2’s connectivity, the random, involuntary nature of the multiplayer connection works on a different level for a journey like this one. You really feel like you’ve come across another traveler, so why wouldn’t you travel together? After all, The Legend of Zelda taught us that “it’s dangerous to go alone”, and with no old man in a cave to give you a sword, the emotional support will do.