One Life Left: Journey

By Alex Newhouse

It opens with a view of sand. Dark tan and flashing in the sun’s rays — this is clearly the desert. The camera pulls up and shows heatwaves emanating from the sparkling sand, and behind a hill the large sun beats down on the land. The yellow sky is striped with clouds. The camera then pans over the landscape and comes to rest on a small figure in a brown robe, face hidden in shadow. This mysterious creature stands up from his rest in the sand, and you take control, moving him over the sand that crunches and slips under his feet. You climb a hill and on top of that hill is a view of a massive expanse of scorched land. Rising in the distance, breaking through the layer of clouds, a mountain stands imposing with a light shining out of the top. No words are said, no text or instructions are given. This is Journey. Your only goal is to reach the mountaintop.

When I first bought this game in early 2013, it was already a year old. It had received critical acclaim and had won several Game of the Year awards from different websites. But I never thought to give this small game a chance. It doesn’t have intense gameplay or a huge, breathtaking story. It doesn’t have explosions or guns. It doesn’t even have a score, or anything that could be called a “traditional” gameplay loop. It has puzzles, but even calling it a puzzle game is a little too restrictive for what Journey is. It relies on being open-ended, presenting a world to the player without context or barriers. It wants you to explore the desert, to find the hidden secrets throughout it and to forge your own path toward the mountain.

But I didn’t think I wanted that. My exposure to gaming had been almost exclusively made up of well-defined games with traditional gameplay loops. The idea of an “art game” sounded foreign and unenjoyable to me. But I gave Journey a try anyway.

And what I found was not so much a game as a canvas. Journey’s world is unbelievably beautiful, especially for a game now three years old. It is, in a lot of ways, the PlayStation 3’s crowning jewel in art. Its desert feels alive in a way that I never expected, with the wind periodically whipping up sand and the desert ruins feeling appropriately weathered and ancient. Each area you go to has a different puzzle, and as you progress, you acquire runes that grow your scarf, permitting you to jump higher and reach even more interesting places.

But there is no backstory here. You never do learn who this little creature is, or why he wishes to travel to the mountain so badly. Everything is learned from small hints in the world. Perhaps you find a painting on a wall in a ruin, and you decide that the figure is a citizen of a past civilization, left behind after a calamitous event. Or perhaps you see the flying creatures and believe that your creature and these flying animals are partners in a nomadic lifestyle, searching the desert for sustenance and purpose.

The point is that there is no limit to the number of stories Journey can tell. Its storytelling is so effective because there is no one correct plot. This game succeeds because it gives the player the tool to make the world his own, to fill it with his imagination.

Of course, the game wouldn’t have a fraction of its impact without having at least competent gameplay, and Journey goes above and beyond here as well. Its puzzles are simple but striking, and its set piece moments create awe or even fear as you guide the creature through dangerous confrontations and environments. And after you complete each puzzle, you know you are moving ever closer to your goal. The mountain, invariably visible in the distance, stands as a constant reminder of your journey.

Sometimes, when you are in the midst of a puzzle, you will hear the telltale sound of one of the creatures jumping or activating a switch. It took me completely by surprise when it happened the first time, because there is no other indication that Journey is a multiplayer game. But indeed, when I looked around the world, I found another little figure bounding along and trying to solve the same puzzle I was working on. There is no way to communicate with another player except by emitting one single sound, and you never see the other player’s name. But this player and I decided to solve this puzzle together, and soon we became makeshift friends. It was a relationship that took us all the way to the end of the game, where it enhanced one of the most moving moments I have ever experienced in video games. In a game that empowers you to fashion your own story and fill out the world with your own thoughts, this sort of relationship becomes entirely your own, and not a tool of the game. It is unique in that way, something that few other games had attempted at that time. It makes you care about your partner in a way that games rarely do. That friend isn’t just a colleague of the creature in game — he is my friend, as well.

This is a game about life and death. It’s a game about finding your own path and about defining your own way through life even when the destination seems clear. This game is about the little moments in life when you discover something incredibly special just a few steps off the beaten path. It’s a story about rebirth and coming to terms with the fact that sometimes, in spite of all your efforts, you will fail. But Journey shows you that even in failure there is success. When you walk through the deserts of Journey, looking upon the ruins and the golden hills, you realize that the mountain really doesn’t matter all that much, after all.