Currently polarising commentary into breathless navel-gazing reverence and snide dismissal, laconic exploration game Journey is ill-served by either extreme of opinion. From the creators of the similarly divisive Flower, this PSN exclusive dispenses with many of modern videogaming’s mainstays in favour of dialogue-free ambience and a narrative told almost exclusively by sight and music.
Journey is not the second coming, and to approach it as such actually endangers its esoteric loveliness, but it is a well-crafted and beautiful vignette. A playthrough lasts around 90 minutes, and sees you controlling a lonely-looking robed character of indeterminate identity on an odyssey across desert, sea and snow to reach a distant mountain of similarly indeterminate but, it is implied, godly purpose. The ultimate route is set, but split into vast, distinct places which you can roam freely and which contain gentle puzzles which exist more to encourage interaction than they do to challenge.
As your journey continues, you gain the ability to jump and hover for ever-longer periods, with the initial slow plodding across the desert quickly evolving into playful bounding and then unhindered soaring across enormous open spaces. Journey alternates between such giddy freedoms and a sense of sombre arduousness, as you struggle against the elements in pursuit of a goal that always seems impossibly distant.
The journey can at times seem hard, and lonely. Then, in an instant, it will change. If you’re online, the game will randomly introduce another, anonymous player into your world, and you into theirs. Wordlessly, you voyage and play together – able to recharge each other’s jump power upon touching, able to spin around each other, race each other, soar in concentric circles, or able to grimly ignore and ultimately abandon each other. Express yourself however you wish, but only through actions, gestures, movement – never through dialogue.
A sort of abstract mime takes the place of communication, aided only by the ability to ‘sing’ by tapping the circle button and hoping whatever implication you intended is conveyed to your unnamed companion.
With another there, even the grimmest parts of the journey – battered by wind and snow and strange beasts – become joyful. With another at your side, even adversity becomes a source of unspoken wonder. Wordlessly, you lead each other on, show off or seek to share excitement with a frantically-tapped song. It’s a private playground for two, a chance to celebrate in light and sound. Refuse to join this celebration, stray too far apart and you’ll fade from each other’s game. Another companion may join later, or you might remain alone until you reach whatever’s on that distant mountain.
Whatever rules and logic Journey uses to summon partners when and where is arcane, and that’s the joy of it – the presence of others is never predictable, and the appearance of someone else in your game is always unsettling at first, before the caution gives way to ambient co-operation. With no option to behave badly (other than essentially running away), the shared experience can only be a positive one.
And then it ends. Only then will you find out who came along for the ride with you and how many of them there were. Then you might play again – you will meet different companions, you might explore a different ruin there or find a jump upgrade that you didn’t see last time, but broadly the journey will be the same each time. It puts on a good show of being freeform and organic, but really its puppet-masters have a tight grip on its many and effective strings.
Whether Journey ultimately being a short-lived experience whose longevity hangs more on ambiguity than on true variety is severely to its detriment is hard to say. While it lasts it is, quite simply, lovely. No more, no less – and perhaps that’s enough.