It might be an understatement to say that everything kind of sucks right now. In this dark time, Sony offered a small light in the form of the Play At Home initiative, giving away two free games on the PlayStation 4 to encourage gamers to stay inside and away from the essential business of GameStop. “Journey” is one of these offerings and one I have been long familiar with, back when it first released on the PlayStation 3.
Its gameplay is reasonably simple. You play as a little cat-like wanderer and have to get to a mountain. You primarily walk there, but occasionally you jump, and as you go through the journey you can even glide for a bit. But for a game that runs only around two hours, it is an incredible experience, one that I now find myself struggling to describe without giving something away that could ruin it. Perhaps even saying that much is ruining it a bit, giving you an expectation that can’t be matched. All I’m saying is this game makes me feel things, though I cannot articulate what it is other than a sense of nostalgia and being lost but found again. Overly sentimental? Perhaps. I first played this game in 2013 on my PS3, and though I haven’t played it since that first time, starting up the game felt a bit like coming home.
One of the standouts of the game is the level design. From the open wide deserts that the player starts in to the more narrowed ocean-adjacent areas later in the game, there is a beauty that reminds you that games can be an art form just the same as any painting. The fact that the world is so pretty makes the fact that you really only walk, chirp at things or jump seem like a nonissue. Who needs complicated gameplay when you have such stunning surroundings?
It is not a game that begs to be rushed through. While you do have an end-goal and a set path to follow, going off the beaten path and exploring the world around you can reward you with little symbols of light that can make the scarf that you wear longer, letting you float for an increased period of time. Even more, it is not a one and done kind of game either. I have found myself returning to the game again and again, even if the story and levels are the same throughout. As you play again, your character’s robes change slightly, denoting you as a more experienced player compared to the blank red robes that you start with.
The other standout is the soundtrack. When a game such as this lacks dialogue, it is carried by the musical backing that follows the player on their trek and Austin Wintory, the composer, more than delivered. The orchestral cello-heavy soundtrack uplifts the game’s environmental beauty. There were multiple parts in the game where the music seemed to respond directly to a change or event in the game. I have found that the soundtrack of a game that makes me stop and appreciate it is few and far between, simply because it is often something that goes on droning, independent of what I’m doing in the game other than setting a barebones atmosphere. Wintory created something more than just music to give the gamer a basic understanding of the setting around them, he created a score that cannot be divorced from the game it is featured in, being the main crux behind my emotional attachment to the game. Even listening to the soundtrack as I write this makes me want to play the game again so I can relive the moments that each note conjures. If I can ever detangle it from the experiences of the game, it would make an incredible soundtrack to study to as well.
With this much praise of an aspect of a game I don’t usually put much weight on (perhaps to my own loss), it should come as no surprise that Wintory received numerous awards for it, including a BAFTA Game Award. The soundtrack was also the first video game soundtrack to be nominated for the Grammy’s ‘Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media’ category, though it lost to “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”.
The title encapsulates the heart of the game perfectly, it is a journey through emotions and the art of visual storytelling. What the game lacks in complexity of gameplay and length, it makes up for in an evocative emotional experience that has not been replicated in a game since. “Journey” is available for both the Playstation and computers running Windows.