You might have some preconceptions of what Journey is based on prior experience with Thatgamecompany’s other works, namely flOw and Flower. The latter managed to be pretty divisive, with many detractors claiming that something so simple can hardly be considered a game, while the other side felt that it made a definitive case for the pro- “games as art” idea. Journey represents perhaps an offering to the critics, going for more conventional mechanics, but maintaining the beauty, style, and sense of wonder that will ensure fans aren’t alienated.
Journey tells the wordless tale of a sleek, cloaked, perhaps non-human desert dweller. Or maybe not a dweller as such, but that’s certainly where the beta takes place, and it does seem to fit the character’s aesthetics. Only the slightest direction is given as far as how to play, starting with tilting the controller to move the camera, which is actually strangely redundant. Thatgamecompany haven’t completely eschewed the Sixaxis controls that their previous games embraced with both arms, but they might as well have. Camera control is available by the right analogue stick is totally in play and decidedly more effective.
Sand dunes stretch out in every direction, and while the game keeps you within it’s realm by way of mysterious winds which pick up when you stray too far, it does a good job of conveying a vast expanse, and there does seem to be enough places to go exploring in to satisfy most.
Exploring the sands will take you to find many curious things, and a major theme in the game is that of fabric, or perhaps ribbons or a scarf. Indeed, one the early encounters is with a white ribbon like power-up looking pick up which dissolves and then forms a scarf on the player with white runes on it. From that point, you’re able to jump, but doing so will take away the white runes, so the scarf actually acts as a kind of meter, which can be grown with more white-ribbon encounters. To recharge the meter, various swarms of fabric swatches fly in localised areas, which will automatically fly at the character to return the white runes to their scarf. Elsewhere in the world are several fabric strips blowing in the wind, and holding the circle button down will cause a large kind of ‘ping’ to be released, colouring the strips and then causing them to retract, and then trigger some kind of world event, like the release of a swatch swarm, or the opening of a passage.
Just as the tutorial prompts (if they can be called that) give the bare minimum and left the player fill in the gaps, so does the narrative. Finding a relic or altar type location triggers a scene of pictograms which appears to be describing the player character’s people or ancestors, and the civilisation, but the meat of it doesn’t appear to be within the scope of the beta. Continuing with the theme of deliberate minimalism, the game has a kind of multiplayer, where you may encounter other players, but you have no means with which to identify or communicate with them in any easy conventional way. I managed to encounter someone, and the wonderment of being in this virtual world with a truly anonymous person was almost surreal and serene as the world itself. We pinged at each other a few times, unleashed a couple of swatch swarms which created ribbons between bridges, and then we sped and leapt along said ribbons to end the level. It’s certainly nothing like the average multiplayer experience, and the irony is that it’s because it’s so entirely restricted and cut back.
Strange ruins poke out, or lay on top of, the sand and provide a trail for you to follow in the general direction of a mountaintop beacon, and progressing towards it doesn’t appear to be much of a challenge, but I was reminded of the game Braid in this regard. Getting from A to B is never an issue as the game does little to obstruct you, but there’s plenty to do in between the two points which is really the point. At great risk of sounding corny by invoking an idiom and the title of the game, the destination doesn’t matter as much as the Journey itself.