Across the vast pool of video games that I have picked up and played over the years, there exists a handful of truly transcendent moments, times when I find myself in silenced awe of the rendered landscape I am constantly participating in and the mind-numbing complexity of the digital world enveloping me.
For instance, traveling across a sun-soaked Manhattan by helicopter as GTA IV’s Niko Bellic, with thousands upon thousands of detailed skyscrapers creating a sheet of glowing orange glass as the breathing, automated city flows beneath me. Or holding a 9mm to the head of a random stranger—a father of two you learn—as Heavy Rain’s Ethan Mars, a desperate father forced to the fringes of morale decision making by a serial killer who, in the style of the Saw films, forces his victims, as well as you the player, to make weighty choices to save their loved ones. Moments like these leave me emotionally exhausted, more so than any film or book ever has; partially because video games remind me of how much more immersive my relationship with the experience is while still kindling the thought that the medium still has so much potential to grow.
But I can honestly say that I have never had a moment of such breathtaking transcendence like any one of the picture perfect moments of Thatgamecompany’s Journey, a mere $15 purchase from the PlayStation Store that became available for download in North America on March 13. It is a short and simple game, coming in at a little under two hours and involving no more than four controls – two for movement and two for interaction. But it manages to be an absolutely powerhouse entertainment experience, offering more emotional resonance and thematic depth than any triple-A title currently trying to sucker players into obsessive multiplayer modes and squeeze pennies out of them with downloadable content.
Only because it seems absolutely necessary for anyone to talk critically and analytically about video games as pieces of art, I will, rather grudgingly, state my point of view: video games are art. Let me repeat that: the video game is, without a doubt, an art form, like books, television and film. Anyone who is still unconvinced of that either has a gnawing inner fear that an art form they love or practice is somehow going to be eclipsed by the video game or, as his or her head so far up their ass that they have been incapable of picking up a controller and actually playing one to see for themselves what the medium is capable of.
That aside, Journey is, by a wide margin, the most beautiful and artistic video game I have ever played. It is, visually, a masterpiece, set in an unknown land covered in gold-glinting sand that, when whipped up by the wind or brushed aside by your gliding, pointed legs, brings new meaning to video game realism. But the physics of sand aside, the game’s art style is more akin to a Miyazaki film, channeling the anime fluidity flowing neatly between cartoon and live action.
Your playable character is a cloaked, faceless traveler, save two solid colored orbs for eyes, who cannot speak outside of a momentary chirp that emits from a fleeting emoticon. Your only mission is to travel to the summit of a mountain in the distance, all of which is encased in what looks like a mix of cell shading and Japanese woodblock art. There were times while playing that I stopped and let out a few “oh my God’s,” as sonically mesmerizing classical arrangements swirled seamlessly in the background while I surfed down glistening sand dunes towards my mountain goal and soared through the air wrapped in white light. The game’s only action besides travelling up and down the sand involved chirping next to floating fabric shards that enabled you to hover momentarily, and the mixture of those two mechanics with elementary puzzle solving gave the experience a near-non-stop flow while still not being so easy that you could simply push the thumb stick forward and reach your destination.
But the visuals are merely one half of Journey’s simple, yet momentous, appeal. Its truly revolutionary mechanic is the fact that at any point in the game, you can meet up with a complete stranger playing the game somewhere else in the world. It is effectively the first ever completely collaborative single-player game in that at any one point, you are experiencing the same exact moment, down to sharing space in the same cut scene.
This not only gives players the opportunity to forge remarkably emotional relationships with complete strangers—people whose names, ages and locations are never revealed to you while playing—but it deepens Journey’s far-reaching thematic web. Some themes the game manages to touch on are notions of intimacy in a sea of loneliness, the idea that life is given meaning only in the fleeting relationships you form with others and whatever else you subjectively draw from the short trip to the mountain summit. A friend of mine even played the entire game with a single stranger who refused to leave his side, no matter how separated they became at times, leading him to frankly exclaim, “I actually feel a legitimate connection with this person,” whereas I met up to four different people on my first play through.
While Journey isn’t saying anything new—yes, life can be an introspective journey where, if only for select moments, you share a deep connection with maybe only one other person—but the game’s mission is not to reinvent the meaning of life or to tell us that we should view it as one part ambiguous fable and one part semi-religious parable. What it does aim to do is frame the above-mentioned philosophical head-scratchers into one of the most emotionally affecting experiences to grace any artistic medium. Journey will undoubtedly become one of the most influential titles in recent years—it’s already the fastest selling PlayStation Network game of all time—but more importantly, it has pushed, with a small independent studio and a simple idea, the ever-evolving medium of the video game even further beyond our imagination