The experience of playing them is closest to listening to a complete symphony: the “levels” correspond to movements, each with its own recurring themes and overall mood. The game as a whole takes the player through moments of intrigue, exhilaration, suspense, contemplation, sadness, and triumph.
(I guess now’s as good a time as any to point out that there’s just no way to talk about these games without sounding insufferably pretentious).
You have to describe the game in terms of an orchestral work, since using the typical language of talking about video games just misses the point entirely. It’d be like describing a symphony in terms of its running time, or how many instruments it uses. (Just for the record, Journey was a little bit shorter than Flower for me; I’d estimate that my play through took around two and a half hours).
In terms of “gameplay,” it’s definitely more about exploration than anything else. Reviews I’d read would talk about “rudimentary puzzling,” but even that is overstating it. Nothing stands out as being a traditional puzzle. It’s all a case of figuring out how to advance towards the destination, and since movement and leaping/flying are your only ways to interact with the world, it’s never difficult to find your path.
It’s a testament to the quality of the visual design that I could write about the game without ever mentioning the visuals. It’s all striking and memorable, often beautiful, but never draws attention to itself. Unlike, for example, Skyrim, which presented you with one stunning vista after the next as part of an extended travelogue, I never once thought about how difficult it must’ve been to present the visual in Journey. I was just there.
The character design, too, is perfectly expressive without needing to impose too many details or too much pre-canned personality. As with everything else in the game, you don’t think about it so much as feel it. Details about the Moroccan or Tibetan influence on the design of a section, or piecing together a narrative of the history of a people, or figuring out how to get onto a ledge to reach that glowing thing, or looking for similarities between the game and Super Mario World or Ico or Shadow of the Colossus — they’re all ideas that will pop into your mind while playing, and then they quickly become subsumed. It’s a game that works more on the subconscious.
Brian Moriarty’s description of “Sublime art [as] the still evocation of the inexpressible” seems particularly appropriate.
It’d be a disservice to describe anything in the game as “simple” — even past the conceptual design, and then even past the skilled modeling throughout, it’s clear that a great deal of technical skill and artistry went into the systems that make the light reflect off sand just right, the player’s trudging movement up hills and skiing down slopes and being caught on drafts of wind feel exactly natural, and then combining them all in such a way that you find yourself inventing your own game of slaloming through ruined archways as you glide down a hill, not because the game has told you to, but just because it’s fun.
But I could (and I did) say most of the same things about Flower. Both are beautiful, masterful games that improve the whole of video games simply by existing. And even if Journey had just taken the “abstract symphony” of Flower and translated it to a new environment, it’d still be a beautiful piece of work.
But it didn’t. Journey will periodically add another player — completely anonymously and beyond your control — to your game. The only thing you know about the other person is that he’s playing the game at the same time and in the same area as you. You can’t degrade the other player’s game, or in fact substantially improve it, either. You can’t communicate in any way apart from moving and sending out an occasional “ping” that radiates from your character. You and the other character are only identified by a glyph that shows up when you send out a ping; I was “two archways two staircases” and spent most of my play though with “three lines staircase.”
And it completely transforms the entire experience.
I’ve read reviews that indicated the reviewer developed a kind of language with his companion: a ping to indicate “look over here,” two pings to indicate “yes.” I never managed anything that consistent or that sophisticated, but I still began to translate pings from the other player as “help” or “come this way.”
By staying close to your companion, you “charge up” each other’s ability to jump and glide. It’s convenient but by no means necessary; the levels are designed so that there’s nothing you can’t complete when playing solo. But even after that became clear, I would try to stay close to my companion and get frustrated when he or she would pull away. I’d switch modes between cooperative and competitive as I’d try to guide her to the end of a level, but then head off on my own to pick up a glowing crystal I’d spotted on a high ledge. (I still have no idea whether those are exclusive to one player in a multiplayer game, but I was irrationally keeping them for myself in any case).
I’d begin to detect a little bit of personality unique to each companion — one wanted to work with me, while another would run off to finish as quickly as possible. I’d get a little nervous when we got separated. I felt guilty when I realized I’d left a companion behind in a dangerous area. I resolved to help a different companion through an area once I realized I had a slight advantage. I went back to help a companion through an area when it became clear that he wasn’t figuring it out on his own, even though it ended up with us both “failing.” (You can’t “lose” the game in any meaningful way, but there are a couple of sections cleverly designed to have an “ideal” path and a lesser one).
The ending, which I won’t spoil here, is masterfully designed to exploit having a companion character there. It doesn’t appreciably change what you can do, but it makes the ending a billion times more poignant.
The characters in the game, despite having no dialogue, or even mouths or arms for that matter, are still expressive simply through the use of broad gestural animations. But really, we’ve already seen that. We’ve seen how clever animation can imbue even the simplest of shapes with life and personality, and how we project personality onto inanimate objects even without wanting to. Scott McCloud gives tons of examples in Understanding Comics: once you’ve seen the face in the electrical outlet, you can’t not see it.
What I’d never seen before, was this concept expressed so effectively through a game mechanic. Having another person in the game — a mostly silent, completely anonymous, completely randomly chosen person — gives everything that you do in the game more weight, more importance, more possibility. It gives it meaning.
Flower takes the player from “the bright and playful part” to “the dark and scary part,” and it’s perfectly evocative, and it works exactly how it’s intended. Journey does much the same thing, but it feels like more than just transitioning from one part of a loose narrative to the next. It’s got an added layer of mystery — what happened to my friend? — and suspense — did he make it through that section all right? — and even guilt — did I inadvertently leave him behind to get attacked? We were having so much fun a second ago! I’ll never forget all you did for me, four-dots archway!
A minor spoiler: at the end of the game, you’re shown a list of all the players who were your companions along the way, in the form of their “ping” symbol and their user names. I kind of wish that this wasn’t included. For one thing, it shattered one illusion: I’d been under the impression that I detected three unique players in my play through, but the closing showed eight.
More importantly, though: the anonymity is what makes the presence of another player so meaningful. You start with absolutely nothing, but you build a kind of relationship through the game using only the simplest of tools. Whether you work together or ignore each other, help each other out or leave each other behind, is all based on random chance instead of any prejudices or agendas. It’s unlike any other multiplayer experience I’ve ever had. And I liked it a lot better when it was with three lines staircase instead of ShadowGrl158.