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Mood Pieces: The Spiritual Voyage of “Journey”

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This installment of Mood Pieces is about Journey, a downloadable PlayStation 3 game by thatgamecompany, whose earlier work includes flOw and Flower – a game that managed to hit a button of mine that no other game has come close to.

There are two games that inspired me to start writing this feature: the first one is Today I Die, which I wrote about a little while ago, and the second one is Flower by thatgamecompany. Both flOw and and especially Flower made quite an impression on me, but since I’m not working for the gaming press anymore, Journey managed to sneak on the market without me noticing it. “Everybody who owns a PS3 and doesn’t buy Journey right now are stupid shitheads who don’t deserve to live”, said my pal Mikki on one day in his inimitable style, and blogged about the game, and that’s when I realized it got finally published.

Journey is a game of pilgrimage, and one of those games where absolutely nothing is given you in an easy to digest fratboy form. You are a robed pilgrim, who in the beginning of the game is sitting on the desert sands, looking at a mountain that is your destination. That’s more or less everything you are given, in addition to a hint that tilting your controller changes the viewpoint, which is easier to do with the thumbsticks.

The soundtrack is good. Not Bastion-good, but very very good. The main theme, which is a little bit under-used in my opinion, is incredibly sad and atmospheric, and it gets woven into the soundtrack through the game. Check out the trailer to hear what I mean.

I am not a multi player gamer, period. I like to play co-op with my friends and people who can be trusted to not be the ordinary kind of 16 year old arsepanda of Xbox Live (and who usually kick my ass in the games 1-0 while calling me a gay jew, which is kind of beside the point). I’d go as far as to say that multiplayer kills the atmosphere in most games. That’s why I was super suspicious about Journey being a sort of an involuntary multiplayer – but I shouldn’t have.

This is what happened. My robed, masked pilgrim waded through the golden dunes of sand of the desert and reached a valley with ruins. In the distance I saw another pilgrim, who ran to me and… chimed. The only way to communicate was to produce a little chord and a little glyph, which was in a way your name in the game world. Staying close to each other made us glow, which gave me a feeling of us being stronger together than alone. There is a game mechanic to this, a very elegant one. If I say that it has to do with jumping, which is very important in the game, I’m not saying Journey is a platformer. In the same way if I say that there are attacks during the game, I’m not saying there’s combat in the game.

All in all, Journey is an experience, and the multiplayer works incredibly, stupendously well into that. I was kind of sure that I played most of the game with just one person, but that at some point the players changed, and after the credits this turned out to be the case. There was a weird feeling of camaraderie between these two pilgrims, both trudging towards the same destination, with no real way to communicate specifics – just signal attention, joy, amusement, whatever, with one chime.

Gameplaywise traveling together with someone helps, but not so much you’d just wait for someone to arrive so it would be easier to progress. The weird thing is, during the pilgrimage, it just feels good to have someone traveling with you – both of you heading towards the same goal.

Then comes the last quarter of the game, where the hot golden dunes and the ruins get switched into arctic slopes of the mountain which is your destination. Gliding on the dunes turns into trudging in the snow, which manages to feel like just pushing the thumb stick forward is an effort. There are winds that blow you back, and me and my companion stay and wait for each other, chiming our glyphs to show each other the way in the blizzard. Fabric plays an important role in the game, and in the arctic winds the robes and scarves of the travelers freeze over. The glow of the characters staying together brought a weird feeling of huddling together for warmth, and the glow in the sides of the screen, which told where your partner was, turned from a nifty visual indicator to a pointer for human contact.

Then comes the end of the game, and I’m just not going to write about it in here.

Journey managed to give me a real kidney punch in a way no game has ever done before. I’m a relatively cold guy, and after the game was over my fiancé tried to talk to me – I just said “later” to her and went to bed. She said “oh, sorry, that kind of game, eh?”

The thing is, Journey managed to be the first game that gave me any kind of spiritual reaction. The journey of the pilgrim with the hardships, companions, defeats and final ascension is… I wouldn’t want to say “generic”, but rather a recurring thing I’d say comes up in religions from shamanism through Christianity to countless other religions. The pilgrimage towards the mystery, and what happens then.

Damn, nice to get this kind of kidney punch from a game.

I concur with the comrade Rautalahti: if you have a PS3, appreciate the finer art of gaming and don’t buy this game right now, you’re a stupid shithead who doesn’t deserve to live.

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