A heap of broken images: why you must play Journey
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
-T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
The action and story of Journey, a PlayStation Network game that will be released on March 13 for $14.99, are hard to pin down in concrete terms. To try to do so may lessen the impact of the game. You wander a barren expanse and try to find the way forward. That’s it. That’s the entire game. It’s over in a matter of hours. On paper, it’s the worst thing ever.
That explanation is like saying a poem is just a list of words, put in some kind of order. It may be accurate, but it doesn’t get to the heart of what is being accomplished. I have theories about the plot, characters, and world you explore when you play Journey, but I’ll leave those for another story, or I may just let you come up with your own thoughts after you play. What I can say is that by the ending of the game I was near tears, and I was sure why. The visuals, music, and interactivity all work together in a way that’s rare in games. The game is perfectly cohesive, even when it’s being inscrutable.
There is a joyful sense of play in Journey, although the weight of what you see and where you go is also a large part of what makes the game so interesting. I found another traveler in my game after connecting to the PlayStation Network, and we walked to each other and contemplated the other for a while. Then I hit a button that allowed my character to sing a note. The other player sang another note. I jumped, and the other player did the same. Having established the fact that we’re both friendly people who wanted to work together, we began to follow each other around the game’s world. We helped each other find the way forward, and in some cases we hid from threats together, and we sang our notes to share our location when we wandered apart. I felt like I had a companion sharing my world.
The character you play in Journey is of indeterminate gender, and there is no way to adjust how you look. I shared around three hours of play time with this other person and I had no idea if they were a woman or a man. Since you can’t speak or type to the other player, there can be no language barrier. I had no way to guess at the ethnicity of the other person sharing my game. Journey gives you the minimum amount of tools you need to communicate in the game, and no more. There is no way to grief other players or to hinder their progress. You don’t have to work with other players, but you can’t hurt them if you encounter them. The game strips away everything that tends to keep people apart, and instead invites you to play a game with this nameless and faceless other person.
The game shared the name of the other player after the credits rolled, and I felt like some of the mystery had been taken away from the game. I enjoyed it much more knowing there was another human out there exploring with me, and we would likely never meet or speak. The game allows you to be playful, and the two of us often flew around the world, chirping our song to each other. We took turns showing off where we could go, and we spent much time exploring the nooks and crannies of the game together. By taking away most forms of communication and sense of identity, the game allows you to bond with other players both quickly and deeply. It’s like nothing else in multiplayer gaming, and it’s going to be an aspect of Journey that is talked about long after the game’s release.
There is something magical about the act of walking through the wonderfully realized sand and flying through the air, with the cloth of your robes flowing behind you. The game offers a sense of grace and wonder that is rare in life, much less video games. Journey offers beautiful scenes and backgrounds every few minutes; I would often sit in front of my television in something close to slack-jawed wonder at what I was being shown. There is also a wonderful sense of movement throughout the game, and I found myself thinking there are the beginnings of a racing game buried in Journey. You’ll see what I mean when you play the game for yourself.
I hope this game finds an audience, and the care put into the world and its mysteries are enjoyed by players with an open mind. It seems like a wonderful thing: masses of people all trying to find the right path forward, working together, not knowing the names or locations of their virtual friends, singing songs into an endless desert.