Sunday, August 25, 2013

Simplicity Matters: 'Journey' Review

As I start  writing  this review  of Journey, the credits  are still rolling and the music  is playing. My eyes are a little watery, and my heart feels full, but with a sense of longing. As if I need to play it again.

And oh, look, now I have the option to do so. It's as if the creators knew their players would feel that way when finished.

I'm going to try  to explain the experience of playing this game, but  honestly, I think the best way to understand it is to just play it yourself. 

Note, I'm on a PS3, so yeah.

Anyway. There will obviously be SPOILERS, but this  game doesn't really have, uh, plot, so much as, well... story or, yeah, JOURNEY.

If I was to give you a theme for this review, it's the beauty through its simplicity that this game accomplishes.

Wow. No words in-game, none at all. Just striking imagery and exceptionally poignant music make Journey an incredible interactive work of art. As has been somewhat popular recently, I gotta say, "Oh, the feels! THE FEELS!" But what  this game is and gives you, does to you, it'
s certainly more than a feeling. (I  had to, sorry.) This game is and  gives an experience.

As you wander the desert in search of the shining mountain peek, you encounter various entities and objects to which you must sing. Some are pieces of cloth that give you semi-flying powers, some are large birds made of cloth that do the same, some are GIANT birds  (more like whales) made of cloth that do the same, and some are paths or shrubs or... seaweed-type things... You sing to them, both you and they light up, and you can fly. It's a really lovely game mechanic- you're wandering on  your own, but you can't do it by yourself. You don't gain power-ups that enable you to jump or float higher or more. You have to interact with the creatures around you. There are even jellyfish-type cloth creatures floating around that you bounce around on and with as you try to go higher in some areas.

The first time I encountered the big birds, I wasn't sure what they were, and they seemed frightened of me- this  made me sad, and I said aloud, "Don't run away! I'm lonely!"  Then I freed one from a cage in front of a few others, and they became playful and helpful, showing me the correct way to go once all their companions had been rescued.

And the more you sing to the things around you, the more you see, the more they do, the more you gain from the experience. Not in a points kind of way, but the enviornment gets enriched- things light up, paths clear, objects become cleaner, artwork is revealed. As you travel through the ruins of the civilization you've found yourself literally on top of, you uncover more of it  as you sing more.

So music plays a role in that sense- it's what you use to accomplish the goal, reaching the glowing summit of a mountain off in the distance.

But the background music takes the prize for aesthetic. My bias toward the cello (former cellist, HOLLA!) not withstanding (lots of cello solos), it's fantastically composed and designed. The main theme is rather simple and somewhat haunting, but  they did a fine job of sprucing and spicing it up by adding wondrous counter-melodies to fit the moods of different scenes. Because, to my surprise, there were actually a number of rather scary  moments, and some sad, too. And the strings going on in the game pull the ones of your heart right along for the ride, magnifying the scenes incredibly.

I'm partial to strings, and I don't recall any brass, and only a little woodwinds- which keeps it rather ephemeral and airy. And suitable to my tastes, while also suitable the game perfectly- the desert landscape of the game lends itself to a limited number of layers in the music, and they definitely held true to that throughout. It's never cheesy, always supportive and supplemental. 

I mentioned feeling lonely before. It's definitely a draw. Like I said,  your progress depends on how much you interact with the environment. And also, you have the ability to interact with other players that are online playing at the same time as you- but again, no words, all you can do is sing at each other. I ran into a few people along my way, and some of them came across as more receptive to companionship than others- conveying this through the tone and speed of their notes. Fast and somewhat harsh cued me to stand down, while slow and light told me they were cool with some tagalong time. While it's possible to go through most of the game with another player (or, I imagine, more) in a semi-cooperative fashion, I didn't have any companions that lasted very long.

The most memorable one was toward the end for me. The final level is in snow, blizzard conditions, and you have to hide behind rocks and tombstone-type things to avoid gusts of winds. The other player and I ran from rock to rock together for a few minutes, and it was a shared moment of bonding and struggle that, had it been scripted, would have just felt corny and contrived- but the fact that the two of us did it organically made it exceptionally powerful and real for me.

Interestingly, when you beat the game, you're given a list of all of the people you had met along the way. I wish I knew which of those people had been the one from the snow. I felt genuinely sad I didn't know.

I've heard of how players have discovered unconventional ways of getting through different levels, ways that  depend on coordinating  with at  least one other player because, say, lots of flight is necessary and there aren't any sources for it, other than meeting with/being near another player. How wondrous, to think that two players can come up with a plan together without using  any words, just the notes they sing and the way they move around one another. So while again, there is much isolation, interaction with and connection to other players can make the experience even more nuanced and fantastical. 

I can't not at least bring  up the visual quality of the game, too. It's positively stunning. And again, simplistic. But the detail is impeccable- sand that reflects like water, the flow of your character's cape or all of the cloth animals and plants, the structures you run in and through and that you see in the background... There's so much texture and detail, even though the spreads are still rather barren. There are a few different  color pallets, and they too help set the mood in the different scenes. The way the cloth creatures look is incredible. And there are also these huge semi-mechanistic dragon things you have to run from a few times that have this sort of timeless/ every-culture look about them- they're made of just vertebrae, a skull, and wings, but they move as if made of liquid and so realistically/believably that they genuinely freaked me out.

There's one sequence where you're sort of sand  surfing on your feet through the ruins  of one of the cities of this ancient civilization- well, okay, so you do that sort of thing a few times (and every time, it's thrilling and impeccably joy-inducing), but one in particular struck me  as so beautiful, I had to pause a few times just to admire it. The camera is to your side instead of behind you as you're on a balcony-type thing, and  the sun is setting  on the side facing the camera- everything is rather backlit and has an incredibly striking gold sheen to it, and the way the shadows play with your own silhouette and the columns  and railings and the windows is so engulfing that it's almost jarring when the camera goes back to normal and behind you. I just loved that sequence, and I'd go back and play it over and over again. 

This game definitely immersed me in a full range of emotions. And I realize the experience may have been heightened because I'm still grieving over a number of things, and still dealing with others, etc. But regardless, I experienced loss, redemption, wonder, fear, sorrow, and almost piercing joy- sometimes all within a few moments of one another. 

I'm finishing this the next morning, but I'm about to turn  the TV on and play through again. 

I give Journey 10/10.* It's no wonder it took home "Game of the Year" on multiple lists. Journey is proof that you don't need an overly complex story, flashy special effects, or a bunch of violence-focused action in order to create a beautiful, moving, high-quality video game. If I was alone in this opinion, there wouldn't be people replaying it over and over. 

*Which is kinda cool, given  my last review was a 10/10- I know  how to pick 'em? Heh. I have a stack of games left unplayed I need to dig into. Good thing I'm not taking classes right now....

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