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Journey (Playstation 3)

“A journey is a person in itself, no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

- John Steinbeck

Few statements better encapsulate the experience of playing Thatgamecompany's Journey. An indie game originally released for the Playstation 3 in 2012.. It was the third and last game to be developed under Thatgamecompany's three game contract with Sony. Much like the company's previous games, director Jenova Chen, lead designer Nick Clark and their intrepid team sought to create an emotional experience for players that would break away from conventional video game mechanics and online multiplayer.

The idea was to make the players feel small and in awe of the expansive environment as they take control of a lone figure. Who must begin a long trek through a desert, to the top of a tall mountain. Each section or level mirroring the different phases of the “Heroes Journey” monomyth. If the game is played online, players can run into each other as they travel. Either choosing to continue on their way or travel  together. But unlike other forms of multiplayer, the identity of other players is kept unknown until after the end credits. The only form of communication between players is a series of musical chimes. These same chimes can be used to interact with the environment and open new pathways for players to explore as they make their way up the mountain.

The words I think are the best suited to describe Journey's visual style, are simple yet spectacular. Even though most of the game is spent traveling through a desert, each section of this massive desert has a visual spectacle that sets it apart from the others. Giant towers that can be used to construct a bridge made of magic cloth surrounded by waterfalls of sand. Rolling hills of sand that give way to large ruins of an ancient city and much more can be found as you go forward.

Though there are only so many levels to explore in the game overall, it is clear a lot of effort went into designing and animating these levels, from the simple cloth physics to each individual grain of sand. The lighting adds another layer to the awe factor, showing how the environment changes as it transitions from morning, evening into night. The effect used in this game to capture the look of the setting sun reflecting off the sand is a visual that continues to take my breath away every single time I play this game.

These visuals, along with the expertly crafted and dynamic musical score composed by Austin Wintory, make Journey a stand out video game that will definitely tug at the heartstrings. But it is really the multiplayer that amplifies the game into a real experience. To this day, I will never forget my first play through. Traveling the first level alone, until I ran across another first-time player. We spent the rest of the game traveling together, through all of the highs and lows, helping each other and keeping the other safe. Near the end of the game, the two of us were forcefully separated by the harsh elements of the base of the mountain. I found myself fearing the worst until I found my companion waiting for me near the peak. We were so elated to see each other that we literally ran around each other in circles for several minutes, chirping at each other. We finished our journey together, and though I may never know exactly who my companion was or where they come from in the end I know it doesn't matter. I will always be grateful for choosing to travel with them instead playing the rest of the game solo.

It is experiences like this that seemed to be the ultimate goal for Journey's development team. Who spent many aggravating years, battling with Sony's tight deadlines, limited funds (the company had to declare bankruptcy in the final month of development) and constant delays so they could get the game where they wanted to. Though ultimately, according to the game's executive producer Robin Hunicke, the team was forced to take a step back and reevaluate their increasing frustration and distrust of each other. Having to let go of ideas that wouldn't make it into the final game and limiting hours spent working on the game. Despite the additional delays, this move reinvigorated the development staff and brought back the focus on creating an unique emotional experience that would set Journey apart as a video game.

And considering the number of awards the game received after it released, including an ANNIE and multiple BAFTA award for its animation, soundtrack (it even received a 2013 Grammy for its song “I was Born for This”), it would be safe to say that they succeeded.

Journey is not your average video game. It doesn't have big fire fights, leader boards, giant swords, battle system, or motion capture level graphics. But for what it lacks, it more than makes up for in spectacular art design, animation and innovative thinking that video games can become more than what they already are. So if you're looking for a game that offers a different type of experience or just something to play to help you chill after a long day, you won't find any better than Journey.

Journey is available for download via the Playstation Network. A collectors edition is also available which contains Journey and Thatgamecompany's previous titles (Flow and Flower) for both the Playstation 3 and Playstation 4. 

Austin Wintory's soundtrack is available here. “The Art of Journey” the game's official art book created by the game's art designer Matt Nava can be found here.