the artistry and psychology of gaming




Review in Brief
Game: A minimalistic journey across rugged desert terrain to the top of a mountain, wordlessly collaborating with other players across the world.
Good: Breathtaking beautiful cooperative element; brilliantly minimalistic controls leveraged for compelling gameplay; beautifully subtle gameplay cues; breathtaking atmosphere; perfectly sized; amazing attention to detail; incredibly invisible execution.
Bad: The occasional glitch; gameplay experience partially contingent on the quality of your randomly-assigned partner.
Verdict: A triumph, among the greatest games ever made, and the game that single-handedly legitimizes small-budget titles as real players in the gaming industry. The best game of 2012, and the best game I’ve played in years.
Rating: 9/10
Recommendation: Play it. Play it now.


Having been released back in March of this year, I’m a little behind the times in reviewing Journey. The downside of this, of course, is that many of the things I’m about to say have already been said a thousand times. We know Journey‘s appeal, its minimalistic presentation, its beautiful collaborative angle, and its breathtaking atmosphere. It’s been well documented as one of the year’s biggest sleeper hits.

But the strength of reviewing it this long after its release, after every other reviewer in the world has already weighed in on it, is that I have the benefit of watching the historical developments that Journey spawned. I’ve written recently that every genre has that game that legitimizes and popularizes it, and that concept extends to consoles and delivery channels: every gameplay innovation, be it within the game design or outside of it, has that game that solidifies that as a significant movement in the industry.

For digital distribution, Journey is that game. Just like Pokemon legitimized portable consoles as legitimate competitors to traditional consoles, Journey legitimizes online distribution as a major player in the video game industry. Before Journey, digital distribution was for fun small games, a step above what you might download on a smartphone. It wasn’t for artistic experience, brilliant gameplay, or beautiful atmospheres. It wasn’t for innovation. It wasn’t a legitimate player.

Journey changes that. Journey is the game that puts digital distribution on the map in the video game industry, allowing us to consider inexpensive, small, downloadable games as legitimate competitors to their big-budget console cousins. Journey also opens up development to companies that never could have afforded to develop a real competitor to Call of Duty or Final Fantasy. Journey changes the industry in the most profound ways, and we will be feeling the ripples of its impact for years and years to come. For that reason, Journey is my pick for Game of the Year 2012.

The Game
It’s difficult to describe Journey. The character you “play” isn’t the focus of the game nearly as much as the atmosphere and structure of the game. In Journey, there are no stated goals, and in fact it might only be the camera cues and the name of the game that tell you what the objective is in the first place. The game is broken into several large “levels” (although they’re never framed as levels), and you, collaborating with a partner, are tasked with getting through each level in order to reach the end of the game. The only objective of the game is to reach the end.

In doing so, you play a nameless, faceless, cloaked character in the game. Your only distinguishing elements are a scarf around your neck and a pattern on your cloak. You have a symbol indicating your identity, and pressing O triggers a visualization of that symbol. Beyond that, your only controls are the Control Sticks to run and control the camera, and X to jump and fly. There are no other controls available in the game. The distance you can jump and fly is determined by a power level that is depleted as you fly, and can be recharged by coming in contact with bits of garment throughout the game world. You can also increase your total available amount of flying charge by finding glyphs throughout the game. These glyphs increase the length of your scarf, which itself serves as the meter for how much flying energy you currently have.

If that description sounds confusing, don’t let it distract you. Journey is such a beautifully minimalistic game that it is actually difficult to describe it in a way that does it any justice whatsoever.

The Good
There are lots of different kinds of “good” games. There are good games that a purely fun, good games that are addictive, and good games that are artistic achievements. Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past nine months, you know that Journey falls into this last category. But what exactly makes Journey such an incredible artistic achievement?

Wordless Cooperation
The element on which most people focus when discussing Journey‘s brilliance is the collaborative angle. As mentioned above, every level pairs you with a partner. The partner has nearly no distinguishing features; they have a scarf of a certain length, may have a pattern on their tunic, and they have a unique symbol that appears when they press the O button. That is all. There is no talking, there is no text, there is no complex communication. The only way in which you and your partner can communicate is through your gameplay styles and that one button.

You are first introduced to your partner at some point in the second level, and the experience is nothing short of breathtaking. I discuss having a partner here because it is such a core part of the gameplay experience that it is impossible to discuss the game without referencing it, but if you are lucky enough to play Journey without knowing that element, then the moment you encounter a partner for the first time is an unforgettable moment. It is without a doubt one of my favorite moments in video game history. At the point when you encounter them, you’ve already been playing for a few minutes and learned the ins and outs of the control. You’re completing a task that involves assembling a bridge by going around and activating various “switches”. At one point, you might look up and realize that more of the bridge is constructed than you have put together. You might wonder why. Then, you look over and you see another character running around. Is it an AI? No, its movements are too smooth and natural for it to be computer-driven. Then you remember that the game requires an internet connection, and suddenly it clicks — you’re playing with someone else.

That moment is one of the most beautiful moments in gaming, realizing for the first time that you have a partner in this unique, beautiful world. But collaboration in video games isn’t a remarkable idea. Many games nowadays have a collaborative element, and oftentimes they give their games a bad name rather than a good one. The stereotype of collaboration in gaming being completely populated by 12-year-olds with colorful language is pretty commonly known. What makes Journey‘s unique is the narrow channel of communication. As mentioned above, the only thing you can do is press a button to show a symbol. There is no way to be a jerk in the game. You could choose to just not play very well, but even then it isn’t clear to your partner whether you’re actually be a jerk or if you just don’t really know what you’re doing. And even then, although the game is easier to play with a partner cooperating, it isn’t impossible with a partner ignoring the regular flow of the game.

The narrow channel of communication might sound silly, and you might think that the result is that people just don’t collaborate at all. In reality, though, what it provides can be absolutely beautiful. You and your partner develop an unspoken pattern of collaboration. In an incredibly short time, you develop a shared understanding of when to stick together, when to split up, and who is leading who. The game’s ever so subtle indicators of status — scarf length and patterns on the cloak — help new players and experienced players differentiate one another. New players, then, can go in with the understanding that the experienced player can lead them through the challenges more aptly than they could do so on their own. Older players can see that new players are inexperienced and help them along.

Of course, the notion that older players can help new players might seem like idealism. What experienced player would waste their time helping a new player along? The remarkable thing, though, is that it does happen. Throughout the game are glyphs, and collecting glyphs lengthens your scarf, which in turn allows you to fly farther before needing to recharge. You can only collect the glyphs once, though. In playing, however, I encountered an experienced individual as my partner, and in every area, he went out of his way to lead me to the glyphs I hadn’t found. He didn’t have to do that. He could have just run through the area without me, leaving me to fend for myself. He could have led me through the area as fast as possible, but made no effort to show me where the glyphs were. Something about the simple collaborative structure of the game, however, makes altruism and guidance a very natural behavior. Without any behaviors by which to judge the other player, the assumption is that they are a person who you would like to help.

Later in the game, once my partner switched, I found the roles reversed. Even though it was my first play-through of the game, the length of my scarf suggested that between myself and my new partner (for whom it was also the first play-through), I was the more qualified one. I began leading him, and wordlessly we adopted an understanding that he would move when I would move, and stop when I would stop. We had no words, we had no text, we had nothing to actually communicate and agree on that approach; yet, wordlessly, using only the very subtle cues the game provides, we came to that agreement almost immediately.

The entire system is downright beautiful, but what makes it even more beautiful is that in many instances, you aren’t even aware that your partner has shifted. If your partner lacks any discernible markings — a particularly long scarf or decorated cloak — as well as any particularly notable behaviors, you might never know you had switched. At the end of the game, the game reveals the screennames of the players with whom you collaborated, and that itself can be a beautifully revelatory experience (or depressing, I suppose, if you find out that the partner you enjoyed working with holds the name “[yourteam]sucks” or “Ispankedyourmom” or something). In my first play-through, I thought I had played with four different partners, but the final screen revealed I had played with five: the individual I thought was my first partner was actually three different players, and the two individuals I thought were my last two partners were actually the same guy twice!

Journey has many great features, but the incredible execution, simplicity, and beauty of the collaborative co-operative play is the element that transcends gaming. My definition of a “9/10” game is one that does something special to go beyond the normal expectations of its genre, while also being an incredible game on its own. This collaborative element is what sets Journey apart as a truly special game.

Brilliantly Minimalistic Controls
It’s well documented that I’m a fan of minimalism. Shadow of the Colossus and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves are two of my favorite games, in large part because both provide a beautifully minimalistic angle on an industry that can often times can overly bogged down with systems and structures and control schemes (I’m looking at you, Kid Icarus: Uprising, Final Fantasy XIII, and almost every other game I’ve played in the past few years). To really create a sense of pure gaming flow, it’s important to strip out the unnecessary frameworks and simply let the player play.

Journey does that. As mentioned previously, the control scheme in the game is remarkably simple. One control stick controls the camera, the other runs, X jumps and flies, and O is an ‘action’ button that displays your symbol, either to activate markers around you or communicate with your partner. The only real ‘system’ involved in the game is the flying system, and to call it a system is a little silly. At any time, you have a certain amount of flying energy as measured by the length of the design on your scarf, and holding down X uses up that energy. That energy is replenished by coming into contact with pieces of red cloth throughout the world, as well as coming into contact with your partner, encouraging the two of you to stick close together. Other than that, the only other thing you ever do is use the O button to activate markers or revive pieces of red cloth around the game world.

Of course, simplicity in and of itself isn’t a worthwhile goal. A simple game can be a very boring game. The strength of simplicity is that it makes the game easy to play, which in turn allows the game more immersive than it would be otherwise. The key word there, though, is allows. Simple controls allow the game to be immersive, but they do not make the game immersive. Immersion has to come in other ways, and one way is in interesting and engrossing gameplay. Making gameplay simultaneously simple and entertaining is an enormous challenge, but it is one that Journey executes with flying colors.

The key to balancing these seemingly competing demands is to make a variety of gameplay puzzles and styles emerge from a simple set of controls. Take, for example, the gameplay mechanic of recharging the amount of flying energy your character has by touching red cloth. In some areas, there are long cloth pillars that stretch high to the ceiling. That means that the character can ascend these without worrying about using up their energy because the energy is replenished the entire time. The mechanic hasn’t changed, but the way in which it is used is changed. In another example, the player encounters a series of flying octopi made of the red cloth — this enables the player to leap and fly from octopus to octopus in order to ascend an otherwise insurmountable height.

Nearly every level in the game somehow leverages this simple idea. Later, new mechanics enter the fray, such as a flying beast that attacks the player and freezing wind that freezes the player, but again in both cases these are simply extensions of the existing mechanics. Falling victim to one of the beast’s attacks merely reduces the length of the player’s scarf, while freezing temporarily removes access to the scarf until the player thaws again by sticking close to their ally. The player spends the entire game leveraging the skills they know in new and interesting ways, and that, to me, is the hallmark of good game design. Anyone can throw new mechanics or gameplay in at every new level; it takes very special skill and design to use the same mechanics in a variety of interesting ways.

One additional element that makes the controls of Journey so strong does not evolve from the simplicity of them, but rather complements it perfectly. In addition to being simple, the controls are also reasonably fast-paced and, for lack of a better word, “flowy”. The player does not feel like they are actively, deliberately interacting with the world, but rather flowing through it. The flying mechanic is manifested as a quick jump, a steady ascension, followed by a slow descent, leaving the impression of less control than a normal platformer’s jumping mechanic. Many levels are also built on an almost “snowboarding”-like mechanic, allowing the player to quickly slide down long hills. Those mechanics together contribute to the pleasant pace of the game, which feels relaxed without feeling slow.

Beautifully Subtle Gameplay Cues
A simple control scheme isn’t the only thing involved in making a game simple. Without changing a thing about Journey‘s controls, you can imagine a rather complicated interface. You could have a meter on the side of the screen indicating your current level of flight charge, along with an annotation on it indicating how many glyphs you’ve gathered and how much they’ve added to your potential flight charge. You can imagine a minimap with icons representing your ally’s location and locations of cloth, flying beasts, glyphs, and the exit. You can imagine an icon over your ally’s head that becomes an arrow pointing off screen whenever he isn’t in sight. You can imagine icons indicating your ally’s flight charge as well, as well as icons indicating various other elements of both your and your ally’s play history. There could also be a series of highlighted checkpoints indicating where to go next. All of that would be fairly standard for the way games are designed nowadays, but it would also be in direct conflict with the way in which Journey presents its gameplay otherwise.

Instead, Journey finds ways to present all that information within the game itself, all in beautifully subtle, yet still visible and usable, ways. Rather than a meter indicating how much flight charge your character can hold, the length of the character’s scarf is used as an indicator. Then, that scarf is ‘filled’ with glowing characters when charge is available. That glow decreases as you fly, giving a very clear indicator of how much you can store and how much you currently have, right there on your character. On top of that, the indicator is consistent between you and your ally, making it easy to tell your ally’s status as well. Rather than a minimap, the various elements of the game are readily visible (except for the ones it wants to be challenging to find, of course, like the glyphs). The game does give an indication of where your ally is when he is off screen, but rather than a bold arrow, it’s a soft white glow on the side of the screen in the ally’s direction. The size of the glow changes to indicate whether your ally is just off screen or way over to the side as well. Rather than ’emblems’ to indicate your play history, beating the game and unlocking certain achievements opens up certain embroidered patterns on your cloak. All of these are done in subtle, unobtrusive ways that still present the information very clearly.

The most remarkable one, though, are the subtle cues that serve to guide the player where to go. With game worlds becoming more and more dynamic, it has become more and more of a challenge to make the actual linear path clear to the player without overly restricting the visible world. Many games, like Final Fantasy XIII, solve this issue by making progress through the game a series of checkpoints. That, clearly, would be again at odds with Journey‘s structure. Instead, through a combination of brilliant level design and beautiful camera work, Journey just somehow seems to always let it be obvious and natural to the player where to go next. Part of this is through the way the levels are structured, with seemingly open areas only having one logical path. Part of this is through camera work, where the orientation of the camera naturally highlights the path the player should take. Part of this… well, honestly, part of it I can’t even put my finger on. There were times when I was playing where I actually said to my wife, “I think I’m supposed to go that way. I don’t know why.” and it turned out that the direction I was looking was correct. I don’t even know how the game made this obvious in some points, but it certainly did so, and that is a beautiful thing.

Breathtaking Atmosphere
Immersion does not solely come from gameplay, of course, and in the case of Journey, much of that immersion actually comes from the game’s extraordinary atmosphere. From the very beginning, Journey creates a very unique world, and it does so with the simplest of devices. You see panning shots over large landscapes that serve little purpose beyond revealing to you the enormity of the world you are about to traverse, but in that enormity is the game’s entire appeal. Despite taking place over only a couple hours of playtime, Journey is among the most epic journeys I have ever witnessed in video gaming. It does this without the benefit of a world map, dialog, or a strong driving plot; simply through its immersive atmosphere, it paints a breathtaking story of traversing an incredible landscape with a companion.

I often use ‘atmosphere’ as a catch-all for the various elements that contribute to it, and in this case, the atmosphere is a combination of a wide variety of elements. The music, among the best released in any video game this year, complements the game’s structure and style perfectly with a breathtaking simplicity that itself drives some of the heightened moments of achievement. In many instances, the music is the primary cue that something significant is about to take place. The visual style of the game is included here as well, painting a very cohesive world for the player to traverse. Even the subtle sound effects and the whimsical walking and flying animations play a role in creating this relaxed, engaging masterpiece.

Perfectly Sized
One of the only criticisms directed by some at Journey is its size; if no major obstacles are hit, the game provides a total of two hours of playtime for a given playthrough. For many, that seems short, even for Journey‘s low digital distribution price point.

In my opinion, however, Journey is perfectly sized for its style and structure. First and foremost, the style of Journey is such that it is clearly intended to be played in one sitting, and with that in mind, a main plot length that runs over a couple hours would be too long to fit into the session length of the average gamer. The game is perfectly sized to allow the player to experience the rising tension and scale of the game as it goes on. Leaving the game and returning to it is a jarring experience as the game builds upon itself; it lulls the player into its world and the mood that it creates, and leaving and returning to it in a separate sitting loses a lot of the affect that the atmosphere has on the player. At two hours, the game is the perfect length for one epic play session.

The length also makes the game ripe for replay value. Replaying the game isn’t a long, drawn-out achievement spanning multiple play sessions; the game can be picked up quickly on a lazy afternoon and beaten in a couple hours. It’s more like the old Star Fox 64 in that way; the game’s structure isn’t intended to be beaten once and never played again, but rather the player is expected to play it over and over, pulling more out of it each time. At two hours, replay value is still very much on the table, and it can be played through numerous times.

While replay value is a great goal in and of itself, in the case of Journey, it has an added purpose. The collaboration angle relies in many ways on the accessibility of players of different skill and experience levels. New players are expected to learn from and follow older players, and older players are expected to lead new players through the game’s challenges. Therefore, it is important for the game to have players who are playing the game through for the second, third, or fourth time in order to link them up with newer players. Without this, the game would still be good, but it would lose the beautiful collaboration that results from uniting players of different skill and ability levels.

The collaboration angle dictates the length of the game in one other way as well, although in this case, it does not leverage it so much as it dictates the small structure. The game relies on the ability to pair players up very quickly on every level. With only a finite number of players playing at a given time, it would be important to have a relatively small pool of levels to assign them to in order to guarantee that almost every player always has a partner. If the game were composed of 50 levels, it would get more and more difficult over time to ever guarantee that there exists another player in the world playing the same level as the current player. With only a handful of levels (eight to be exact), the game can be reasonably sure that there will always be a partner for every player, even months and years after its release.

Marvelous Attention to Detail
The final touch in creating this beautiful game experience is what I would describe as polish. These are the little things that some games have that add just that extra tiny finishing touch to the game. You might never miss them if they were not there, but they complete the experience and reflect the attention to detail that the developers emphasized in the game’s creation.

The top element of polish in my opinion comes in the pause screen. When pausing the game, there is a visible indicator to your partner that you have paused: your character sits down. On your screen, rather than just a static image, the camera pans over your current area in real-time, showing what is happening and your current status in solving the given area.

There are numerous other elements of polish in the game, many so subtle that it actually is not possible to even describe them explicitly. Combining them all together, though, enhances the gameplay experience immensely.

Invisible Execution
This last positive point is less of a praise of the game experience and more a praise of the development. The player, in playing the game, is never aware of the back-end. There is no match-making screen, no “finding partner” bar, no connection meters. There are none of the elements that are typically present in a game that involves a multiplayer component. Everything is executed invisibly, and I am honestly amazed by that.

I played the game nine months after release, and yet I always had a partner in every level. How do they ensure that every player always has a partner? This isn’t just about having enough players, but also about assigning and allocating them well. What if I start a level that no one else has started recently? How does the game ensure I have a partner? It always succeeded in that, but it did so in a way that never let the player be aware of it. How did the game deal with lag? You are never aware of another player’s character jumping or teleporting around or moving unpredictably as happens in almost every other game. How do they manage that? Everything is executed beautifully invisibly in the background, and while that plays an obvious role in enhancing the conscious game experience, the engineering marvel itself deserves credit on its own.

The Bad
Journey is a nearly perfect game. It may be the closest I have ever seen a game come to perfection in my eyes. I commented to my wife once while playing that Journey might receive the first 10/10 I have ever given. In the end, however, two elements represent minor but notable knocks against its overall perfection. One of these could have certainly been fixed. The other is nearly an inherent part of the game design, but it deserves to be noted nonetheless.

Not Impervious to Glitches
The game does have some glitches. Or, at least, it has a glitch. I’ve heard of other glitches, but I myself encountered one significant one that caused me to get stuck in one of the final areas (a snowy area toward the end). I had to turn off the game and restart it to restart that area.

Glitches are never forgivable, but in the case of Journey, it takes on an additional meaning for several reasons. First and foremost, Journey is a small game; it should not be hard to make it glitch-free. For some games with massive worlds and numerous switches and variables, glitches are nearly unavoidable, but for a game as simple as Journey, glitches should not be an issue.

Secondly, glitches are a problem in Journey because of the lack of an in-game ‘restart’ option. When trapped in a snowy area, the only way I could continue the game was to turn it all the way off and open it up again. The glitch didn’t freeze the screen or anything, but because it was not possible to restart the area through an in-game menu, I had to turn the game off to restart the area.

But the third problem is the most significant, and in order to describe it, I’ll describe the specific circumstances regarding my instance of this glitch. I had been partnered with an experienced player for a few levels. That player had shown me several glyph locations, walked me through several puzzles, and was generally excellent. The glitch is what prevented me from continuing the game with that partner. Over the course of those travels, you actually develop an attachment to your partner; the lack of an open communication channel means that there is nothing to differentiate him from yourself, and thus it is very easy to see him as part of your own ‘in-group’. You become linked, attached, and it is legitimately sad to see them go. For that to happen because of a glitch, then, is even more frustrating. To restart the chapter and be partnered instead with someone much less skilled is disheartening, which leads us to the last point…

Play Experience Dependent on Luck of the Draw
As mentioned above, this last criticism is almost an inherent part of the game. You can’t force people to play seriously, you can’t force people to be competent, and you can’t force people to share the same goals. Your experience with the game is determined in large part by your partner. If they are willing to cooperate and work together, then the game is absolutely beautiful. If they leave you behind or refuse to follow, the game is still enjoyable, but lacks that very special additional quality.

In my case, my best experience with the game was with the seasoned veteran I joined. He led me through several levels, directing me to glyphs and helping me understand the overall structure of the puzzles. After the aforementioned glitch forced me to reset, I was partnered with someone far less skilled, and as a result my experience shifted from easily traversing a complex world to trying to figure out my destination. It was still enjoyable, of course, but the enjoyment was changed significantly with a different partner, and I can only imagine the frustration that would come from a partner that truly was not putting forth any effort to succeed. Thus, part of the game’s appeal will always be partially constrained by the partner you randomly draw. It’s a necessary evil to make the rest of the game’s appeal a reality, but it’s an evil nonetheless.

The Verdict
Journey is an historic achievement in nearly every possible way. It is one of those rare games that not only is strong in and of itself, but also has a major impact on the industry as a whole. On its own, the game is beautiful, with a minimalistic charm and a simple game structure that together create one of the most uniquely moving game experiences of all time. Make no mistake about it, Journey is an all-time great on its own, easily worthy of inclusion in the conversation with Shadow of the Colossus, Final Fantasy Tactics and Okami, and more recent titles like Braid and Limbo, as among the most beautifully artistic games of all time. In fact, gun to my head, I would take Journey over any other game I’ve ever played in a heartbeat as the most beautiful example of video games as works of art.

But Journey is not just an incredibly game on its own. Journey is one of those rare games that changes the industry as well. It changes the industry in some ways by being another reminder (although we should know this by now) that video games can deliver a truly unique artistic experience unparalleled by any other medium. More importantly (at least from a sales and future development standpoint), though, it changes the industry. It legitimizes downloadable, digital distribution games. It shows that a $15 game downloaded over the internet can compete with the big boys, the Call of Duty and Mass Effect and Halo franchises and every other major big-budget release, and still hold its own. In fact, it can do more than hold its own. It can win. Journey is the best game of 2012, and the best game I’ve played in several years.

But none of this should be a surprise when you look at the company behind the game. Thatgamecompany is a group dedicated to the science and art of video games. Its developers and designers are researchers and artists, not profit-minded businessmen. Incubated in academia, Thatgamecompany approaches game design with a unique perspective on psychology, human cognition, artificial intelligence, and every other element that secretly plays into the success of a game. While other developers look at the shadows that players cast on the wall and design games for those shadows, Thatgamecompany looks at the player themselves, their mind and spirit, and designs instead for them. For that reason, Thatgamecompany can produce games that elicit an emotional, visceral experience about which other developers can only dream.

My Recommendation
Play it. No matter who you are, play it. And then play everything else Thatgamecompany has produced, too, while you’re at it.

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