Why Journey Should Be Game Of The Year

The first time I played Journey, I thought "OK." It had been a lovely experience, sure. I'd played it to around the halfway mark, taken a short break, then finished it. It seemed very nice. Lovely looking, and with a gorgeous soundtrack. Past that, I couldn't quite nail it down. The second time I played Journey, I thought, "That was one most beautiful video games I've ever played." I guess I just needed some perspective. Journey is the rare game that exists as a coherent whole, a fully realised work in which each 15-minute chunk of its two-hour runtime is equally important. Because of that, it's a rare game that needs to be taken and digested as a single entity.

Many good games can be stripped for parts, analysed afterwards as a series of excellent, good, and bad levels. The train sequence in Uncharted 2; the Chernobyl level in Modern Warfare; the final chase in Assassin's Creed III. Most video games are collections of discrete ideas that have been unified, with varying degrees of success, by an overarching narrative.

Not Journey. Sure, the game has separate sections: Anyone who's played it will remember the underground seaweed-platforming, the sandstorm towers, the great carpet-whale, and the terrifying mechanical hunters. And they'll remember surfing the sand alongside red dolphins, the radiant sun melting into the desert in the distance.

But those moments pass into one another so quickly and seamlessly that the game demands to be taken as a whole. And so it wasn't until I drew near the close of my second journey (which, I'll note, I did in one rapt sitting) that I really "saw" the game. Climbing the snowy mountain, pushing forward against the wind and the ice, I realised that my scarf was gone. I hadn't noticed its departure; somewhere along the way, it had simply dissolved. I could no longer jump, let alone fly. All that was left was a brutal push forward toward a cold, lonely death.

I thought back to that sunset, when I'd been so free and full of life; when my scarf had been so long, and my whole journey before me. I'm 32 now, and while some part of me still thinks I'll be young forever, I'm more aware aware of my mortality than ever. My back hurts. I cough, even when I'm not sick. I see pictures of myself and notice wrinkles around my eyes. I don't get as hungry as I used to.

And I know how it happens, I can picture it: The moment when I'll finally realise I've well and truly become older, weaker, slower. The moment when I'll realise that my scarf is gone, and I didn't even see it leave.

So… um, Journey. The story of a scarf. Game of the year, right?

It's not just metaphorical mumbo-jumbo that makes Journey special. It's an immaculately constructed game, as well. Its visual wonders are unmatched by any game released this year. Its beauty is almost matter-of-fact at times; the billowing sands, the calls of the flying carpets, the fade-to-white as you come face to face with your elders. The way it moves, even the jumping connects on an emotional level.

And the music…. sigh, the music. I really don't know what else to say about it. How else can I dance about this particular architecture? Composer Austin Wintory's work is essential. Like the game it accompanies, its themes unite into a single vision that is greater than the sum of its already-great parts.

The third time I played Journey, I thought I understood it. It was a couple of weeks ago, and I decided to give the game another run in order to confirm that yes, I wanted to write this very article defending it as a nominee for Kotaku's Game of the Year award. It had been several months since I last played, and during that time I'd played a bunch of other great games. Would Journey hold up?

Turns out it didn't just hold up; it surprised me all over again. More accurately, it allowed some other people to surprise me. Now that the game has been in the wild for months, there are scores of people still playing it, benevolent strangers swooping in and out of one another's games like so many controller-holding sand-dolphins. Midway into my third journey, a so-called "white robe" joined my game. This player, who had collected every glyph in the game and therefore had the longest, most amazing scarf I'd ever seen, was determined to help me get my own white cloak.

Shortly after we met, I came upon a glyph I just couldn't reach. It was on a high shelf, and my scarf wasn't long enough to get me to it. And so my white-robed companion and I set about getting me to the glyph. We didn't explicitly decide to undertake this — after all, you can't talk to one other in Journey, you can only issue one-note "calls. But still, we knew exactly what we were doing.

Time and again we tried, and time and again we failed. It got to the point where I felt uncomfortable, like, "OK, this person probably has to go, I should just give up, this is getting weird." And yet we kept trying. And then, finally, we coordinated our jumps just so, and I reached the shelf and collected the glyph.

I came soaring down from on high, jubilantly pressing the "call" button over and over. Rings of light radiated from my character's body as I landed next to my nameless helper, and at once he (or she) began to call back. For a minute we both just stood there, triumphant, calling out to one another.

I have no idea who this person was; maybe it was a man, maybe a woman; maybe a child, or a grandparent. Together, we moved onward toward the mountain, until all at once, I was alone again. Just like that.

Journey could have just as easily been called Journeys. It's a plurality of experiences wrapped into a single shell. The journey in the title is more than just the one we take the first time we set off across the sands, and more than the fifth. The title represents hundreds, thousands of journeys; men and women around the world pushing forward together, striving, climbing, falling, and getting back up.

Beautiful and sad, immaculately constructed and quietly assured, Journey is so confident in its ambitions that it almost seems ordinary. It is anything but ordinary. Journey should be our Game of the Year.


Comments

    If I were a game reviewer, and I gave scores out of 100, Journey would get a perfect score... along with only a handful of other games like Portal. I better stop going on about how good this game is though, as something like 80% of my recent comments have been Journey love.

    Yep, agreed.

    I remember the first time I played and I lost my scarf.. piece by piece. I worked so hard for it, the scarf for my was a metaphor for my memories, experiences and discoveries in the game. I was proud of its length because I earned it! Then the cold weather stole it from me, piece by piece, like old age steals our memories and mobility.

    No game has come near what Journey accomplished. GOTY.

      Man I was horrified when I got hit by one of the monsters and lost like half my scarf... My partner (a random stranger) stayed behind with me to help me make some of the jumps and things now that I had less scarf...

    This has to be the most overrated game ever. I played it 2 months ago because of the hype but all you do is walk and redo the same "puzzles". I don't really get why this is more popular when there a much better games with better GAMEplay. Sure the whole atmosphere in the game is great but come on is that really enough for it to be good let alone have GOTY status.

      I'm not sure you played the same game. Or at least, you've misunderstood what the game is.

      There are no puzzles. It's not a puzzle game.
      It's primarily a game of exploration and discovery, although there are a few challenges along the way. And it's a gaming experience that you can uniquely share with others online.

      And walking is just one method of getting around in this game. That you write off the game as "all you do is walk" really makes me wonder whether you played it at all.

        They are puzzles or challenges. Like the part with the uncompleted bridge and you have to find the big scarfs to complete it. And yes all you do is walk and sometimes fly. It does change a bit after the desert area but still pretty much same thing. This is an overrated game but it's not bad or anything I just don't get why is highly regarded.

          I agree billb, I love the great visuals and music and the cool sand/weather effects and the atmosphere in general but I found myself getting seriously bored with it and I feel like it would be a chore to sit through again. I'm keen to see what the team does next because they're fantastic artists and I'd love to see them apply their ability for atmosphere to something with actual gameplay. Imagine what they could do with a property like Shadow of the Colossus..

          Journey's a notable mention and deserves praise for the things it does brilliantly, but it's far from being fantastic as a game. I could understand saying that it had the best atmosphere or visual design but the gameplay is very threadbare. Falling off a cliff and having to trudge back slowly for five minutes was bloody tedious. Calling it game of the year is laying it on a bit thick and I think it has more to do with promoting the image of the industry than giving an honest opinion. If I was locked away with just one game for the next month, I wouldn't want it to be this one. It just doesn't have legs. Or the arms.

      When I first started playing games, I had this sense of wonder and excitement, of not knowing what was going to happen, and just getting swept up in the experience. Even crappy games (by today's standards) used to do that for me. But then that faded, and the most I would get out of games would be an occasional high, a rush of adrenaline from some exciting action sequence or the occasional touch of emotion from some story reveal.

      I love games with replayability, with multiplayer, games that require strategy or fast reflexes. All of those things can make a game fun. I love a good story and well written characters and all of the things that can make me invested in a narrative. But more than all of that, I love feeling like I'm experiencing something amazing.

      When I played Portal I smiled through the entire game, partially from the humour, but mainly because it brought back that feeling of wonderment. The game mechanics were so new and exciting that I felt I was experiencing something special. It was a short game, I played it through in one sitting, and it ended magnificently with that song we all know. Upon completing it I felt so happy and satisfied, and it reaffirmed why I had spent all this time and thought and energy continuing to love games. Since then I haven't had the same feeling of having played a perfect game, until I played Journey.

      Journey did it for me, it got me right in the feels. After playing it I wanted to show everybody I cared about how wonderful it was, and all the non gamers in my life got so tired of hearing about how special this game was.

      It may be overrated to you, but taste is pretty subjective, and for some people such as myself, it is the single best game we've ever played.

      Last edited 04/01/13 2:37 pm

    Maybe I'll have to play through again. I enjoyed it I guess, n=but really didn't ge drawn the way some people seem to.

    I preferred The Unfinished Swan which I got with it in the PSN Christmas Sale.

      That was a very cool and unique game as well, quite an enjoyable playthrough. I liked it as a game about different quirky mechanics and really liked the storybook presentation, but it lacked the music and emotional power that Journey had for me. Cool little Journey easter egg in it too!

      I appreciate the support that Sony gives to smaller downloadable games for PSN - I'm a big fan of the pixel junk shooters as well.

        I've just finished The Unfinished Swan and I thought it was damn great. The sense of accomplishment when I worked out what to do in those stark blue levels - with "the platforms" - was pretty sweet.
        And having the credits as a part of the final level was brilliant. And thank the lord for PixelJunk Shooter!
        I don't think I've ever agreed with a comment more.

    Such a simple game yet such a powerful game. Sony supporting little indie games was a very smart move.

    Was the only game that has made me cry.. GOTY right there.

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