I thought I was finished with Journey. I was wrong.
Originally released in 2012, ThatGameCompany’s beloved PS3 sand-surfing simulator has been re-released this week on the PlayStation 4. I reviewed it back when it came out, which feels like it was a lifetime ago. Since then, I’ve seen critical acclaim, backlash, and back-backlash. I’ve seen its creators give talks and win awards. I kept playing the game. From 2012 to 2013, I played Journey all the way through at least a half-dozen times.
Yesterday I downloaded it to my PS4. I figured it’d be worth having Journey installed on my current Sony console, given that my PS3 is now unplugged and sitting in a corner. It’s free for me, since I already own it on PS3. It doesn’t take up that much hard drive space. Whatever, might as well download it.
“I wonder how it runs on PS4,” I thought, firing it up. I played through that familiar intro, watched as my little red pilgrim climbed the sand dune and beheld The Mountain.
“It looks really pretty,” I thought. A little prettier than before, and smoother, but more or less how I remembered it.
I completed that opening area, where you’re given your first bit of scarf and introduced to the floating red pieces of carpet that let you fly. (Journey can sound kind of silly when you describe it.) I illuminated a mural on a wall and communed with that first white-robed figure. “Yep,” I thought. “This is still Journey.”
Then I caught a glimpse of another player. It was just for a moment, right at the end of that first area. For some reason it gave me a jolt; I hadn’t quite considered how this game is “new” again, how it was just released on a new console. Of course there are lots of people playing Journey on PS4 right now. Of course another player is going to turn up in my game.
As I entered the second area, that second player was right by my side. They stuck with me through the entire first half, in fact. They weren’t a newbie, either — this person knew the location of every one of the scarf-extending collectible glyphs and helped me get to a few that I’d never found back when I played on PS3.
I had forgotten the extent to which Journey‘s seamless, silent multiplayer defines the game and the extent to which it compels you to continue playing. I had only intended to play for a few minutes, but I found I couldn’t stop. How could I leave my travelling companion in the lurch? We’d already done and seen so much together.
Journey lends itself to interpretation. That has always been part of its appeal, at least to me. The big metaphor — the story of birth, wonder, fear, hardship, death, and rebirth — is obvious, particularly now I’ve played the game so many times. The boundless energy and weightlessness of those youthful opening sections is all the more potent when accompanied by the knowledge of the cold struggle to come. (Hey, it’s just like life!)
I was surprised to find a new interpretation just yesterday, years after my most recent playthrough. When I met my travelling companion, I noticed that their scarf was longer than mine. They’d collected a few more glyphs in the opening areas. They could jump higher than I could, fly a little longer. Each time we stopped to take in the view, I found myself staring at their scarf. Did they notice, too? Did they look at my shorter scarf with pity?
I struggled in places to keep up, and I started to feel jealous. They’d started out with a lead on me, and no matter how much they helped me grow my own scarf, theirs was always longer. Why was I feeling this way? Why couldn’t I stop fixating on it? Was it me? Had I changed since I last played?
We reached the dangerous underground area, where, if you’re not careful, a great floating leviathan will chase your little red character. One of those creatures spotted my travelling companion, and I watched in horror as the beast creamed them and left them lying, wounded, on the ground. They got to their feet and I saw their scarf had been irrevocably damaged. It was now shorter than mine.
I guiltily thought of my previous jealousy; I’d forgotten that this could happen! I had resented my friend for having more than I did, while forgetting that even in this game, outside forces can be an equaliser. Just because you have a long scarf now doesn’t mean that will always be the case, or that you won’t need to lean on those you’ve supported in the past.
When Journey first came out, I wrote a post advising people to try playing it solo, at least for their first time through. When I had reviewed it, I’d played through the game before anyone else had it, so my first journey had been solitary. Now that I’ve played the game a lot more, I don’t entirely agree with what I wrote back then. It is interesting to experience Journey solo, and I still think it’s worth doing, at least once. But for me, this game has become inextricably tied to the shared experience.
It remains remarkable how thoroughly Journey achieves the goals articulated by designer Jenova Chen. “We wanted to make an online game [that brought] an emotion that has never been done before in online games,” Chen told Gamasutra in May of 2012. “If you look around at online games in the console market, it’s pretty obvious that no other games give you this feeling of connection with each other, of understanding. The goal was to create a game where people felt they are connected with each other, to show the positive side of humanity in them.”
Journey is more than simply a “modern classic,” and more than yet another last-gen remaster to be downloaded for posterity. It is a living creation with a still-beating heart, and as relevant a work as ever.
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