Monday, March 4, 2013

Video Game Review - Journey

Well I just reviewed an Xbox exclusive, I gotta get my system karma to balance out somehow.

Art games and I have an interesting relationship. You see, on the one hand I have no doubt that video games are a valid art form. On the other hand, if you ask me to rattle of a list of games which I consider to be art, it would sound something like "Bioshock, Shadow Of The Colossus, Portal, Mass Effect, The Walking Dead, Wind Waker." Each of those titles, for one reason or another, were not only able to tell a high quality, emotionally impacting story, but were able to specifically use the medium of video games to do so. None of those stories would work as well, or at all, if they were translated to film, or literature.

But likewise, none of those games are so-called "art games," a term which seems hazy at best in it's definition. I use the term to refer to small scale games, which primarily exist to tell a story interactively, and have little-to-no traditional gameplay. For example, Limbo, Dear Esther (ugh), The Stanley Parable (yay!), Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, To The Moon, and so on and so forth. Now don't get me wrong, I like some art games quite a lot, To The Moon and The Stanley Parable especially, to use from that specific list. But I also find a lot of them tedious and insufferable.

The thing is, a lot of these art games seem to hide themselves in pretension, under the assumption that, to pull from a TV Tropes article, True Art Is Incomprehensible. That's a load of crap. Each of the games I listed as art games above can be easily accessed, and understood on at least a basic level. You can view Bioshock as a complex teardown of Randian philosophy if you want, or as a deconstruction of modern games themselves, and the choices therein, but you can easily play through the whole thing and see it simply as a sci-fi horror tale with an incredible plot twist. It works fantastically either way.

On the flip side, something like last year's completely intolerable Dear Esther spent the whole time making sure you knew how much smarter than you it was. "Here," the game seemed to say, "let me narrate to you in purple prose the entire time you try to explore this environment. Let me tell you a story, or perhaps several stories, instead of letting you discover things for yourself. Isn't it weird how I tell a different story, but not that different, every time you play? Don't you wish you were smart enough to understand the subtle nuances of my artistic merit there? Oh come on, you know you're dying to ask why you turn into a bird at the end. Wouldn't you like to know the answer? Wouldn't you like to understand? Well I'm afraid to say, you're just not smart enough to learn the answer. Sorry."

Folks, for that particular game, I'm quite confident in saying there was no answer. That game never had a real meaning behind it, it just threw a bunch of random garbage on the screen, and hoped you would be foolish enough to try to infer some meaning from it. It is to narrative, what the emperor's new clothes were to fashion. If there's one thing about "art" which I cannot stand, it is this sort of outright trickery.

Contrast this with something like the terrific To The Moon (which I dare not spoil for you here, GO PLAY IT), which had a coherent, easy to understand, but wonderfully emotional and impactful narrative. To The Moon is an example of an art game done right, in as much as it is not constantly hitting you with pretension. On the other hand though, while I do like To The Moon quite a lot, there wasn't that much impactful interaction there. I believe that To The Moon could have worked just as well as a flim, or book. Now there isn't necessarily anything wrong with that, but it does kind of make it harder for me to defend as an example of games as an art form.

Oh boy, I'm like seven paragraphs in and I haven't even mentioned the game I'm reviewing yet. That might be a new personal record.

The reason I say all of this, is that it's important for you to know what I mean when I say that Journey is perhaps the best example to date of an art game done right. That is to say, Journey has a coherent narrative, never holds up the pretense of being smarter than you, and the most emotionally impactful moments in it are literally only possible because it is a game.

Let's start from the beginning. What is Journey? Well, for starters, it's the most game-like of Thatgamecompany's productions to date. Unlike Flower, for example, which seems like what would happen if you gave a room full of game developers as many drugs as you physically could without killing them (and indeed, I suspect that the sentence "What would happen if you gave a room full of game developers as many drugs as you physically could without killing them?" might be the entire design doc for that one), Journey features a character, who you control with the left and right analog sticks, and are able to press a button to jump with. That's pretty much it, aside from one more button which allows you to sing a single note. Using these tools, you go on an absolutely gorgeous adventure through a desert.

Journey is a game about discovery. The game tells you very little, indeed even some of the controls which I mentioned above are never explicitly stated in the game. You must discover the controls, the story, and even the very game mechanics on your own. Well, not entirely on your own.

You see, Journey's biggest triumph is the way it makes you care about the other player. Journey is a multiplayer game, and I guarantee you it's unlike any online multiplayer you've ever played before. You see, at any time while you're playing the game (assuming you're hooked up to the internet while playing, which you really should be) another real player can suddenly and seamlessly drop into your game. The player has the same abilities as you do, and the two of you must figure out where you're going and how to get there together. The catch, however, is that the game gives you no means of communication. There is no voice chat, there is no text chat, there is no way to tell the other player anything other than by using the one-note singing, and through physically trying to catch their attention. It doesn't even tell you their PSN name until the end credits.

Now, this might sound like a gimmick, but if you're lucky enough as I was to get someone who's interested in playing through the entire game in one sitting with you, and who wants to discover these game mechanics, and the very story with you, then something amazing happens. Through these single notes and physical movements, you start to become very attached to your buddy. In fact, by the time the game ended, I was kind of sad to see him go. As the two of us struggled through the game (and I should add, the actual story to the game is pretty awesome too), trying as hard as we could to make it from the desert, to the top of a frozen mountain, our journey filled with peril, I began crafting my own narrative in my head; the only way these two could keep going, was to stay with each other.

This is the sort of thing which is nearly impossible to explain, but... You really need to play the game to understand what I'm talking about.

Now the other great thing about Journey is that it's utterly gorgeous. Seriously. It's one of the best looking games I've ever seen. Up there with Wind Waker.

Seriously. Rarely have I seen a more gorgeous game. Definitely the best looking game of last year, by a mile, no contest. Indeed, it's worth your time just to see the many, MANY jaw-droppingly gorgeous moments. The question is, is it worth your money? Here's where I kind of hesitate to recommend the game.

Don't get me wrong, Journey is a top-notch game, the experience is unparalleled. The problem, however, is that the entire game run about an hour an forty five minutes. Maybe two hours, if you get stuck somewhere, or reeeeally take your time.

Now those two hours are extremely peaceful, and a wonderful experience, but it still doesn't change the fact that this game is $15. That's a lot for a PSN game, and there are much longer, still very high quality games available for that price, or even cheaper. I got lucky, and ended up paying a mere $5 for my copy, and needless to say I feel very, very confident in my purchase. But at $15? It's going to be up to you whether you think a game that's less than two hours long is worth that.


The game does feature trophies, including several you probably won't get on the first playthrough (indeed, I encourage you not to even look at the trophy list until you've beaten the game, and just focus on exploration for the sake of exploration). At the end of the day though, it's going to be a personal choice. If you're willing to pay $15 for an extremely short, but incredibly high quality experience, then have at it. If you're going to feel bad paying that much money for such a short game, then perhaps wait for a sale. At the end of the day, $15 feels a little steep to me. Yes, I know it's no more than a trip to the movie theater typically is these days, but it still feels a little steep when compared to other games of a similar price on PSN.

Whether you play it now, or wait for another sale, I encourage you, without hesitation, to play Journey. It really is a stellar title, unlike anything I've ever played before.

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