I remember the first time I saw my co-op partner. I was in a large, circular ravine, trying to rebuild a shattered bridge by collecting pieces of cloth that would span the gaps.
I had just collected one of the pieces of cloth, and turned to see what affect that would have on the status of my bridge. It was coming along nicely; the cloth I’d collected had just repaired the second piece of the bridge, creating a flowing red path to the next section. Then, something caught my eye: another adventurer, clad in a red shawl like mine, flying high on his scarf. Until that point I’d been alone, guiding my red-robed wanderer through the sands, exploring the remnants of a civilization forgotten long before my character shook the dust of his (or her, it’s impossible to tell) robe, and began hiking towards the mountain in the distance. But here was another person, who was drawn to the strange mountain in the distance the same way I was. He must have seen me at relatively the same time, because I saw him alter his trajectory in mid-air, and angle himself towards me. We met somewhere in the middle of the sands.
There was so much I wanted to ask my newfound friend. Had he played Journey before, or was it his first time? What did he think of the game? What was his name? But I couldn’t ask him any of those questions, because the co-op and communication in Journey is restricted. I didn’t ask him to join my game, and he certainly didn’t ask to join mine. There’s no way to invite your friends, and neither he nor I could see one another’s PSN IDs. In the same way, there’s no way to talk to your partner, at least in the traditional sense. The only means of communication the game offers you is a small chirp, activated by pressing the circle button. Holding the button down “charges” the chirp, until your character practically jumps for joy, shouting at the top of their lungs, and the sand around you ripples in response. In addition, the chirp also serves to power up your partner’s jump, which is the only other mechanic in the game besides your character’s ability to walk.
At first, this may seem like an arbitrary restriction on the part of thatgamecompany, but it fits with the rest of rest of Journey’s design. It’s a simple and elegant game that polishes the few mechanics it has to perfection, and then invites you to use the mechanics it does have to explore the world it lays before you. Despite the limitations in communication forced upon us, my partner and I got along swimmingly as we stuck our noses into every corner of the game that we could, finding bits of cloth to jump from, little murals revealing bits of the game’s backstory, and most importantly, the collectible glyphs that extend your character’s scarf, and give you more air time whenever you jump. We even figured out how to communicate on a basic level.
If it seems like I’m spending a lot of time on Journey’s co-operative mode, it’s because of how essential it is to the game. Journey did something I never thought a video game could do: it made me care about my co-op partner, and not because my success was linked to his. There is no failure state in Journey. You can’t die. The game will never get too hard, and it will never stop you from progressing. The only way to “lose” is to stop playing. Instead, the biggest tragedy is losing part of your scarf, and in turn, part of your ability to jump. Losing a piece your scarf is emotionally crushing. After all, it’s a visual representation of how far you’ve come over the course of the game. However, it’s far worse to watch it happen to your co-op partner and realize how powerless you are to help them. You can’t defend yourself in Journey. You simply try to get through the things the game throws at you while maintaining as much of what you’ve gained as possible.
As disheartening as losing your scarf is, however, losing contact with your co-op partner is worse. It might mean losing them forever, or having them replaced with another player. In the latter case, you’d never even know it happened. Yet, the idea of losing my co-op partner was incredibly stressful. Every time he disappeared from my view, I would stop what I was doing and try to find him. Strangely enough, he did the same thing. There was no gameplay incentive for us to do this. I could have finished the game by myself. He could have, too. But that wasn’t enough for either of us. I wanted to finish the game with the same partner I’d had since the beginning. We’d taken this trip together. We’d watched each other succeed and fail. We’d shared triumphs and defeats. We’d each led the other to hidden secrets within the game. This story belonged to both of us, and seeing it through alone would have defeated the purpose.
Yes, Journey does have a story, and make no mistake, it goes far beyond the game’s initial suggestion that you climb that mountain in the distance. It’s played out through mostly silent, beautifully directed cutscenes at the end of certain gameplay segments. It’s hard to describe what it’s about without spoiling anything, so I’ll simply say that the beginning is the end is the beginning, and leave it at that. And, of course, every story beat, and every part of the game, for that matter, are supplemented by Austin Wintory’s masterful score.
It might be easy to say that Journey succeeds because it is more than the sum of its parts, but it wouldn’t be accurate. Journey is the sum of its parts. It can be nothing else. It’s a rare kind of game: the kind where every element is crafted to further one singular purpose. It’s the kind of game that wants to offer you an experience, one best enjoyed with a stranger. And you will remember those experiences.
One particular moment stands out for me. My partner and I were moving through some ruins. It looked to be a structure of some sort that had fallen over onto its side. The sun was low in the sky, casting a bright orange glow over the world. We came to the end of the structure, and gazed out the opening on the right side. The world sloped down gracefully below us, into a ravine, the sand a sparkling orange under the light of the sun. We’d surfed the sands briefly before, but nothing like this. I gave a quick chirp, which had become code for “Ready?” In response, my partner leaped off. I followed after him, my character moving effortlessly down the shinning mountain of sand, my eyes searching for my companion. I looked and looked, but I couldn’t find him. Just as I was about to give up hope, something caught my eye. A robed figure, like mine, further down the mountain. I sped up. He must have been looking for me as well, because he slowed down. We caught up with one another on the edge of the next platform, another twisting river of sand spread out below us. This time, he gave the first chirp, an apology and a question all in one. I gave a quick chirp, then leapt and sped off into the sands, wondering if he’d be able to catch up. Then suddenly, he was past me, and slowed himself. I caught up, and we raced down the sands, through the arches and the ruins, over the remains of a city the world had forgotten. Together.
Journey is adept at creating moments like that. It’s a game that provides equal parts tragedy and victory, joy and sorrow. For all its mastery, however, the genius of Journey is that you will not remember it for the moments it builds for you. You will remember it for the moments you and your co-op partner build for yourselves. You will remember how those moments made you feel long after the credits roll, and that is Journey’s triumph.
- Strong visual design
- Fantastic soundtrack
- Unique co-operative play
- Expertly paced, but…
- It’s short
- Premium pricing
Final Score – 9/10