In 1917, Marcel Duchamp famously turned a gentlemen’s white urinal on its side, signed it with a fake name and exhibited it at an art show under the title ‘Fountain’. Originally intended to provoke, nowadays it’s regarded by some as a major landmark in 20th Century art, sparking contextual debate about aesthetics and how beauty can be seen in everyday life.
Since then, all forms of media have jostled for attention and recognition as a valid art form. Although video games remain a subset still in relative infancy, there have always been those who have championed their artistic appeal as well as critics who have condemned them as nothing more than distractions.
This is where Journey comes into the debate. It’s difficult to review this title, because it’s unlike anything else I have ever played. It can’t be pigeonholed into a particular genre; it refuses to fit any presupposed template of what a game should be.
Journey is the final third in a trilogy from thatgamecompany, and builds upon the success of previous titles, flOw and Flower. It represents a natural progression for the indie developers, whose mission statement is to design ‘artistically crafted, broadly accessible video games.’
These ‘core games’ allow maximum exposure. Literally anyone can pick up a controller and immerse themselves in a powerful interactive experience. Indeed, these games would not look out of place at digital art exhibitions. This particular title would be a strong ambassador for the medium as a whole, reaching out to people who would otherwise have had no previous exposure.
Journey is the pinnacle of thatgamecompany’s development ethic. Featuring stunning visuals and a haunting score by Austin Wintory, this game has production values usually reserved for big budget movies. In retrospect, that’s how it is best approached.
A full play through of Journey can be completed in 90 minutes. thatgamecompany’s Creative Director, Jenova Chen, recognises the importance of this. Just like a film, Journey is meant to be experienced in its entirety in one sitting.
With only the slightest hint of hand holding, you will glide effortlessly through the entire game. The only real objective is to keep moving forward, and although we will all make the same journey, everyone will have their own experience.
The multiplayer component of Journey is another landmark feature. Players will drop in and out of your game anonymously. You’ll come across other travellers, making the same pilgrimage, and instantly be drawn to each other. There’s no Gamerscore, rank or insignia; no way of knowing who that person is (although a list of all the travellers you meet along the way is displayed in the end credits).
Other reviews have perhaps over emphasised the multiplayer ethos, claiming that people work together and cooperate better. The simple truth is that you can’t influence each other’s game in any way. There’s really nothing you can do to assist or hinder another player's experience. Taking away that ability (or temptation) is perhaps what ultimately brings people together. Like all social animals, we strive for acceptance and companionship; many people will stay close to their travel partners for the majority of the game without having to be incentivised.
Of course, there will be many people who play Journey and simply won’t get it, which brings us back to Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’. They will no doubt understand the spirit of the game, and perhaps even appreciate its intrinsic beauty, but ultimately they won’t leave feeling enriched by the experience. There’s nothing wrong with that. All too often these days, there’s pretentiousness around certain art forms that pressures people into affecting false appreciation for fear of seeming philistine.
Journey is not for everyone. But it should be experienced by everyone. It’s a landmark cinematic masterpiece that will hopefully bring video games to a wider audience. Just like watching your favourite films over and over again, you can revisit Journey many times and still take something from it.
As video games go, it’s certainly an acquired taste. But in my experience, the best things in life are.
Game reviewed on PS3.
(This review is NOT comparing Journey to a gentlemen's white urinal)