Journey is a marvel, a hallucination of gameplay that feels as deep and immersive as the borderless desert where it begins. Thatgamecompany (the developer behind Flower) has created an abstract story of spiritual fulfillment that’s tinted with magic and suffused with almost ethereal beauty. Brief as the trip may be (an hour, maybe two), the experience is unforgettable.
Players appear as robed wanderers in a vast desert. From a distant mountain, a beam of light shines toward the sky. The concept is clear, almost ancient: get to the summit. That requires a bit of climbing and exploration, and the activation of some bygone power that bestows the brief ability to jump and glide across great distances. There is no combat, and only a few enemies to be avoided. A guide of some sort—an ancestor? a memory? God?—periodically urges the wanderer onward.
Soon, players realize they aren’t the only ones making the trip. Journey’s take on multiplayer gaming is as simplified as its narrative, and as sublime as its design. Players are paired together, anonymously. A symbol serves as your name. The only communication is movement and the ability to emit a pinging tone. Cooperation isn’t necessary, but the loneliness of the early desert scenes is striking, and company is welcome. Huddle together, and both characters will recharge their magic reserves. That seems frivolous at first, but when making the final mountain ascent, the recharge seems more crucial. The link between power and fellowship isn’t incidental.
Journey’s landscapes are among the most successful evocations of place in gaming. Here bare and suggestive, there surprisingly detailed, with eddying gusts of wind and washes of sand, the lands are drawn throughout with a design sense that turns the story into an apocryphal episode from a past civilization. Magic is rare enough that when wanderers stumble into a location drenched in energy, the moment is buoyant and joyful. Journey wants players to press onward, but isn’t so insistent that they can’t take time to experience the delightful animation of sliding on sand, or swimming in wonderous air.