I like Journey, but I really don’t like what critics and much of the game’s audience have said about Journey.
After Journey’s initial release in 2012, and its subsequent rerelease on the PS4 in 2015, the game received close to universal praise, but of a particular bend. G4 TV’s perfect review remarked that Journey “stands head and shoulders above all other artistic games. It’s truly avant-garde and pushes the boundaries of what a video game can mean to its audience.” IGN’s 9/10 review stated “Journey celebrates the poignancy of nature, it startles you with the unexpected, and empowers you in an exhilarating, unforgettable conclusion…The hours spent completing Journey will create memories that last for years.” Perhaps most telling of all, Wired’s review summarized Journey with, “even though I often struggled to find meaning within the game’s mysterious world, Journey doesn’t need to be explained. It’s still a fulfilling experience.”
Journey is the latest game to be declared the poster child for the “video games are art” debate. Previous games with this distinction (whether rightly or wrongly) include Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Okami, and Braid. Achieving this lofty goal grants serious dividends in the critical world. As it currently stands, Journey is the 24th most highly reviewed PS3 game on Metacritic, and the third highest reviewed PS4 game, behind the updated versions of The Last of Us and GTAV.
I’ve had some problems trying to come to terms with how I fell about Journey because my overwhelming aversion to its status as an artistic darling clashes with my generally positive evaluation of the game. Journey is unique, visually stunning, and has some great ideas… but it’s also shallow and rides an irrational sense of aesthetics to a lofty position it does not deserve.
Before I go any further, I have to get Journey’s good qualities out of the way. The game is stunningly gorgeous, especially on the PS4. Its combination of an interesting cell shaded style with high graphical fidelity creates literally one of the most beautiful settings in all of video games. In fact, the game is so beautiful that it is worth playing on that basis alone, at least somewhere below its current $15 price tag. The music is good as well, but not as memorable as the games by which it is inspired (ie. Legend of Zelda and Shadow of the Colossus).
Clearly a lot of work went into designing and polishing Journey and those efforts are felt in a lot of minute aspects of the game. The basic movement mechanics feel great. I loved the complete lack of interface so the player could always take in the full scope of the visuals. The co-op, which consists of seamlessly joining another player’s game and communicating via chimes, is an interesting take on cooperation designed to enhance comradery by reducing co-op gameplay to its essentials. Its downside is that many players, including myself, thought we were playing with CPUs until someone told us otherwise. I don’t really see the value of reducing co-op gameplay to the point where it resembles simulated assistance, unless that was the extremely cynical point trying to be made by the developers.
With that out of the way, almost all of the rest of my analysis will be negative towards Journey and to a much greater degree, its unanimously lofty praise.
I don’t entirely know where it comes from, but there is a pervasive sense in the video game world that profound aesthetic value is linked with being vague, if not obtuse. I suspect this idea has been imported from film which in turn imported it from modern aesthetic sensibilities in classical art forms, like painting and sculpting.
I think the idea is that explicitly explaining or presenting an idea in art is “heavy handed” or is just generally considered to be a bad trait of art. Therefore art should convey its ideas subtly so the person experiencing an art piece has to work to discern the piece’s meaning. The more the experiencer has to work for the answer, the more profound and intelligent the piece is considered to be. When this concept is pushed far enough, artists figure they don’t really need to convey any idea at all as long as they make vague allusions to something interesting. Thus the lack of coherency becomes not just a feature, but a positive attribute of the artistic piece.
If the preceding paragraph sounds like a wishy washy description of a complicated idea, that’s because it is. I don’t have a fully fleshed out idea as to why critics praise art for being vague, but then again, I don’t think critics have an idea either. But note the divide amongst critics and the masses when it comes to “artsy movies” or the existence of post-modern art pieces which can literally be replicated by toddlers randomly splashing paint on a canvas. When the same logic is applied to video games, you get the creation of ultimately meaningless games devoid of any real narrative or substantive mechanics, like Journey.
Journey is about a hooded, humanoid being trying to make his (or her, it’s not clear) way to the top of a distant mountain. Allegedly the occasional hieroglyphs and brief cut scenes of giant white-hood clad beings seen along the way may grant the player enough fuel to craft an interpretation of this tale, but I for one couldn’t discern anything else going on in the narrative. From what I’ve read, fan-made compositions of the story tend to consist of stringing together reaching speculations about vague symbols, like mountains, light, and the afterlife, until something resembling a narrative is formed. Based on Journey’s visuals, similar stories could probably be replicated by going to a museum of ancient Middle Eastern artifacts and trying to come up with a fantasy narrative to link the random pieces of pottery and spear points in the display cases.
To be clear, Journey’s narrative is not in the style of Transistor or Dark Souls (that style really needs a name by now) where the game only directly gives the player a few vague story beats, while the connecting tissue needs to be discovered through flavor text and errant discoveries. Those games have rich, detailed lore, Journey does not. Journey has symbolism, but nothing beneath it. Journey substitutes actually being about something with the evocation of big ideas through well-known visual symbols.
This is why a quick scan of Journey’s Metacritic pages shows a lot of reviewers describing the game’s world with phrases like “ethereal,” “spiritual,” “philosophical,” “transcendent,” and “it successfully taps into the deepest part of ourselves.” Yet there is nothing narratively relevant in this game besides symbols. There is a tall mountain, flowing robes, praying figures, divine intervention, abandoned ruins, and shooting stars, and at no point is there anything close to a cohesive thread between any of it. Journey uses vague imagery associated with profound ideas like spiritualism, reincarnation, and the meaning of life, to create a spattering of symbols which it then allows its audience to manipulate in their minds in an attempt to extract some order and value from this game instead of actually crafting a meaningful narrative.
The expected counter argument at this point is that Journey doesn’t need to have a narrative. If it can set up a vague outline of a narrative (and arguably it didn’t even do that), then the meanings created by its audience are sufficient enough to make this game valuable in its own right. My problem with this argument can admittedly come off as… condescending.
I suspect the reason so many people found Journey to be deep and emotional, is because they were taking cues from our culture’s popular sense of aesthetics that something like Journey has to be deep and emotional. It’s the same phenomenon that occurs when individuals look at nonsensical paintings and sculptures in modern art museums and come up with insane explanations for their message and value, like how a blue canvas with a single white line represents both falling into water and a divine urge to drawn lines.
I think that because of how prevalent and irrational the connection between being vague and profound is, a lot of people don’t understand what makes something artistically valuable or not. So when they do run into a vague piece, like Journey, they take the cue that it’s supposed to be meaningful, but with a lack of anything in the piece itself to latch onto, they just invent their own meaning almost entirely out of nothing.
This isn’t to say it’s always irrational to attach external meanings to objects. Given every individual’s diverse background and psyche, it makes sense that certain ideas “click” more than others, so based on minor attributes, we may form strong bonds with an artistic piece even if the piece itself doesn’t convey its ideas well, or indeed any ideas at all. A good example is something like a teddy bear. A smiling, plush object which will always be in a child’s possession signals warmth and security to the child. From there it is common for children to invent an identity and additional attributes to stick onto a teddy bear which the child also values.
Within that framework, I can understand if some people from a legitimate, deep connection with Journey. But I also can’t imagine that there are too many gamers out there who feel some profound connection with mountains, sand, flowing scarfs, abandoned buildings, and a bare bones sense of mysticism. Or at least there aren’t enough people out there like that to propel Journey to an elite level of prestige among modern video games.
In other posts on this blog, I’ve described the essential characteristic of video game aesthetics to be “interactivity.” As allegedly one of the best examples of an artistic video game in existence, Journey does very little to convey its ideas or narrative mechanically and thus largely fails to utilize the very medium in which it exists.
There isn’t actually much to describe about Journey in terms of its gameplay. Most of the game consists of moving forward through a series of landscapes with occasional challenge-free approximations of platforming and puzzles. Oh, and there’s a single type of collectible.
To the game’s credit, its kinaesthetics are great. Whether you’re gliding over sandy dunes or trudging through snow, Journey does a fantastic job of conveying the weight and style of your hooded figure’s movement. Success and failure in the game is tied to movement and progression, and making the movement feel so intuitive does well to give the player a sense of satisfaction with success. Given that the entire game is about travelling, this is the one area of the mechanics that the developers excelled in tying to its narrative.
However, that’s about the only component of Journey’s gameplay which works.
In online discussions about Journey, I’ve often ran across comparisons to Limbo, in so far that both games are (supposedly) artsy and largely consist of a linear progression through a desolate world which is meant to convey a sense of atmosphere more than an explicit narrative. The problem is that Limbo does an excellent job of conveying its atmosphere through its mechanics while Journey barely tries to do so.
Limbo is ostensibly about a small boy lost in a dark and largely empty world. Its visual style famously consists of pitch blacks with only slight contrasts created by soft whites. Its setting brings players through familiar enough environments (woods, lakes, factories) but with all of the comforting parts of those environments either absent or twisted, while all of the bad parts of the environments are amplified. When combined, the visuals and setting convey fear, oppression, and hopelessness.
Fortunately, Limbo’s masterfully crafted atmosphere is integrated into its mechanics. It’s not that Limbo’s platforming and puzzles are particularly challenging or complex (they aren’t), what’s relevant is that they reflect the game’s themes. The protagonist of Limbo flees a giant spider, makes his way across precarious chasms, drifts over a murky lake, and navigates machinery with massive, creaking gears built, operated, and abandoned by unknown entities. All of those things are scary, oppressing, and can make one hopeless, especially when colored pitch black.
On the other hand, with the exception of its kinaesthetics, Journey does nothing to convey its themes or narrative through its mechanics. All the player does is move forward and occasionally jump on some platforms or walk over to some pieces of cloth in plain view.
The only potentially viable counter argument to be made in Journey’s favor is that its themes and narrative are so thin (or really borderline non-existent) that there was really nothing with which the mechanics to integrate. Now that I think about it, that’s probably true, and it plays into my general sense of how the game should be accurately evaluated: Journey is a visually beautiful game with very little substance. It does not deserve its sky high praise, though it should be appreciated on an appropriately lower level.