You’ve heard it before: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So said Lao Tzu, a philosopher-dude from ancient China. He apparently knew a thing or two about taking long walks. And, in the case of Journey (which isn’t a terribly long walk, maybe only a couple of hours), your journey of a thousand miles first leads you up a sand dune. The top of the dune gives you a distant view of your final destination: a mountain of light.
I’ve taken 10 or 11 journeys now. Maybe a full dozen by the time you read this. Each journey has, essentially, been over the same path. But each journey has been different. Some were selfless, some were self-serving. Some made me numb. Some made me soar. Each one, somehow, revealed a little bit more about myself.
I’ve already said too much. Let’s reel things in for a moment.
Your journey begins in the sand. Your red cloak settles about you, your hood covers a dark face with bright eyes. Gold embroiders the fringe of your cloak. You stand. You have no words, but you have a chime, a call. It’s a symbol that lights up on your chest and then bings out in a sphere of light. You can’t talk, but you can still communicate by using this singular chime.
So, yes, before you is that first dune. You climb. At the top stand three narrow gravestones. One gravestone, to your left, stands short and alone. But the two gravestones to your right, the two standing together, are tall and nearly proud. The two proud gravestones each have a scarf-like length of cloth tied to them, tossing in the wind.
Right there is Journey’s thesis statement. You may journey alone, single-player, but you might be lesser for it. Or you may journey with another random player, soaring together, standing proudly like those two scarves casting about in the wind. Together you could cross the desert. Together you could traverse the underground. Together you could climb the snowy ledges on that mountain of light.
Journey is simple. No matter how complicated I try to make it sound, Journey is still simple. You head for the mountain. You gather symbols that lengthen your scarf. Your scarf lets you fly. You find murals telling the story of the people that came before you. And then you reach the mountain peak. At the mountain peak, you’ll learn why you have to play Journey again and again. Not just because you want to get more out of your purchase, but because it makes narrative sense to make the journey over and over.
If you do cross another player’s path, another random player on the same journey you’re on, then things get interesting. Again, you cannot speak; you can only chime out that musical tone. But, with another player, that chime becomes, “Hello,” and, “Thank you.” It becomes, “Follow me,” and, “Goodbye.” It becomes, “This game is neat,” and, “It really sucks that dragon just chewed you up and spit you out but we’re going to make it together, man, just stick with me.” You’d be surprised just how much you can say.
There’s a lot to learn on your journey. It’s unlikely you’ll learn everything on any one playthrough, even though it presents everything to you the first time, and every time, you run through it. You’ll learn the ropes; where to place your feet and where to tread lightly. You’ll learn to slide down every hill, to fly up every climb, to have the cloth birds keep you afloat. You’ll learn to take a hit and keep going. To push against the wind when you have to. You’ll realize how little you know on your first journey. You’ll appreciate your experience on your second. You’ll face impatience on your third. Embrace your mentor role on your fourth. Stop caring on your fifth. Then give it your all on your sixth.
Your experience may vary. That’s the beauty in such a simple story. There’s room for interpretation, for misinterpretation, for correction, for learning, forgetting, and remembering. There’s room for reliance, codependence, independence. It depends. What you take with you into a game of Journey isn’t necessarily what you’ll get out of it. What you’re left with at the end of a game of Journey isn’t necessarily what you arrived with.
Again, don’t let all this circular talk fool you. Journey is a simple game. My five-year-old loves it. She can play it beginning to end. That’s how easy it is. But whether you’re rolling solo, binging out a happy duet with an online stranger, or, say, watching your child with the controller in their hands, Journey is simple.
And if you play it and find that, “It’s just not that deep, bro,” then guess what: that’s a viable response. You’re not required to like Journey. But you’ll learn something about yourself in that response.
You don’t have to learn your role in Journey’s creation myth. Or the symbiotic relationship between the cloth and the light. You don’t have to care about the superficial constructs that bastardized flight. The differences between warm light and snow blindness don’t have to mean anything. You might not care about what turned these golden seas of sand into a dust bowl. But, again, not caring about any of that is still learning something about yourself.
That may be the hallmark of not just a good game, but a great one. You don’t just discover what’s in the game itself: you and the game conspire in the space between you and the T.V., and you discover some third entity forming there, in that middle space. That third entity is your personal experience—one that can’t be recreated strictly in 1080p, can’t be recreated strictly in your mind, can’t be recreated when a complete stranger plays it. It is now a thing that exists between you and it.
The art style is crisp. Clean, simple lines curve along the landscape. Clouds reach up like fingers toward the mountain. The sun melts the sand into gold. Snow powders around your ankles. Ice crisps up your robes. All the while, an emotional string ensemble plays through your journey, taking its cue from the weather and where you are. Everything culminates in a transformative experience.
Games like Journey come along only once in awhile—sometimes only once in a generation. But the PlayStation 4 absolutely needed this note-for-note and picture-perfect port of the PS3 original. Make the journey for the first time, or make the journey again. This one is, and will be, timeless.
Randy gravitates toward anything open world, open ended, or open to interpretation. He prefers strategy over shooting, introspection over action, and stealth and survival over looting and grinding. He's been a gamer since 1982, and writing critically about video games for over 15 years. A few of his favorites are Skyrim, Elite Dangerous, and Red Dead Redemption. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oregon.View Profile