2012 Video Game of the Year Nominee: Journey
Journey, released in March on the PlayStation Network, was developed by thatgamecompany, and at this year’s E3 was confirmed as being the best-selling PSN game of all time. You control a nameless, faceless, and voiceless person who has to reach a mountaintop for reasons which may or may not become clear to you as you move through the game. There’s no real combat, no scores, and few enemies to speak of.
I’m a cynical, jaded creature, so when I say that Journey moved me in a way that few games have, please understand that those aren’t simply hollow words or meaningless melodrama.
It’s possibly the most complete game I’ve ever played. By that I mean it’s one of a few games that feels like a whole when you’re done with it. The journey you go on over the course of the game is complete by the time you get to the end of it. There’s closure at the end of the story. There’s nothing wasted, nothing missed — you don’t get the feeling that a level or area has been skipped over just for you to unlock through DLC later. There are no areas you miss because you didn’t get the correct preorder bonus. At 2-3 hours, the game is quite short, and that might seem like a concern, but it’s the perfect length for a game like Journey.
It tells its story though implication, metaphor, and symbolism. There’s no exposition, no dialogue, and no infodump. The ambiguity and unanswered questions leave each journey through the game as a profoundly personal experience. The story and lessons I took away from the game may not be the same as the story and lessons you took away from it. In fact, there’s almost no way they can be — the player is invited to infer the “real backstory” of the game. My girlfriend has watched every playthrough of the game with me (except my first one), and while she loves the game as much as I do, she has a completely different take on the story. There are few, if any, hard and fast answers, no cold hard facts revealed throughout the game. The implied story of a lost civilisation brought low by their own hubris and greed may well be a lie. The entire game could be a dream, a story, or a nightmare. It could be none of these things.
That might make the game sound horribly bloated and pretentious, but it’s important to note that none of these things are suggested outright in the game. It’s only afterwards, as you start to think it over, that these ideas start to surface. Journey is a game that stays with you, and it does so without jamming a badly written, square-jawed protagonist in your face. It doesn’t have to try and shock you, or pretend it’s a movie, or give you multiple choices and multiple endings. It does so by being beautiful, haunting, and elegant in a way that so few games are today, or ever have been.
If ever there was a game that proved the argument that video games can be art, then Journey is that game. It’s at the same time haunting, atmospheric, beautiful, and moving. It manages to be all of these things without being pretentious, without having a “message,” and without having to stop and cater to the lowest common denominator that hampers so much of the video games industry’s output right now.
From a design point of view, it excels signposting the way ahead and pointing out objectives with an incredibly subtle hand; it almost leaves you feeling that you’re finding your own way around. The underground sections of the game, despite being essentially just large corridors, manage to not feel restrictive or claustrophobic. The controls are incredibly bare bones. They feel simplistic at first, but are in fact simply minimalistic; they don’t crowd the controller with attacks or abilities you’ll use once then forget about.
The inclusion of multiplayer in Journey is brave in many ways. For one thing, it’s compulsory — you can’t opt out of it without taking your PlayStation offline. But, the most obvious thing is the lack of verbal or textual communication. You can’t speak, talk, chat, write, or text with your partner. This means that if you want to work together you have to really work at it. Not that you have to work together, you can always run off and leave your fellow mute buddy behind. On a more basic level, preventing communication also means that you’re essentially taking away people’s ability to be a tool; you can’t troll someone if you can’t talk to them, and there’s no real way of ruining someone else’s game or of griefing them. Working together comes naturally though, by your very proximity you help one another, and recharge the scarf that acts as your health bar and power source.
There are no words to describe how good the music is in Journey; it’s perfect. There’s a reason it was just nominated for a Grammy. Composed by Austin Wintory, it’s beautiful music on its own, but it’s layered into the game so well that the rhythm and flow of the music matches that of the game. Journey deserves more than the standard dubstep wub-wub overdub, and the soundtrack is an integral part of why the game transcends the trappings of a video game and becomes a work of art. The music permeates the game, down to the musical chirps and chimes you give off, which are frequently the only way you can communicate with your partner.
Although Journey tells the same story to each player, no two players will experience it the same. Despite the fact there are no branching story threads, no side missions or optional quests, what you take away from it won’t be the same thing I took away from it. Despite giving you very little choice in the game, Journey will leave you with one of the most profound experiences you’ll have while playing a video game. For that reason above all others, I’m nominating it as my game of the year for 2012.
Of course, Journey wasn’t the only game I enjoyed this year, and I wanted to take some time to talk, briefly, about two other games — Mass Effect 3 and Dishonored.
Mass Effect 3, released for PC, PlayStation, and Xbox in March, was the concluding part to Bioware’s space opera trilogy. It was intended to give the many, many players who had worked their way through the previous games an ending that did justice to the decisions and sacrifices they had made over the hundreds of hours. It failed; kind of. The endings that shipped with the game provoked outcry and backlash on a massive scale, with gamers the world over feeling betrayed and let down. While I wasn’t quite onboard with that assessment, I certainly felt like the endings were incredibly badly handled. They not only broke the game’s internal logic, but they felt rushed, under-explained, and left me with no real sense of closure at all. Bioware caved to the pressure and released a free DLC that changed the endings into something a bit easier to swallow, but the damage was done.
I enjoyed Mass Effect 3, and putting aside the endings, it’s easily the best of the trilogy. Some of the small-scale writing in the game, like the interaction between characters, and the NPC dialogue you overhear, is superb. There’s a series of exchanges between an Asari (one of the game’s alien species) and a human counsellor that you can listen in on, which tells the incredibly moving story of a soldier suffering from PTSD. I can remember the whole thing even now, months after playing it, and it only takes up around 15 minutes of game time. And, it’s completely optional. It’s incredibly frustrating when a game can get such small, incidental details so right yet completely mess up the important stuff.
Dishonored, another game released for the PC, PlayStation, and Xbox, came out in October. It’s one of the few new franchises we saw in a year plagued by sequel-itis. For that reason alone, you’ll find it on a lot of “best of” lists this year. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also a damned good game. Set in a dark quasi-Victorian fantasy world best described as “Teslapunk,” you play as Corvo Attano, once the bodyguard of an Empress, now framed for her murder and hunting her killer.
It’s not quite a sandbox game, but it gives you wide open levels that you explore using a variety of magical powers and pleasingly well-implemented stealth mechanics. It also gives the tools to either slaughter your way from one end of each level to the other, or play it softly, and go without killing anyone. It’s a great game that’s been really successful — to the point where Bethesda Softworks, the game’s publishers, have confirmed that they plan on using Dishonored as the basis of a new franchise. Maybe next time they’ll spell it properly and get that extra “u” in there.