thatgamecompany/Sony Computer Entertainment
The "can video games truly be considered art?" question has been debated ad nauseam over the decades, to the point where it annoys me now to even hear it brought up. That dead horse has been so thoroughly beaten I fear he must be little more than a pile of bloodied hair and bone by now.
Those of us who have a longstanding love of video games know they can be art, just not often in the same sense the word is used when applied to finer forms of human expression. Are sitcoms art? Are Garfield comics art? Are Nickelback songs art? Technically, sure. Is Call of Duty art? Technically, sure.
Is Journey art? Ah, here's the difference: Journey needs no qualifiers. If art is something that invokes emotion, provokes thought and is interpreted differently by each person who experiences it, then Journey is art. Full stop.
Available for download via the online PlayStation Store for $15, Journey is the latest interactive experience by Los Angeles-based studio thatgamecompany, the developers behind 2007's flOw and 2009's Flower.
It tells the story of a solitary nomad who travels across expanses of desert, through ruined cities and up snow-capped mountains to reach a beacon of light radiating skyward from the highest peak. Who is the nomad? You decide. Why does he or she need to go to the light? You decide. What does the light represent? You decide.
This all sounds gaggingly precious, and, well, it is. But precious in the sense it's something to be valued and held dear. It's a beautiful game, with a sense of discovery and wonder and awe that I haven't experienced in anything since Shadow of the Colossus.
But Journey isn't quite a game, per se. As you roam the desert, you'll naturally gravitate toward ruins that power up the nomad's ability to jump and float. There's some very light platforming, puzzle-solving and item-seeking, but no battles to be fought (although a terrifying flying beastie will hunt the nomad at certain points) or points to score.
Fittingly, the game is about the journey rather than the destination. As the nomad crosses dunes and sails over bridges and trudges up mountains, it conjures feelings of delight, wonder, curiosity, sadness, fear, confusion and love. Journey has possibly the broadest emotional palette of any video game ever made.
If you're not logged into your online PlayStation Network account when playing Journey, the game unfolds as a solitary, almost lonely experience, as you explore these ruined temples, glide down these dunes and trudge into fierce, cold winds.
But if you are online when playing Journey, the game will automatically match you up with one other anonymous player controlling an identical nomad. Suddenly, the dynamic changes. I stick close to my anonymous nomad companion. I lead him (or her) to hidden items, learn from him how to brave the fierce mountain wind, kneel with him at the altar marking the end of each area, and soar joyously through the air with him. It's the most interesting way of handling co-op gameplay I've seen in years. There's no communication aside from the nomad's ability to sing a single note, but the bond can be very strong.
Journey is a short experience; an initial playthrough can be completed in 90 minutes. But like a favourite film or book or painting, it will compel you to come back again and again. Art tends to have that effect on people.
Beautiful, emotional and utterly unique, Journey redefines what a video game can be and how it can make us feel.