Journey Review: One Way Trip

With thatgamecompany’s first two games, the Los Angeles based developer established some serious arthouse cred. Both flOw (2007) and Flower (2009) used the Playstation’s Sixaxis motion control to create some minimal, ethereal experiences. Their latest game Journey doesn’t follow suit with motion controls, but it does continue the developer’s goal of creating airy, emotionally driven games. What Journey lacks in substance, it makes up for with pure feeling.

As a robed Bedouin figure in a vast desert, your goal in Journey is, well, to make a journey. It starts simple and remains so for the entire two-and-a-half hour pilgrimage. A large mountain in the distance soon becomes your goal, as it sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the endless dunes. This becomes the crux of the narrative as you weave through ruined highways and grand halls. What will happen when you get to the mountain? Well the game doesn’t give up any sort of answer before the very end, and only conveys story through intermittent cutscenes that feature absolutely no dialogue.

As you make your way forward, the loneliness of the desert can be a little harrowing. If you are playing online however, you’ll occasionally run into other players making their own way to the mountain. It is random, there is no way to contact the other person besides a chirping sound that you can make, and there is no guarantee that the other player will stay with you. But when they do, it adds a sense of companionship that changes the entire dynamic of the game. You’re sharing this experience with another person in a very restricted, yet powerful way.

Besides walking rather slowly forward, sliding down dunes, and chirping incessantly, players are given a kind of gliding ability that can only be used when charged up via magical pieces of cloth. These little scraps of cloth often serve as markers for which way you’re supposed to go, and also lead to some of the more impressive moments in the game. An early puzzle has you reconstruct a bridge made entirely of the stuff, and then lets you fly over it in a wide arc. These moments of elation pop up between much solemnity, and give the game much of its emotional appeal.

At all times, Journey is a beautiful game despite not pushing a huge amount of polygons. Sand blows across the land like a golden ocean, and the entire aesthetic is sort of like a mosque drawn in a cel shaded style. The game makes liberal use of pink, maroon, gold, and even cooler tones as you move through the world. The soundtrack supports this style even further, with long, buzzing cello pulls that reinforce the isolated vastness of the desert. But in moments of joy and excitement a full orchestral ensemble blends in naturally.

You aren’t likely to spend more than a few hours at most playing Journey, but if you’re into the minimalist indie scene, you’ll be very glad to have spent that time with it. I can see how it would be too barren for some to appreciate; I fully admit that what story is here isn’t well explained. But the point is to feel your way through the game. To get caught up in the moments that the designers have carefully crafted. If you can’t get into it, then I don’t know what would pierce your cynical soul.

Journey is available only on the PSN for PS3. All screenshot credit goes to thatgamecompany’s own selection of screenshots available via their website.

A Short Review of Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving

“Cinematic experience,” is a common phrase in the game critic’s repertoire, but I’m not convinced that it should always be connoted with merit. For example, the Metal Gear Solid series has deep roots in anime and action movie cinematography, but often at the expense of player control. Cutscenes can go on for nearly a half hour without any player input, which often makes me wonder why the game wasn’t just a CGI film.

Brendon Chung’s Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving are the antitheses of that design philosophy; shining examples of how to pull off cinematic qualities in a video game without compromising player agency. Chung experiments with jump cuts, montage, on-screen text, and nonlinear narrative in ways that some bigger studios could benefit from.

From the first greeting horn blast of Xavier Cugat’s “Maria Elena”, Gravity Bone presents itself as a sort of 1960 spy flick crossed with Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Though the visuals are based in the Quake II engine, Chung’s modding resulted in an amazingly simple, but gorgeous art style. Characters all have the same cheese-cube on a stick physique and the color palette is predominantly golds and browns. Despite the abstraction, this wood panel filled throwback feels appropriate to the time period it is trying to evoke.

It’s a world where everything looks like it was made from wood and metal, not plastic. It’s a place where a tape recorder with actual film stock gives you instructions on how to carry out your mission, and works well to steep players in the vibes put out by Mr. Cugat’s Latin swing. This is also a technically good looking game of its time, with plenty of lighting tricks that bathe the world in plenty of colors and contrast.

While the art style and audio are immediately in your face and bombastic, the narrative remains minimal and purposefully vague. More is learned through flashback montages than any exposition. In fact, most of story is something the player gets to kind of fill in with their own imagination.

You’ll probably wonder, “Am I supposed to be playing as some sort of corporate espionage agent?” Well I certainly felt so, but Brendon Chung never programmed anything in the game to make me outright know that I was. All I knew was that a cutscene (appropriately shown as a slide projector series) told me that my first mission pleased my “clients”, so I knew I had to be a fix-it man of some sort.

This is something that some people are going to hate. They are going to hate that the game is only about a twenty minutes long, and they are going to hate its experimental, art-house energy. And it only gets worse in Thirty Flights of Loving, which is about half as long and twice as willing to take risks.

Which makes it the better of the two in my opinion. For all its amazing atmosphere, plethora of unique art assets, and mysterious story beats, Gravity Bone has one platforming section that I kept messing up because I didn’t know where exactly the edge of the platform and my feet met. It feels much more like a traditional first-person-shooter (not that you’ll be shooting anyone) with some unorthodox story beats packaged around it. Thirty Flights makes no such mistake, instead making jump cuts, montage, and uncertain narrative the main feature.

Instead of forcing players through long walkways and platforming sequences or backstories that are relegated to “quest logs” that you’ll never check, Chung cuts out most traversal–which is crazy if you consider that first-person shooter lineage practically demands plenty of time spent in corridors full of nothing–and there is nary a dialogue interrogation ala Mass Effect in sight. Any part of the game that could be considered slow, or god forbid boring, is simply made into a jump cut, and players simply jump forward in time. And player interaction with the two supporting characters is told through flashback and small character moments.

Short montages let you know that your female companion is a sharpshooter, but what is she sharpshooting? And for whom? Likewise, your other buddy is the best man at a wedding, but you only see the after party (which is one of the game’s highlights because of its great use chronology) and you don’t really know anything that’s going on. Again, like Gravity Bone, you are set loose in a set of often non-linear events that give you just enough to make a story out of it.

Thirty Flights is a much different looking game than Gravity Bone as well, if only because of the color palette. Pinks, reds, oranges, blues; this is the kind of stuff that makes you balk at Unreal Engine titles like Gears of War (which I do enjoy despite its gray tones). Technically, perhaps this isn’t quite as stunning as Gravity Bone was back when it was first released in 2008. Still, Chung gets plenty of mileage out of the quirky design.

To continue detailing both these games would be getting into dangerous spoiler territory considering that they are both only about a half hour in total length. So I’ll leave this review with this: buy these games. Soak in the collective 30 minutes of gameplay and enjoy the feeling of existing in these rich vignettes. If you aren’t into the whole, “games as art,” thing, then perhaps you won’t enjoy you time with Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving. But if you are that person, you probably aren’t searching WordPress for blog reviews of them anyways.