I’ll just go ahead and say it without qualification: if I could play through only one video game, only one more time, the game would be Journey — it was released as a download for the PS3 a few weeks ago. I want to tell you what brings me to that conclusion, but it’s genuinely impossible to do so without spoilers. And not just spoilers. These are the kinds of spoilers which might make you both decide that you must play the game and wish you didn’t know what I just told you. And it’s going to happen very quickly, so don’t think you can read a bit and peel off when it starts getting juicy. It’s gonna be juicy about two sentences after the warning. Okay? So stop now, get a PS3 if you don’t have one, and pay the $15 to download Journey from the Playstation Store, or read on.
—here there be spoilers—
Honestly, I am not sure if this is a video game or an exercise in using a video game to foster a sense of respect and compassion for fellow human beings. You’ll have to judge that one for yourself.
So here’s the scoop, and it’s relative simple: you start the game, a cloaked nomad figure in a big desert. There’s a very large mountain shining in the sun across the desert in front of you. The game is made up of a number of chapters which comprise the journey up the mountain, and they’re crafted like the story arc of a very good novel. There is joy, uncertainty, tension, catastrophe and finally (I warned you) triumph. And this is all done with amazingly gorgeous, immersive, scenery and a compelling musical score.
As you delight and toil your way up toward the mountain, you occasionally come upon another solitary figure who looks like you. You have the ability to emit a chime-like call which is instrumental to your progress, and sometimes these figures almost seem to be trying to interact with you. If your first play through is like mine, these seem nearly ghostlike: they appear, sometimes interacting and sometimes not, and just as quickly they’re gone. Occasionally you spend longer stretches in the game journeying with one of these people, and sometimes they even seem to be trying to help you.
Here’s the real spoiler: once you reach the top of the mountain you’re treated to a very emotional final scene in which you enter the cleft in the summit and are transformed into a tailed star. As the credits roll, the star-you travels back through all the chapters and lands at the edge of the desert where you began. And then, the revelation. You’re shown a list of the screen names of all the other journeyers that you traveled with. The other figures are other real players.
It’s hard to capture the real impact this has. I was dumfounded. The game is achingly beautiful — achingly because it’s plays hope against seemingly insurmountable difficulty and winds up with a stunningly triumphant and hopeful ending. That alone would be enough to put the game on my top-10 list. But after your first journey (or now, since you’re reading this) you know that the whole story is shared with another person or persons. You realize that all those times it seemed like the figure was helping you, he or she was.
So what do you? Of course: you go back and you do it again, and this time you help someone else. The first play through is awesome and all, but I think the real essence of the game is the going back and helping. So it’s a game that plays like a good novel reads and compels a sense of empathy. Amazing.
If you really want to see what the game is about, and you’re okay with mega spoilers, check out this video on youtube. It shows a pair making it up the last bit of the mountain (and dying — you cannot escape dying) and then the summit.