As my steps slowed in the deep, crusted snow and the icy wind, I could see what was coming. The prophecy on the pixel-tapestry cyclorama had been true. Each step took longer and was more agonising, as though my entire body was freezing solid. Eventually, I collapsed. The screen faded to white, and I thought, ‘This is the best ending of any videogame ever.’ The game told you exactly what was coming, and fulfils that promise with a brutal purity. It is a fond yet unyielding comment on the simplistic quest-triumph narrative of nearly every other videogame, and a memento mori demonstrating that all lives, whatever joys they contain, end the same way. It is Passage writ large on a HD canvas. And then my glowing white spirit-mother, or whoever she was, appeared to me, and I realised with a horrible sinking feeling that the game wasn’t over after all. The truth is that Journey doesn’t know when to stop.
Journey’s very title evokes the old saw about how it’s not the destination that matters, but how you get there, yet the game refuses to end where its own logic dictates. It’s no excuse to interpret the final act as a dying hallucination rather than a literal resurrection. (The system notification of a trophy called ‘Rebirth’, whatever its intended sense, is just horribly crass, an irruption of the lurid badgepoints-prizes-peacocking aspect of games that Thatgamecompany makes such impressive efforts to suppress throughout its oeuvre.) The very fact that the game is so archly ambiguous about the ontological status of your character after the freezing scene merely demonstrates its desperation to have its cake and eat it too. Journey wants to wring as much pathos as possible out of the freezing scene, but then give us a happy ending as well, but then make us suspect that the happy ending was an illusion, while hoping that it wasn’t, etcetera ad infinitum. It’s a cop out.
I am harping on about my disappointment that Journey fails to have the courage of its convictions only because the game is, after a slow beginning of annoying fabric-based tasks, otherwise so astonishingly beautiful and intelligent, as well as blissfully concise. The virtue it makes of its deliberately limited online component is a superb riposte to the current unthinking desperation to make everything ‘social’ in a Twitface sense. (I recently read an article wondering how we could make books ‘more social’. Seriously, shut up: books have always been social.) And perhaps the most interesting aspect of Journey’s reception has been the sheer quantity of writing it has inspired, thus refuting again the mainstream prejudice that games and literacy are opposed.
Journey’s ending is particularly inapt because it has otherwise internalised so well the journey-not-destination principle; the whole game is a demonstrative thesis on the aesthetics of motion design. It’s tough to wish the last act away, after all, because it’s so joyous – a liberated summation in winter sports sunshine of the game’s highly focused mechanic and reward system. Journey’s repeated challenge throughout is ‘gain altitude’, and the gaining of altitude through its viscous, near-liquid air (you part-swim, part-fly; there are jellyfish) is its own delirious payoff. It is an exquisitely tuned purification of the striving-upwards motif of platform games through the ages. Journey’s developers obviously noticed the freedom and happiness you suddenly feel as Mario when you break up into the clouds, jumping on cotton wool platforms in a clear blue sky. Perhaps there is a germ here, too, of the altitude-as-power topos, as exemplified by the eldritch old puzzle game, The Sentinel.
Movement along or near the ground has been equally carefully engineered. Even at the game’s start, walking through sand is not the exhausting trudge it is in real life: you always keep up a spry momentum, perhaps helped by those pointy legs. Later on, Journey nonchalantly recreates the rush of a good snowboarding game, as well as a kind of slalom-happy sand-skiing. The moment when the camera swings round to a side-on view as you hurtle through an ancient stone arcade, the better to show off the giant setting sun and the bird-like flocks of friendly fabric scraps wheeling in the sky, was for me the game’s most breathtaking coup de théâtre.
All this movement is accomplished through beautiful spaces, expertly invoking the sense of aesthetic wonder I’ve long argued is central to games. Here, the opaquely grandiose architecture, sunk in the Tatooine sands, seems a remnant of some incomprehensible ancient civilization, while the underground section (patrolled by squids from The Matrix recast in articulated stone) magically invokes awed fear without the annoying threat of game interruption through temporary death. Critics who complain that Journey isn’t more of a traditional free exploration experience have missed the point: even the on-rails sections (reminiscent of Sonic or a meditative Space Harrier) are thematically appropriate. Your life keeps on going by, after all, even if you don’t want it to, heading towards an ambiguous Mount Doom. And as mine does, I will from now on feel a strange tenderness whenever I look at a rug.