Review: Journey (* star) Part 1

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TL;DR – I find it difficult to call Journey a “video game” in even the barest sense. Its basic rules consist of almost nothing at all except moving forward and understanding how to move in a 3-D space, and the number of concepts it employs do not even require a cursory knowledge of basic skills or development of said skills. At best, Journey wants you, the player, to solve “puzzles” that merely require recognition of certain colors and shapes (red and scarf-like, in this case). The “platforming” requires jumps that require no reflexes to avoid failure. Enemies do not prevent your progress, hence making them useless as “obstacles”. As an aesthetic, pleasurable theme park joy-ride across an interesting landscape with a vague, Eastern pseudo-mystical Buddhist reincarnation fable, it succeeds brilliantly. As a video game that forces the player to learn new concepts and then master said concepts, Journey does not perform this function. Rather, it is a philosophical denial of life – one that I can’t accept from a Christian perspective.

I’ve heard much talk about the “growth” of the video game “medium”. A bastion for artistic works came into being, if only the general public could see it! Oh, how I envy the naive mind who looks at a “game” like Journey and finds his/her fulfillment in this…thing. I’m hesitant to categorize this product of thatgamecompany. More “experience” than “game”, Journey surely works for an audience with zero historical understanding of video games or rules behind said video games.

In fact, I cannot even give it a score. A score would imply, in some sense, that I could compare Journey to other games in its genre, or that an analysis of its mechanics would lead to some criticism of the structure. Although I will do this just for the sake of having something, anything, to write about in this review, I cannot in good conscience discuss Journey like a “game”.

So, like any good philosopher, let us make the assumption that Journey is, in fact, a video game. Say, a 3d platformer that came out in the last two decades or so. We will find, even in this sense, that Journey represents a retrogressive model when compared (favorably) to its forebears.

Alpha Waves and Journeys

The first truly three dimensional platformer released was a French game developed for the personal computer, Alpha Waves. Infrogrames’ artistic venture represents the first time that a player could truly interact and move within a completely (note that term) three dimensional six axis world. Not only that: a player needed to bounce from platform to platform as an abstract polygonal shape, eventually reaching a predetermined goal point in every level. The game contains multiple hidden passages and allows you to find them if you happen to explore each room thoroughly enough. Each room, furthermore, represents a different emotion which changes the colors and the shapes on hand. These elements contribute to the stimulus creating “Alpha Waves” in the brain. The game intended to use colors, shapes, and moody music to stimulate different emotional centers of the brain – almost like a brain test. The player can freely explore the game in Emotion mode, exploring the different emotions as they see fit.

Anyone viewing Alpha Waves in its prime would see an unimaginable sight: the exploration of three dimensions on a computer screen. Yet there’s a clear lack of advance in terms of its own contemporaries. Remember here that the game found release in an age when PC and consoles games alike did not even conceive that such technology would possibly exist for the creation of their games – nor could three dimensions find an accurate or useful representation for an imagination. Two dimensional graphics, still the standard, were used because such frivolous (and new) technology could not possibly justify the cost when a 2D plane worked just as well.

Using only a limited color palette and the constraints of two dimensions, developers worked tirelessly to immerse and challenge their player on any number of levels – through reflexes, puzzle-solving skills, or just plain strategy. Even in the early 1990s, paragons of genres came and went. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past used two dimensions to create a grand puzzle-solving and swashbuckling adventure. Ultima VII became a huge leap forward in role-playing games when it was released in 1992; it presented a huge world with a great diversity of characters, political strife, religions, and complex systems. Even Star Fox, probably the first genuinely interesting use of 3D on a console, became exemplary for being a great game under the constraints of a game system sorely lacking in 3D processing power. When advanced artificial intelligence did not exist, game makers sought ways to circumvent those problems through the advent of competitive games; leave it to Street Fighter II to herald the competitive game revolution . No AI to date challenge the human mind except the human mind; so it is, so it was. Its progeny were Counter Strike and StarCraft, and they inherit the same rules and limitations of its ancestors.

Now, one might ask: why have I not heard of Alpha Waves? While a landmark title in terms of its historical significance, this game did not affect the public at large for the aforementioned reasons. Those invested in the game market did not see the use; Alpha Waves showed the world a prototype of things to come, but not a genuinely satisfying game in itself. Even with its Action Mode (which placed time constraints in the vein of arcade games), Alpha Waves could not satisfy an audience growing up with these classics of the genre.

Unlike many of my colleagues, however, I’m not pining for the good old days necessarily. Video games, for better or worse, started to add more and more complexities; the advent of three dimensions had much to do with that. Other developers did Alpha Waves one better; even Crash Bandicoot arrived in 1995 with such unbelievable advances in both mechanics and aesthetic appeal, as well as challenge and playability. Thus did Alpha Waves instantly fade into obscurity, if it ever was in the public eye.

Yet, somehow, the impulse to degrade surrounds the modern game enterprise. The advent of the most powerful graphics processing tools in history allowed for games of great aesthetic appeal. Because of their lack of constraint, many developers create worlds beyond imagining, yet fail to implement effective and interesting mechanics to go along with that beautiful landscape. You can see this in any number of games, from first persons shooters (at least in single player, less so in the multi-player components) to even JRPGs (which, admittedly, seemed simplistic even from their inception). Yet, somehow, thatgamecompany found a way to regress further. By stripping various games down to their bases parts, and then throwing an attractive aesthetic on the top, they’ve managed to hoodwink a large swath of the public with their “experiences”. The latest in the line is Journey – which, for our purposes, comes as a less advanced remake of Alpha Waves.

Retrogression in Action

All the elements come from Alpha Waves: the rooms become open spaces, each of which Journey seperates with its meditation spots (and even identifies these “levels” with cutscenes). Although the path, like Alpha Waves, is linear, alternate paths exist for those savvy enough (or, in my case, lucky enough) to find them. Alpha Waves does not enhance your abilities to jump like Journey’s scarf mechanic (longer scarf, longer flight time), but Alpha Waves’ trampoline give you extra height the longer you stay on the trampolines.

While Alpha Waves uses abstract shapes to provoke stimuli, Journey presents an attractive and sometimes beautiful vision of a different world. In both cases, however, the visuals present a layer of abstraction and vagueness, allowing any person to project their own feelings onto the proceedings at hand. Just because Journey dazzles the player with cut scenes does not mean it is dissimilar if both convey the exact same information (that is, none). Players must invest themselves in the experience.

When they do this, both games become engaging purely by virtue of moving forward, to explore and see what exactly one can see in this virtual world. Each has a light “puzzle solving” aspect, if a puzzle consists in finding the proper way to get to the next room. Alpha Waves requires more timing and effort, while Journey requires only activating a specific set of objects to progress. There’s no “failure” in either, and even Alpha Waves’ Action Mode only ends when the timer runs out; one cannot “die” or “Game Over”. Heck, both of them even have a multi-player component! Journey’s version isn’t original in terms of the whole history of video games (Resident Evil: Outbreak did it first, from my reckoning), but it certainly adds a quirky element to the Alpha Waves formula.

From two different time frames, two different “interactive experiences” actually fulfill the same function. No one would play Alpha Waves today, I imagine, but Journey remakes it and adds a few different features. Online multi-player means that the experience isn’t limited to whoever’s in the general vicinity, but local multi-player doesn’t exist. Journey removes the UI and adds your powers onto the scarf instead – neat, and contextually relevant I suppose. We could also say that, as Alpha Waves resonates in an abstract mental reaction, so Journey does so by tugging at some undefinable emotional reserve that makes a player say “yes, this is a journey that I am taking.”

At best, though, that’s merely an illusion and a deception. Alpha Waves and Journey operate on one principle: tricking the player through the wonders of technology and appeal, rather than creating a mechanically rich game beneath that veneer.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.