Thatgamecompany‘s 2012 release Journey (PS3) is what can only be described as the rare instance of a genuinely moving visual experience in the medium of video games; to achieve this with only music and visuals, and no dialogue or explicit narrative, is a significant achievement. In previous articles I criticised games for being filmlike, and aspiring to copy other media; Journey does not do this. Instead it takes what film has the capacity to do and applies that to the unique capabilities of video games. It does not simply emulate cinema, as a title like Heavy Rain or LA Noire might do, but instead uses the visual language of cinema in conjunction with the unique elements of interactive art.
Journey’s use of sound in conjunction with camerawork and visual setpieces is undeniably cinematic, evoking Terrence Malick’s films The New World and The Thin Red Line in using extended sequences of landscapes driven and defined by music. The soundtrack replaces the dialogue, defining the response of a viewer or player without the need for narration or speech. Similarly, while the player is given some control over the camera in order to make it easier to progress, it is the removal of control while leaving absolute agency over the game itself which allows Journey to move beyond simple emulation of film. When the camera adjusts the perspective from which the player views the action, it is used to drive progress through a scene by highlighting the goal, altering the perception of the scene and the perception of distance that the player has. This visual aspect is strongly thematic, invested with its own connotative meaning which creates a narrative without a word of explanation; the player can judge their progress through the game purely by visual cues and inherent understanding both of how film and games work as media.
Intuition is central to Journey‘s gamelike aspects; much like in Dark Souls,a small and clearly-defined game state is established which must be solved to proceed in each area. This is communicated entirely by the visual; elements of the game which are introduced in one form are visually linked to new mechanics and work intuitively; a red path will always work the same way no matter which direction or format it is used in. Yet this intuition goes beyond simple understanding of how games work and functions on a more basic level of exploration and understanding; the way in which the challenges evolve is organic and always clear.
There are no moments where knowledge from outside the game is needed to understand what is happening or to progress, simply application of the information that has already been given. This almost creates an attachment to the mechanics themselves; when later in the game one of your two potential actions is removed, its loss is gradual and through seeing it the player is given a self-contained narrative sequence; something that in a film would require expository dialogue or clear visual cues is portrayed over the course of a few minutes in Journey by literally limiting the player’s actions – it is using the expectations of the player to form a silent narrative. This is quite different from a more “cinematic” game which intersperses sequences of absolute agency with sequences of highly curated story; Journey uses a mid-point whereby the player’s agency is varied for narrative effect.
So by using a combination of filmic camerawork and sound design, and gamelike alteration of the game state, Journey transcends film. It uses the visual language of cinema and the challenge-resolution mechanics of games, and then adds on top of this co-operation. It is the “multiplayer” component of Journey that makes it even more exceptional. At points throughout the game, the player is joined by other characters; these remain anonymous and can be communicated with only by signals and movement. It is only at the end of the game, when the narrative is complete, that the player learns who has helped them; each figure encountered is another player. Co-operation is therefore purely anonymous and with no competitive element; by removing the element of communication, and relying only on the intuitive knowledge that each player gains by playing, a sense of shared experience is built up. The song-like method of signalling forms another personal bond between the two players, and again when this is not possible it is invested with a narrative force; it is not simply no longer being able to co-operate as easily, but the loss of a companion with whom a silent relationship has formed
To conclude, Journey is a game which uses the visual language of film not as a mainstay but as a tool to be deployed and altered in line with what the game format offers; rather than emulating cinema, it uses it as a baseline for developing the game medium into something beyond a simple diversion. The inclusion of co-operation without a curated or controlled experience adds an organic and improvised nature to the game which remains quite unlike anything the industry has recently offered.