Controversy Corner: Is Journey Really All That Good?

Game of the Year award discussions encourages, above all else, bitter arguments. Sites, magazines and officiating bodies are almost never unanimous with their choices, and sometimes disagreements can be particularly strong.

So it is I find myself at the end of 2012, looking over lists of nominations before pulling people aside quietly and asking ‘I’m not the only one who didn’t think Journey was all that special, right?’, only for them to mutter something about having to go to the bathroom and quietly making themselves scarce, clearly shaking with rage. I liked Journey. It’s beautiful and quietly lovely in sections. But I did not love it, nor have I quite been able to come to terms with the ways in which everyone else seems to have loved it.

While there’s no need to explicitly outline a specific ‘thing’ that Journey is about, it’s fair to say that people have come to their own conclusions on what it is they should get out of the experience. To me, Journey seems to focus heavily on the process of meeting and collaborating with new people, of enjoying the company of someone you haven’t met, and of sharing a connection with them. In many ways, this is a lovely notion – unlike an equivalent program like Chatroulette, there’s no way a fellow Journey-er can flash their genitals at you, or swear at you like in most online games. All they can do, really, is be with you, and share their song with a tap of the circle button.

But it’s a little sad that the best way to achieve this sort of unity is to pull back interaction until you’ve got almost nothing. We’re all but guaranteed to experience the spark of personal connection in Journey, but none of the actual enjoyment that comes from the act of meeting someone worth meeting. Yes, it cuts through potential boundaries of gender, race, and so forth, but it does so by completely obscuring identities. In a way, there’s a sense of tragedy underlining Journey’s harmony. Imagine a world in which the games that best unite everyone were games like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft, games in which you’re encouraged to speak to and get to know your fellow players. It’s not Journey’s fault that this isn’t the case, but still, there’s a sadness that comes from congratulating the game for forcing players to ignore their very worst impulses.

These communications between players are a novelty; the game’s finest moments involve sifting through the sand singing a song together, the sort of activity that, while nice, would be so much nicer if you were doing it with someone you knew and cared about. Played in a certain mindset (as I did when I switched the game on last night), Journey can remind you of what you’re missing out on by being in front of your console rather than making you feel like you’re taking part in an essential experience.

Many of my feelings here stem from the simple fact that playing Journey alone is, by and large, quite dull. The early sand surfing sections may be pretty wonderful, but you also spend a lot of time simply meandering around in the game, and without a companion to share the journey with – or with whom to sing out a little ditty – the later sections of the game are beautiful to look at, but navigating them isn’t necessarily an interesting practice. My first playthrough was mostly done alone, with no fellow travelers popping up to share the trip, and it made me realise that there was a certain emptiness to the game. Some of the final sections are even, dare I say it, slightly poorly designed – once you hit the snow, things get a bit iffy in places. The ending is interesting, but then all too often our discussions around ambiguous games focus far too strongly on how they end.

The critical success of Journey seems to me more like a commentary on the boorishness, violence, and repetition that so many critics and gamers have grown sick of than a commendation of the things that Journey, for all its wonderful vistas and smart sections, actually does. I suspect that I may be largely alone in this; I’ve encountered two other local games writers who feel similarly, but have otherwise seen little but uproarious praise for the game. I appreciate and respect Journey, but I’ll never feel the way everyone around me seems to.