There is a question that I hear fairly frequently that bothers me more than it rightly should. I understand the intent behind the query, but the way it is phrased is so poorly thought out and foolish sounding that it makes me roll my eyes just out of reflex. Because no matter how intelligent the person may be, the moment they ask that flawed question, “Are video games art?”, I wonder whether they even realize what just came out of their mouth. Art is such a broadly defined term, with so many different theories and definitions behind it that the question is rendered almost meaningless from the get-go. A child’s scribbling can be classified as art, a blank canvas can be classified as art, heck even a few splotches of paint hurled against a wall can be considered as art by its current vague definition. No, when people ask that question, they are not actually critiquing whether or not video games, an expression that combines storytelling, visual spectacle, film making, and acoustic design, is art in its broadest sense.
They are asking whether video games are capable of being great art. Of being masterpieces.
Now we come to the heart of the issue, as I doubt even the most avid of gamers would be willing to place modern games like Call Of Duty 12 or Cogs Of War 2.5 on the same pedestal as Da Vinci’s works or Beethoven’s symphonies. Let’s face it; most games are juvenile in either their execution or their content, and, in more cases than I’d care to admit, both. Sure, Mario games are great fun to play, but are they really worth being called masterpieces just because they’ve been successful over time? Personally, I don’t think so. A game can be a tremendous amount of fun to play, but it requires something more for me to feel comfortable talking about it in those sorts of terms. And to this day there have only been three games that I feel comfortable describing as great art. So today I would like to talk about one of these games, the latest that I have discovered. I would like to talk about Journey.
Starting with the story, the whole concept has a sort of simple elegance to it. You are an unnamed individual, clad in a generic red robe with no distinguishing features, who for some reason has decided to try and reach the peak of a mountain off in the distance. There is no narrator to explain the game to you, no dialogue in which to force exposition down your throat. In fact, aside from a few moving stills that show you a brief overview of what is happening, there really isn’t that much to go off of. But that’s fine! The story here isn’t about redemption or vengeance or saving the world or anything else that might bookend the actual gameplay. No, this game’s story is the journey (hah, see what I did there?) itself, the tale of your own personal struggles as you traverse the different environments on your way to the summit. And it is that much more poignant and powerful because of it.
This simplicity is only complemented by the actual game play, as the controls are also incredibly simple and straightforward. Outside of movement with the L3 stick and camera rotation with the R3 stick there are only two functional buttons: the X button, which controls your ability to jump/fly using the energy stored up in your scarf, and the O button, which causes your character to let off a chime which is as strong as you hold the button down for. This simplicity is deceiving however, as the chime can be used for anything from activating different key items, to revealing hidden tablets, to communicating with your fellow players.
That’s right, this game is co-op. Albeit not in your typical sense. You have no control over who you play with, no idea who you are playing with until you clear the game, and can only communicate with your companion through chimes and movement. At first this might seem like a bad thing, as half the fun of most games is playing with a friend, but it actually enhanced my co-op experience (which I’ll go into more depth in later). The flight/jump button is also more interesting than it seems at first, as by enhancing your scarf by collecting the symbols hidden throughout the game your method of progression changes dramatically. A quick detour around a crumbling wall becomes a minor inconvenience as you soar above it. The flight also has a great feel to it, as your character flips and pirouettes around while you bypass obstacles and clear vast expanses. It’s a great example of how a game doesn’t need to have several dozen different button commands in order to have a solid control scheme.
But let’s talk about the aspect that most people think of when they look at a game as art, its visual aesthetics. I’m going to be blunt here: Journey is gorgeous. From sliding along the golden sands, bypassing ruined towers and arches as the sands shimmer around you, to hiding behind stone blocks from intense winds as you try to traverse the frozen mountainside, every vista that you explore as you complete this journey is absolutely breathtaking. Even the game’s enemies, the terrifying Leviathans that destroy your scarf if they see you, are beautiful in their own way. There were several moments where I found myself spell bound by the scenery I was looking at as I played through this game for the first time. Heck, it’s to the point where you could hang up screen shots from this game on your wall and it would be somewhat understandable. And if you’re not impressed by the desert or mountainside areas, just wait until you explore the mountain’s summit for the first time.
But this game has more than just physical beauty. They say that beauty is only skin deep, but I attest that something’s inner beauty, the emotional depth of something, can be just as important as its physical appearance. And this is where the game’s co-op comes to life. Because by rendering your fellow players into unknowns with no way in which to properly communicate with them, you are unable to apply your natural biases to them. They are a mystery to you, just another faceless entity in your travels. And yet they are so important, as you learn more about them by just playing through the level or, if you’re lucky, through the entire game with them than you might learn through a hundred online conversations. Here, let me give you a personal example.
On my first play through I ran into someone who was clearly a veteran of the game (his scarf was much longer than mine. Heh, I remember wondering at the time how it was even possible to get it that long.), who helped me along and guided me through the bulk of my initial play through. As we played we formed a bond, this stranger and I, as he would wait patiently for me as I got lost/distracted and would point out hidden symbols to me. And I in turn would follow him to the best of my ability, doing my best not to get in his way. I discovered so much more than I would’ve discovered by playing through the game on my own. It inspired a level of emotional attachment in me that, quite frankly, I didn’t believe a game was capable of. When he got struck by one of the Leviathan’s I could actually feel myself panicking even though I knew that it was impossible for him to die. I found myself waiting at the exit of the area pinging sadly; just to let him know that I was still there. And I was so happy when I finally saw him slowly approach, his long scarf torn down to a fraction of its former glory, and we resumed our journey together. Beating the game with him was immensely rewarding, not just on a gaming level, but on an emotional level. As the credits rolled I found myself thinking of this guy, a total stranger, as my friend. It was to the point that when I saw his username after the credits I wanted to friend him over my Playstation account, despite how creepy it was to try and friend someone I didn’t even really know. I was in the midst of talking myself out of it when I discovered that my worries were fruitless.
He had friend requested me first.
This is what I mean by emotional beauty. When a game can take two complete and utter strangers, people with completely dissimilar tastes (his game history was completely different from mine) and turn them into friends through their mutual experiences, you know that you have discovered something special. I have never played a game that caused me to even consider friending a stranger before, let alone on the first day I had met them. And yet that is the power of Journey, as even though the scenario might be the same every time you play, the experience is always just a little bit different.
I feel like I should also mention the game’s audio as well, though there’s really not much to say outside of how beautifully atmospheric it is. From the pings that your character makes to the powerful background music building up in swells in order to compliment whatever’s transpiring, it is all designed to mesh perfectly with the rest of the game’s aesthetics. Even the ambient noises, like the statues shifting through the tower and the wind rushing past you all seem to blend into the game’s cohesive whole, bringing everything up to that next level of quality.
Honestly the only complaint that I’ve heard leveled at this game is about how short it is. And to an extent it’s a fair complaint. You can clear the entire game in less than two hours if you’re focused, and outside of gathering collectibles or playing with other people, there’s not a huge amount of replayability here. But the game’s concise length keeps everything in balance and makes it so that the whole thing transcends being just another game, instead turning it into an experience that can stick with the gamer. And while I must admit that I too wish the game was a bit longer just so that I could justify investing even more time into it, if the designers felt that such an expansion would’ve weakened the overall quality of the title then I must applaud them. After all, it is an artist’s prerogative to make their work to the best possible standard that they can. Too many games suffer from unnecessary padding as it is.
God, I could go on and on about how much I love this game and wish that more downloadable titles were up to this level of quality. But I’ve already rambled on quite enough for one review. Needless to say, if you own a PS3 then this game is a must buy, if only to shut up your Xbox loving friends about how much better their system is. For only fifteen bucks it’s definitely worth your time and money, and you might just learn something about yourself while you’re at it.
For those of you fans who’ve already played this game please leave a synopsis about one of your favorite or most memorable moments in the comments below. If you don’t own it, let me know why you don’t think it’s worth the investment! Heck, if you don’t own a PS3 leave a comment about how much you love first person shooters! I dunno, have fun with it! In the meantime this is Bargain Gamer, and I’ll see you guys and gals next time!