3 Reasons Journey is a Legendary Video Game (review/retrospective)

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 6 min read

Warning, this video and article shows footage from the final moments of the game Journey, as well as a description of the entire arc of the game. Please continue only if you have played the game or are okay with spoilers.

Journey is a masterful game that crams more emotion and moments of euphoric gameplay into one hour than most games achieve in their 40 plus hour runtimes. On top of that, the game achieves this without uttering a single word to the player. I don’t think every game can do this, and a large part of why this game is successful is in how it embraces being different from most other games, but I think it provides some lessons in game design that lots of other game designers could learn from.

I want to talk about 3 things the game does extraordinarily well: direction, empowerment, and multiplayer.

Before I get into those, I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that Journey has some of the most striking visuals ever created for a video game, and the soundtrack, composed by Austin Wintory, pair together perfectly to create a unique and unforgettable audiovisual experience.

But great visuals and audio can only take a game so far on their own, so let’s talk about what actually makes Journey such a special game.

First up is direction. Journey has no dialogue and there is only written text 3 times in the game by my count. One that tells you to press X to start the game, one that tells you to hold down O to sing, and one to hold X to jump. That’s it.

And in terms of user interface, well there is none. Your character wears a scarf that tells you how much more jumping capability you have left, but that’s it. There is no life bar or experience meters to fill up, and there are no maps or waypoints telling you where to go.

Despite all of these traditional elements being missing, you are unlikely to find yourself lost or wondering what to do next in this game. The game world is wonderfully designed in a way that it encourages you to always head the right direction. From the very beginning you are coaxed into moving towards a small platform on the horizon. You could conceivably walk off in any direction, but the game world does not encourage this. The dessert is beautiful, but there looks like there is nothing to do anywhere other than where you are supposed to go.

The game also uses ease of navigation as a way to funnel you towards where it needs you to go next. You can walk through the sand, but it’s a heck of a lot more expedient to slide through the sand dunes, and many of the larger areas make it so you will naturally get to where you need to go to advance by embracing the slide rather than trudging through the sand in the wrong direction.

And there there are world markers throughout the game. At a fundamental level, the game asks you to get to the top of the mountain in the distance. Again, it asks you to do this without uttering a word, but it’s very clear that is the objective.

You also are guided with things like giant scarfs that looks a heck of a lot like the scarf you yourself are wearing. These turn out to be what you use to build bridges to get to the next area. The game’s dessert world makes it easy to always find these with ease.

Other things such as conveniently placed lights help you along the way too and it all just adds up to an experience that does not feel like it’s holding your hand despite it doing a lot of work to get you to do exactly what it wants.

Next up is empowerment. Journey does a masterful job of making the most of the powers it gives you. The basic actions you can take in this game are jumping, gliding, and sliding. At the start of the game you can’t do any of these. Your scarf isn’t even there yet and the landscape is flat so you must just walk through the sand at first.

You soon get the ability to jump, which in turn gives you the ability to glide down from your jump. The initial jump is relatively small so you can’t do a ton with it, but soon you’ll be discovering extensions for your scarf with let you jump higher and glide farther. You can combine this with some larger, more sloped areas to jump, glide down, and slide you way across the world in no time. The jump is incredibly rewarding and each upgrade you get to it makes a meaningful enough difference to make you feel overpowered each time you find an upgrade.

You continue on this path for the first 2/3 of the game, getting more and more powerful and feeling like you can take on the world. But then you come to a new area that’s totally different. The sand is replaced by snow and everything is suddenly a literal uphill battle. Not only does the game remove all of the rolling hills and raised platforms you became accustomed to using to literally fly around the world, it makes the world so cold that it literally saps your scarf of all its power. Not only does your scarf constantly lose its energy, but it even slowly shrinks until there is just a stub left. That thing you put all your effort into growing as big as possible is stripped away from you and you have to push on without it.

Your power is eventually taken away from you entirely and you take ever slower, smaller steps up the mountain. The controller vibrates with every step, where previously you could run and jump without a care in the world. Now the game makes you feel every step, makes you feel the impact it has on you. You really feel the struggle of the character. You do this until you can’t make it any further and you collapse in the snow, nothing left to give.

The game built you up and then tore you down, and in its final moments builds you right back up again, this time with more power and more freedom than you have ever had in the game. Your scarf is longer than it’s ever been and the world you’re navigating has the scarf’s regenerative magic filling the air you breath. Your power is effectively limitless and you no longer have to think about what you do, you can just do anything you want. The music is euphoric here as well, which only helps to accentuate the moment.

I just love how the game builds you up wonderfully, only to tear you down, all of which makes you appreciate even more the final sequence which gives you more power than you know what to do with. This is grade A game design.

Finally we have to talk about this game’smiltiplayer, which is anything but a traditional multiplayer experience. You can’t party up or anything and it’s not even explicitly clear that these are other human beings you’re seeing in the world. There are no usernames, no voice chat, and most importantly, no negative ways to interact with each other. Again, since your only actions are to jump and sing, you can only really sing at one another, which if they are close enough to you, will also recharge their cape if they need it.

On top of this, you’ll become inexplicably attached to these unnamed wanderers. Whenever I ran into someone I would feel compelled to stick with them and help them find hidden things in the world or recharge their cape if they needed it. I’d also just stand there and sing to get their attention. And I’m not an anomaly or anything, this is how everyone I’ve played with has acted too. Everyone is nice to each other, in part because the game doesn’t give you a way to be bad, but mostly because the game puts you in a state that makes you feel like you want to have a positive experience.

Now I’m someone who always mutes other players in multiplayer games, but even I found myself compelled to interact with others in this game and even wait for them to catch up to me so we could go to the next section together. On one play-though I was with one person for a good chunk of time and I felt genuinely sad when we got separated somehow along the way. That’s really impressive for, again a game with no words.

And that’s what I think is so amazing about Journey. It’s a fantastic game that does so much right in such a small package. Despite the one hour run time, Journey is a game that stay with you long after you put down the controller. And if you don’t want it to end, the game lets you kick off a new journey immediately after your first journey ends.