In April 2010, famed movie critic Roger Ebert declared that “Video games can never be art.” Then, a few short months later, Ebert admitted that he had played two games many years ago (one of which he didn’t have the patience for) and that while he still believes he’s right that games can’t be art, he probably should have just kept that opinion to himself.
When thatgamecompany‘s latest title, Journey, is released on March 13, Ebert will be proven wrong once again. Blending subtle storytelling with exquisite music and arresting visuals, Journey is a wondrous piece of proof that games can be art.
I began my experience with Journey at the foot of a sand dune, with a massive mountain towering in the distance as an obvious destination. As I moved through the regions toward this peak, I learned about the lands I was traversing. Climbing to the top of dunes, I surfed the sand down the other side as the music gently swelled and I discovered tattered banners waving in the wind. I explored the desert and the vast set of ruins around me, gaining the ability to float on the breezes that swirled constantly.
As I got used to the sound of the wind, the gentle strains of Austin Wintory’s music (ah, that cello threnody!) and the isolation of my own footsteps in the sand, I was transported. Engrossed. Along my journey — the game is very aptly titled — I experienced something that rarely happens in games for me: I was enthralled; utterly engaged.
And so it was a shock to see another robed figure in the distance ahead of me. I had forgotten that Journey would allow me to interact with other people at random, causing our journeys to intertwine and allowing us to interact. Our interactions were wary at first, as we both seemed to be a bit cautious, communicating only though the occasional musical tones and our actions. Soon, however, we came to trust one another as we traveled through the land on our way towards the ever-closer mountain peak. Losing the ability to communicate in our taken-for-granted means (text, chat, etc.) forced us to re-evaluate how we tried to convey our thoughts, desires, feelings.
Even without the ability to converse directly, my companion and I stayed together through the course of the rest of the game. We worked together to uncover secrets, to decipher clues and to ensure that neither of us fell behind. When one of us got ahead, we would wait for the other to catch up. When one would find something worth seeing or being aware of, the other would call out. And, as we finished the journey together, the sense of accomplishment and emotional power was palpable, accompanied by the orchestral crescendo that faded to a silence that allowed the emotional impact to sink in.
After the credits were finished, I was presented with the name of my companion, and I immediately sent them a message. We both agreed that the experience was amazing. So, to Agarwel, whoever you are: Thanks! While all good journeys are valid in and of themselves, there is a greater-than-its-parts effect to sharing a path with someone. Sharing experiences and events imparts them more power to affect us.
The story that Journey tells is one that’s slightly darker in tone than thatgamecompany’s previous release, Flower, but I believe that it has the power to resonate even more because of that. One traditional definition of art includes the passage “works appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” Journey certainly qualifies: It’s beautiful to see, hear and experience as well as has an emotional power (if you’re willing to let it).
I imagine that I’ll be undertaking journeys for quite some time to come. Won’t you join me?
Here’s a look at the Macedonia Radio Symphonic Orchestra recording the music (sorry about the ad):