The First Thing you Notice is the Sand

The first thing you notice is the sand.

So, I played this game the other day. I’ve been digesting. You’ve all heard by now that it is a work of art, and for me to echo that sentiment would just be another drop in a very full bucket, but echo it I will. One of the most affecting games I’ve ever played is Journey.

It’s also a spectacular study in the application of restraint. Every element of the game is ruthlessly edited, down to the sparest, most necessary core. There is one character, whose appearance doesn’t change. There is one ornament — the square. There is one musical theme. There are two things that move — the sand and the cloth. There are two controls — leap and sing. There is one word in the entire game. Journey.

And each of these elements is elaborated upon in amazing depth. The sand is a constant companion, one with many faces and moods. At the opening of the game, it’s your whole world — a glittering, reticulated expanse of heavy gold. When you climb it, you sink in. When you go downhill, you slide and skate and tumble. It shifts in the wind, your movements leave ephemeral trails in it, and it engulfs and surrounds the tumbledown buildings and stately temples you discover on your journey.

The cloth is the same. Your robe swirls in the everpresent wind. Your scarf, when you earn it, is a restless banner, never still. The streamers of cloth and the scarf creatures of the desert all move in the same hypnotic way, reminiscent of jellyfish and seaweed. When you’re near them, they imbue you with the power to leap and fly. It makes the world three-dimensional — you’re not just a wanderer moving about on the sands; you have a whole world of air to explore. At first it seems like the upper airs are inaccessible, but they become increasingly reachable as the game goes on. It’s a very satisfying feeling of progress to me; while your movement through the sand has a definite feeling of weight and effort, the traveler’s flight is a thrilling, effortless ballet, and in the parts of the game where there are a lot of cloth creatures to support you, the sense of freedom is exhilarating.

All this restraint leads to a very rich, deeply immersive experience. Every moment in the game’s emotional arc is carefully planned and meticulously paced. Somehow it hits an incredibly wide range of notes; by turns you are curious, puzzled, slinking about in fear, trudging hopelessly through a world determined to kill you, surfing on the sand-tides at heart-pounding speed, or exulting in a precious moment of flight. You aren’t distracted by complicated controls or puzzles that rely on external knowledge; the world works by its own rules that you learn as you play. Every element feels fully developed; there isn’t a single moment where you ask, “Why can’t I…?” because the reason is always evident. There are no inconsistent, mood-breaking moments, and of all the triumphs of the game I think this is perhaps the greatest. Even venerated classics like the Zelda series occasionally have moments that feel tacked-on or extraneous to the game’s experience, but in Journey there are no jarring moments.

It’s an exquisite game and you should play it if you can.


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