Thursday, March 12, 2015

"Journey": A Game Review by a Very Non-Gamer

When my New York cousins visited my Georgia childhood home, the oldest boys brought some sort of game consul that they played without ceasing on the ancient tv in the basement. The games had monsters that fascinated and scared me to the point that I had trouble sleeping, or at least that's what I assume was the reason for my parents telling me to stop watching them play. I was allowed to play Mario Paint, something in my skill range. But not the scary game with monsters. So throughout growing up, games were not something normal in my life. I had "Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?" and "Millie's Mathhouse" and "Treasure Mathstorm" and "Mavis Beacon" [which I do credit for my typing skills today]. In any case, what I played were educational gimmicks. I loved them. But they weren't "games" in the kind of problem solving exploration that gaming became as it grew up.

In high school, all my nerdy friends (like the rest of the world) fell deeply into Halo and had "lan parties" which I assumed for years were actually called "land parties". Again, something with monsters and shooting. It didn't fall in my range of options. But that point it was too late for me to be a gaming "native" the way my friends were, handling a controller with an intimacy and skill the way I only ever handled a microsoft word file.

I have to note that my little brother, ten years my junior, now has various gaming consuls. Times change once the eldest passes through. And the older cousin who played monster games? He's worked at well known places like Blizzard and worked on projects like League of Legends. So there's that.

But it's taken me years to even concede a value in gaming. It's taken a few thoughtful and well spoken friends to explain the joy and play and the beauty and craftsmanship. "It's an art" they swear to me. And I began to wonder what I'd missed out on.

Connor invited me over to take me through "Journey" which he promised I'd love. I was doubtful, so very very doubtful. And so I must cry "forgive my unbelief!"

"Journey" was incredible.

We played the entire game with Connor occasionally taking over for me so I would be able to get home at a reasonable hour. For those of you who have played this game, you know that it usually involves another person journeying with you in real time, usually connected with an online set up. We didn't have that option so Connor acted as my in person guide and resisted any control or direction until I needed it.

The basic plot is this: a small figure (you) end up in desert landscape and you know you have to travel towards the mountain far away. As you go, you find skills and start setting free these scarf spirit things. I called them "scarf friends".
"Scarf Friends" being set free
Eventually, you learn the back story for this abandoned civilization through a series of visions and learn about the scarf-eating, air-swimming mechanical monsters. The scarf spirit friends join your clothes and give you energy and the ability to fly and bring dead scarves to life with the sound of a flute.

It sounds absurd. Believe me. I know.

I'm also explaining it oddly. I chatted about it today with a Bulgarian friend in England who laughed and said "Scarf eating monsters? I guess that's one way to put it..." So I have the lingo wrong. I'm trying here.

But in the unexplained oddness of the story, it manages to achieve a kind of childlike beauty. There seemed to be some distinct anime influences, the epic (can I hear a Joseph Campbell from my lit-crit people?), and maybe some Tolkien. Or the simplicity and beauty of a good children's picture book. No words are spoken in the entirety of the game. Everything is directed silently and deftly. Silently? That's a misnomer because the music is fabulous.

Dark and cold
The whole thing was very elegant and moving. Several moments pose some real difficulties and it's emotionally difficult. Connor told me that "This is what I think of when I think of depression. You might be alone. You might not be alone. But it's this really dark struggle." I think it was a very relatable section.

And this chapter is followed by a kind of resurrection where the character flies up and up these waterfalls, "further up and further in" as C. S. Lewis would call it. And I was giddy through out it (even if I, for the love of everything, could not figure out how to fly straight up without crashing down for a bit. I jumped off a bridge on accident during the miserable part of the game).

I'm still not sure what the "meaning" of it was. Connor said I had to make of it what I wanted. For him, it is the story of how going through the long journey enables you to walk the long journey with someone else. And I see that, especially keeping in mind that many people experience the game with another figure beside them giving them help. I kept thinking that the story was going to be about rescue, about bringing the lost world back to life. But it isn't. You pass through a kind of nirvana state and end up back at the beginning again for another journey, another unsolved world space. So a kind of reincarnation mythology? Connor just raised and hands and said, "Whatever you think, Dana." I think I'll have to play it again to more accurately identify what was going on.
Dazzling

"Journey" was possibly the perfect game to introduce me to "gaming". Enchanted is almost too flimsy a word for it. The world was magical. And visually, it was the kind of 3d experience that most of us create for ourselves while reading... and without a single break down in the visual, aural, sensory spell. Even the controller would respond elegantly to the narrative. It held together in a way vast numbers of books, films, and (I'd imagine) games fail to realize. I got to spend two hours wandering a world that was art each way I walked.

I just had no idea anything like this could exist.

Many thanks to Connor Jennings, voice actor / gamer/ friend, for taking me through this journey. And for other friends like Miriam and Lazar for showing me the potential for beauty and goodness in gaming.





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