When I was a kid, I would dream about driving around an endless road map of streets paved like Rainbow Road from Super Mario Kart. Just cruise around on rainbow turnpikes, drive under rainbow overpasses, cross over rainbow bridges. Not for any real purpose, just for the experience. Rainbow Road really was a fantastic course, wasn’t it? If not for all of the turtle shell battling and frantic tingy-tangy Nintendo music, it would be like some wonderful surrealist dream. Since I was a kid, I wanted a video game like that. Cruis’n Rainbow Road or maybe just The Game Where You Soar Through Space on a Go-Kart. I wanted to travel without purpose, to have the experience. Just to have the experience.
Twenty years later, I think I may have found a contender. It’s not a driving game, but it still gets the feeling right. I’m talking about thatgamecompany’s Journey. I’m not going to go into detail about the content of the game or tell you to go buy it right away. There are plenty of reviews that already do that. And besides, this isn’t a review. I’d like to discuss why I think Journey is so important as a game and as a work of art.
To me, Journey represents the type of game that I have hoped video games would be since I was seven years old. It is a dream and a drug and a journey all in one. It is the game that Roger Ebert should play. More significant than my endless gushing, however, is my belief that Journey is a significant milestone for video games, and I suspect that I’m not alone in celebrating it as a success and maybe even as a paradigm for video game artistry.
For some time, critics, myself included, have struggled to find ways to interpret games through artistic parameters that we are familiar with, to apply our understanding of what is meaningful in other art forms to a new and developing medium. Video games do not, at least not yet, do what literature or movies do. On the surface, they have little to offer in terms of cultural criticism and their stories are for the most part god awful. The heralding of Heavy Rain, with all of its absurd melodrama and B-movie plot twists, as a hallmark of storytelling should tell us all that we need to know about the current state of the medium in this respect. And yet, those of us who play video games know (and know with a passion) that there is something significant here, something more to playing a game than just… well, playing a game.
What Journey does is to make that undefined something stand out in an obvious and accessible form. Video games as a whole provide experiences and truly aesthetic ones. Half of the fun of Halo is not just that you are blasting away at aliens and ducking behind corners. It is that you are doing it in a wondrous space, on a foreign planet worthy of exploration, in a whole other universe of interaction. But it’s hard to see that if you are an onlooker, and it’s hard as a gamer to articulate exactly what that experience is, even to yourself. In Journey, you know exactly what is pulling you in, and it is not blowing heads off or even jumping on top of them. It is the draw of the experience. It is communion with the natural, with the concept of exploration, with mystery. It is awe and wonder, those rare emotions that you can’t get on a city street and feel lucky to encounter in any art form. When a person picks up the controller to play Journey, even the most unskilled dabbler in video games can feel this.
Importantly, you need to play Journey to understand. No one can tell you what it’s like to slide across glittering sand at the golden hour. No one can tell you about spotting a light on a distant mountain from a desolate desert valley. No one can tell you an experience. You have to live it. And this is how videogames work; they must be experienced. As Jenova Chen, a lead designer on Journey, tells us, “If I can describe the experience with words, then why are we even making the game?”
Still, the awe that so many people have described feeling when experiencing Journey should not be limited only to a discussion of video games as an art form. Like Flower before it, Journey presents a particular type of meditative experience that is in striking contrast not only to the hectic nature of many other games, but to the hectic nature of our loves. Writing about art and interpretation in the 1964 essay “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag provides a few words that seem appropriate when discussing this type of artistic experience:
… The sensory experience of the work of art…cannot be taken for granted, now. Think of the sheer multiplication of works of art available to every one of us, superadded to the conflicting tastes and odors and sights of the urban environment that bombard our senses. Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life - its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness—conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. And it is in the light of the condition of our senses, our capacities (rather than those of another age), that the task of the critic must be assessed. What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.
Her words speak to what thatgamecompany’s games offer: truly engrossing, sensory, (and may I even suggest) spiritual experiences that give us a moment or an hour to reflect on the grandeur of worlds both real and imaginary. And in doing so, they help fight the deadening of our senses and our souls in so many of the activities that modern life proffers. This type of art is rare, especially in video games.