A desert is the go-to landscape when you want to impart a piercing sense of loneliness. It is the perfect platform upon which to place artistic interpretations of isolation, desolation, a struggle that is contained within one’s self, refracted crudely onto endless sun-scorched scenery. A baron and unfeeling plane that takes those who enter into it unwittingly prisoner, whose beauty is born of the climate’s relentless severity. Journey’s desert isn’t like this at all; instead combining the sensation of almost blissful solitude with a gliding, rolling, mostly meditative expedition – an experience that is entirely deserving of its name. It’s also a 10/10 Scarf Simulator.
As bite-size, cognitive massages go, Journey is, of course, up there with the best. Initially released in 2012, and on the receiving end of a lick of PS4 flavoured HD paint last year, the game has long been heralded, revered and chastised for its intermittent, fleeting nature, its minimalistic approach to visuals and to gameplay. Steeped in years of industry cooing, community dissent and general controversy, it’s difficult to take something so lacquered in discussion and play it through as though it were fresh. Turns out you don’t really need to think about any of that with this one.
Journey is a winding experience; one that, if you let it, will ebb and flow and undulate with breathtaking consistency. You trudge up through the dunes, you carve and slice through the sand on downward slopes, you float and glide across ever-greater areas as your ever-increasing scarf billows in your wake. Like furiously pressing the ‘reject if depressed’ button on the lid of a jar, traversing the landscape downhill is enormously soothing, addictive, especially when you’re finally lifted up into the air to experience scarf-based aviation. It feels light and lithe, satisfying, like it’s subtly plucking at the strings of some undisclosed, inherent longing.
Uphill you’re faced with an exertive physical slog, a tramp and a trudge and a traipse. With the changing setting, that image of struggling and battling and becoming, comes to be a defining visual of the game. Head down, leaning against the wind and the elements, the incline; the thudding steps and the resonant effort involved therein – there is a wealth of narrative and inference woven into that animation alone. A true juxtaposition to soaring down the slopes with ease and fluidity.
The gameplay cruxes are simplistic, shopping-list tasks that trolley you through the world, affording you the opportunity to focus on the natural bond that often resounds into existence with the anonymous player that frequents your game, should you choose to allow them such access. The controls are an unfettered, majestically smooth vehicle for navigating the sands, no matter the pitch of the plight.
Its length, something many saw as its weakness, the bit where it all falls apart, is in fact, a universal strength; just not in the same way as, say, Firewatch. If you read my rambling about FW’s enclosed and contained story, guiding me neatly through the narrative with enough punctuation to make its single sentence seem befitting, you’ll know that particular review bullet point was one that actually helped keep me playing, it kept me coming back to the keyboard.
Journey’s brevity is something else entirely, in fact angling the whole purpose and position of the game slightly off-centre. Because even with Firewatch, you wouldn’t necessarily sit down and play it through end-to-end, feel and see everything in one continuous string. It’s a book, with breaths and spaces; A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. But with Journey you absolutely would and should drink it in in one go. In the same way you might consume a film, or a YouTube video, a song or a chocolate bar. Perhaps. Journey is a concentrate, an undiluted, interactive, meditative adventure that you begin and end in the same sitting; the highs and the lows, the bliss and the struggle, the conflict and the triumphant finale, are all steps on the same staircase, and should come exclusively one after the other.
In this sense Journey isn’t a short game at all; its worth is entirely replenished once you’ve come out the other end, once you come to pick it up again later, when you need it most. It’s an antidote to a long and stressful day; an intro, verse, chorus and an outro; a glass of Jameson’s on the rocks; something to be experienced as a whole.
Scarf Simulator ’16
In 2016 it seems there’s more of a market for successful avant-garde, experimental video games than ever before. Helpfully, minimalistic visuals and Journey’s replayability make Scarf Simulator ‘16 pretty timeless as far as I can tell. The lick of paint, while not winning any technical awards, makes its home on PS4 that little bit more comfortable, and as a unique experience I can’t really recommend it enough. It’s nice to know it’s there – on my drive, available to be commandeered and explored and administered to this disquiet mind whenever I should require it. If you haven’t played Journey, then you absolutely need to, and you probably don’t even need me to tell you that.