Buddhism and video games, a workable combination? I think most would scratch their heads being told such a thing. But yet thatgamecompany’s Journey (2012) not only makes the combination work, but makes it work in such a fashion as to create one of gaming’s most powerfully unique experiences. Despite the relative centuries (in video game terms) that have passed since its release, Journey is a game that transcends time, much like the ideology of Buddhism.
When I say Buddhism, it must be taken more in the abstract than literal. Nowhere in Journey are there laughing Buddhas, wooden fish, monks, or any other item or icon commonly associated with the religion. There are temples and ruins, scrolls and robes, but none of it can be directly tied to any Earthly incarnation of the religion. Buddhism the philosophy is, in fact, the stronger inspiration. From the tranquility of traversing gorgeous desert to Himalayan-esque mountains, the struggles instilled through gameplay to the open/closed mechanisms driving the game, the player finishes the game as contemplative as satisfied. The title appropriate, navigating the 3D platform puzzles, free-falling through the air, sliding along the desert sands of a crumbling kingdom, working your way through a giant machine, facing stiff mountain winds as you climb, and then understanding the cyclical logic behind it all puts the player in a reflective mood that transcends the game, which, is something very, very few games can claim.
As such, I can understand the idea that Journey is a puzzle game. But I daresay the title is the better descriptor. Yes, players must work their way through obstacles in open levels. But these “puzzles” are not difficult, and in fact are designed to get the player to look around the beautiful set pieces and catch the floating scraps and carpets to see where they can fly to—to enjoy the tranquility of the setting rather than just find the quickest way through it, and ultimately to reflect on the nature of the trip underway. Unlike games like Limbo or Little Nightmares where puzzle solving is foremost, Journey’s mysteries are contained within wondering what lies beyond and the purpose of the journey as much as finding the exit to a room or situation.
But there is still one key aspect of Journey not yet discussed. The game is not co-op, and yet you still play with other people. How so? The player’s lone journey across the desert landscape is sometimes joined by a random stranger from the internet. No hello, no name, no label, nothing save the appearance of another character who looks like yours, floating through the landscape like you are, and communicating in the game’s only language—an ‘omm’ like musical note that bursts with joy and loneliness. This may not sound like something cool or original, but to have a minimalist experience void of anything living suddenly be joined by another person has strong effect, especially considering most games involving other players are highly competitive, sometimes toxic affairs. Coupled with the fact you know nothing about the other person (it could be a teenager in China or a middle-aged woman in Chicago), makes the idea ‘someone, somewhere in the world is experiencing the same thing as me’ exhilarating. Case in point, when reading of this feature prior to buying the game I didn’t think much of it. But when actually playing the game, the effect was unexpectedly tingling: another person to experience this with me, no need to shoot at them or strategize.
In the end, Journey is a fantastic, spiritual journey implemented in video game form. By the end, the player feels the ups and downs, the sufferings and pleasures of traversing an ancient, imaginary world, rich with symbolism, imagery, and totems. While the port from the PS3 to PS4 may not have taken full advantage of the PS4’s technical potential, it remains a game fully worth playing, and is in fact one of the tip-top best games I’ve played thus far in my re-entry to video games. Unlike the Uncharted series or Bioshock, this is a game I could replay multiple times (and have once), such is the richness of the experience and effervescence it leaves glowing in the mind.