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What the hell did I just play?

I had heard buzz about this game since mid-summer last year and frankly I wasn’t impressed with the trailers or screen grabs showing up online. It looked like a step back in terms of game design. Oh how wrong I was…

Scoot to last week. SharkBoy brings home Entertainment Weekly* magazine’s  year end review issue. Slapped in the middle is an article saying how Journey was the game of the year.

At this point I was more than curious. After a couple reviews and some trailers, I was at the SonyStore handing over $15.

Best. $15. Evar.

Within 5 minutes I knew I was playing something different.

Remember how I said in Uncharted 3 there’s that long scene where nothing happens save for Drake walking through the desert with nothing but cut scenes and very little controller action? People either loved it or hated it. If you loved that kind of game play where it’s outside the norm, unconventional and atypical of a shoot ’em up game, then you’ll “get” Journey.

Briefly (’cause tons has been written about it already): Journey is about your character (he? she? it? an armless hooded poncho scarf dude?) making his way across a vast wasteland of desert and snow towards a glowing mountain. Simple.

There are clues at waypoints along your journey as to why you’re headed to this mountain. An outcropping of rock may have a scarf sticking out of it. A tombstone has runes in it. A destroyed temple offers advancement to the next scene. Each waypoint telling a story, each begging to be discovered and unlocked.

The game is all-round gorgeous. At first I felt the character design and the waypoints to be crude. But combined with the music, physics and the lighting, the aesthetic became acceptable, then desirable. Overwhelming at points. A few moments I found myself thinking of old Tomb Raider environments (partially because the game looks like it’s set in a Aztec/Chinese bizzaro world) and how much of an impact that made on me as a gamer.

Along the way you may encounter other journeymen (journeywomen? journeyits?) that are dressed exactly as you are. At first I was convinced that these were NPCs put into the game to assist you with discovering how to fly, how to find treasures. It wasn’t until after finishing the game did I realize that these were actually other real people, sharing the game experience as well. Since communication between characters is limited in Journey (you can “shout” glyphs or crouch – that’s pretty much it for character controls) you’re forced to help each other wordlessly. In some areas you need help each other to fly higher, “shouting” glyphs at your companion’s scarf to boost their air time. Yeah. Weird.

At this point I’d like to apologize to the first three or four people I met while playing. I didn’t know you were actual meatspace people and I basically tried to run from you, wanting to be alone in the game.

Midpoint, as you slowly discover why you’re headed towards this mountain, you’re attacked by flying laser-eyed vertebrae – you’re tossed into the air and landing hard into the sand. As my character struggled to regain it’s feet, I really started to lay on the existential thinking: since the game to this point was only puzzles and hunt-n-button action, could I die in game? I had played for 2 hours and had not noticed my character’s mortality, not like Uncharted or BioShock or inFamous. There were no threats to my life and I had not noticed. It was at this point I was completely in love with this game.

The next part is kind of Spoiler Alert-y so…

The game follows your typical monomyth (Yeah I know Google) and nearer to the end I felt an overwhelming sense of melancholy, despite it only being a few hours long in gameplay. Not to give the story away, but I felt great sadness because as the ending starts weighing down on you, I thought of my father who I hope that someday will be reunited with again. In the character’s final moments, there is hope and beauty and light.

And I wept like a child during the credits.

Whew. Okay. So. Pretty heavy. I really hope that you play this game and experience the kind of emotional impact I had.

*I know what you’re thinking. I’m taking the Access Hollywood of magazines’ word for what is good out there. Admittedly I like EW. Hate how it’s delivered but that’s a SharkBoy post.

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