While short, Journey exhibits a more unified and elegant artistic vision than ThatGameCompany's Flower.
The premise of Journey is expressed with such elegant minimalism that you immediately intuit it upon beginning the game. A star falls from the sky, and lands in the desert. It transforms into the player-character, a delicate, almost beautiful, creature with spindly legs who is wrapped in a heavy cloak for protection against the elements. On the horizon is an immense mountain, and you immediately understand, as if something powerful is drawing you there, that the foreboding monolith is your ultimate destination. And so you begin.
As you approach the mountain, you gradually learn that a great civilization once inhabited this area, a fact evinced by the ruins dotting the landscape and the banners, laced with characters or rune-like symbols, that float from the ground. Journey does an admirable job of parceling out information about the past while always shrouding it in mystery and uncertainty -- like an archaeologist excavating the ruins of Pompeii or a pyramid, you gain insight into what happened without ever entirely comprehending it. At its best moments, Journey is filled with an elegiac beauty reminiscent of extraordinary art-works, with the game in particular recalling to mind John Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn."
As with previous ThatGameCompany titles, the controls are extraordinarily simple: joysticks to walk and look around, and the use of two buttons. The X button regulates flight, which is made possible by collecting glowing icons hidden in the game world. The more icons you collect, the longer you can fly. The O button, meanwhile, makes the player-character sing or chirp a single character in its symbolic language.
Why does that language matter, or what does it do? It may seem fairly useless at first, but in fact the singing is the first hint of Journey's most unusual and delightful design feature: spontaneous multiplayer. As you roam the desert, you will encounter, from time to time, a journeyer who looks exactly like you do. This is not an AI but in fact another person, playing the game at the same time as you.
This design gives rise to a remarkable emergent property: an instant sense of solidarity, and some heart-warming moments of cooperation. While one might expect that strangers would go their separate ways and be wary of one another, there is something about the mood of the title and the loneliness which you feel -- especially in contrast to the overwhelming, empty landscapes -- that compel you to quest together. The singing or chirping becomes a kind of crude language. "Hey, come over here!" "Sorry about that." "It's OK, don't worry about it." Even a regretful "good-bye." That all these messages can be relayed simply by chirping the same symbolic note is a revelation, and what elevates Journey above games that do not pretend to have ambitions beyond momentary entertainment and spectacle.
Here's an example of this surprising solidarity: at one point in my playthrough, while I was questing near the end with a more experienced player, I fell from a bridge that left me back at the start of a section. The back-tracking from that point to the bridge would take me several minutes. Rather than abandoning me, the foolish one, however, my companion floated down from the bridge and guided me back to the top. Forum posts and anecdotal evidence indicate that strangers are even friending each other on PSN based on such moments of generosity and kindness, which is another unexpected joy to this game.
There is only one caveat I would add to this review. Journey is a masterful work of art, but those who buy it must be aware that it is a short one. The game can be completed in roughly two hours, though there are some incentives for repeated playthroughs. (If you collect enough of the hidden secrets, for instance, the character's tawny cloak transforms into an ivory shade. The community appears to respect, and often attempts to learn from, "white cloaks," as forum poster's have taken to calling these more experienced players.) But equating the value of this title to its length is, in my mind, an injustice to aesthetic experience. Just as a reader of literature should not disdain Ethan Frome or The Old Man and the Sea for being "mere" novellas of 100 or so pages, or an art-lover the Mona Lisa because it is in reality a small and rather minimalist work, so too a true gamer with the sensibility to appreciate creativity and grace should embrace Journey. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece.