I know, I know, is Journey really retro? Well, I’m the one with the pen here so it is if I say so! And anyway, I don’t care much for the modern obsession with everything having a label… Trying Tesco instead of Sainsbury’s is not a road trip, and equally your moody teenager deciding he wants his dinner in his bedroom because he can’t stand the sight of you does not make it a date night! And don’t get me started on bucket lists – want to do something? Well, there’s a very simple way to get it done, and it doesn’t involve clogging up my social media feed or turning into an American for that matter! Anyway, regardless of all of that, there’s an occasion to be marked here with Journey, and while I know it might come as a shock to some, not everything on my big list of favourite games that I tend to give this treatment to comes from an Atari 2600 or some arcade relic from the dawn of time!

This here occasion that I’m talking about is the demise of my PlayStation Plus account – the one I’d had since the very day that PlayStation Plus began that’s just expired despite the best efforts of Sony way too long after the event to try and keep me in the fold! It’s been a couple of years since I’d known the end was nigh, you see, and I can even pinpoint the exact moment! Ironically, I’d been paying for Game Pass for a while on my son’s Xbox, but in the main I wasn’t allowed a sniff of it, apart from a couple of sneaky exceptions between him leaving for school on the couple of days a week he got a lift at the time and me starting work! The first was occult pinball masterpiece Demon’s Tilt, successor to my dear old PC Engine loves Alien Crush and Devil’s Crush and, no doubt, a game we’ll come back to here sometime because it actually also sits right near the business end of my favourites list! Unfortunately that came and went on Game Pass, although I had also bought it on Switch by then because 45 minutes a week wasn’t cutting it. Strangely, the second, and the one that actually convinced that my next console wasn’t going to be a PlayStation after four generations of buying them day one previously wasn’t anything like a favourite. It was fine though, and it was Carrion, the reverse-horror platform adventure thing where you play the oozing amorphous monster terrorizing a science facility; fine enough to see it through despite the ridiculous amount of time it took to do so in bitesize chunks, and there was the clincher – I wanted it all and I wanted it now!

I love my Xbox Series X, and it being my first Xbox and first proper go at Game Pass means I’ve still got years of discovery to look forward to on there, but there was still quite a lot of unfinished business on PlayStation 4, not least all 74 episodes of On The Buses I’ve just finished watching on there while I’m working now it’s been relegated from the living room to my office! As far as games go, I was pretty up to date with playing what I wanted to play on PlayStation Plus when the Xbox finally arrived in March 2021; the most significant one left was Final Fantasy VII Remake, which I played through over the summer, then there was Mafia III, which I predictably fell off of after a few hours, and the same for Vampyr and Middle-Earth: Shadow of War. And I still dabbled with whatever else arrived each month like I always did, but let’s face it, there was no Artful Escape or Cyber Shadow or Art of Rally so it was no Game Pass! In the end, all that was left was to have one final go at what I’d long-since decided was my going to be my last hoorah on PS+, the 2015 remaster of my old PlayStation 3 favourite Journey!

When my subscription did eventually expire it turned out that I actually owned it after all, but it’s the thought that counts, and it was a noble gesture, and there’s never any regrets playing Journey again anyway, so let’s get into it! I originally picked up Journey on PS3 sometime very close to its release in March 2012, but I think I’d been sold on it for some time – at least since it had made a huge impact at E3 the previous year – and anyone with a pair of eyes could see that from then onwards this thing was an absolute work of art, the likes of which we’d never seen before!

We’ll come back to all the reasons why shortly, but when it arrived it turned out to be exactly that and, quite unexpectedly, way more besides! And I’ll cut right to the chase before we even begin – it had an emotional impact that I never saw coming until right near the end, but the game knew exactly, and as your character became utterly drained and could only inch towards its climax, life imitated art precisely, and in your equally exhausted state it was all like a giant punch to the gut, albeit a very pleasant one! I’d never experienced anything like it in a game before, but I have once since, with Gris on the Switch; and I didn’t see that one coming either!

Actually, I didn’t see Gris coming full-stop! It was very last game I bought in 2018, just before Christmas, and it instantly climbed above Minit to top my game of the year list. Much like Journey, if you ever wanted to convince a non-gamer that gaming is an art form, you’d show them this, because it really is a wonderful piece of art in anyone’s language. There’s not much I’ve ever seen (or probably heard) quite as stunning as this on any platform, and maybe apart from Journey, anything as powerful either. It’s sorrowful light puzzle platforming is a dream to play, becoming subtly more complex as you progress, and also a dream to experience as it becomes more and more achingly beautiful. It’s a genuine gaming masterpiece that will also be covered here at some point because it’s also hanging around Journey’s position in my big list, and possibly sooner rather than later because I think I might have just talked myself into playing it again!

Let’s continue our Journey proper now though, and I guess looking back at developer Thatgamecompany’s earlier work like Flow, with its experimental mental immersion, or Flower’s emotional visual narrative, it was obvious that something special was on the way, and teaming up with Santa Monica Studios delivered it – all that Twisted Metal and God of War finally paid off! It was exclusive to PlayStation for ages, but a Windows version finally arrived in 2019 as well as a mobile version for iOS. And now the bit I’ve been dreading – trying to describe what the hell Journey actually is… I should have stuck with the Atari 2600, because at least those games came with a dirty great manual that told you everything you could ever want to know and even more that you don’t, and there was still space left over for you to write down your own high scores!

Everything about Journey is exploration, from the second you take control of your mysterious robed figure in the middle of a vast desert after the enigmatic introductory cutscene. Surveying the sand dunes that surround you eventually reveals a hint of something in the distance, and in the absence of any other direction that’s where you’re headed. As you struggle through the windswept sands towards it, minimal visual clues almost reluctantly teach you to move, jump and create a haunting vocal sound – your only point of interaction with the world, and one that’s always in tune with the game’s dynamic soundtrack. Any other narrative as your quest unfolds is now visual and intuitive as you play; nothing about the distant mountain that silently informs you of your final destination, or the lost secrets and hints at forgotten civilisations that you’ll encounter on your travels are spelled out – and quite literally too, because at the very end you’ll probably realise that you haven’t seen or heard a single word since you left the title screen!

As well as implanting itself in your mind as your goal, the mountain has offered a hint about how navigating your way there is going to work – always something in the distance to direct you in the moments where you are most lost, although from here onwards they’ll be a bit more subtle than a mountain! This time our immediate next step is the light that seems to be coming from the top of a stone ruin, way beyond a sea of strange, symbolic markers, like a half-buried, chaotic but also completely uniform desert graveyard. As you approach, you notice motion at the top of this fallen temple to something, like pieces of cloth rhythmically floating around an unfathomable illuminated symbol, and as you get closer they take on its light, transferring it to become a part of the scarf around your robe. One more visual clue tells you how to harness this magic to soar through the air, accompanied by these cloth creatures that will now also sporadically guide you, and as you come across more the magic increases, soon also aiding you to manipulate elements of the world around you to create pathways or doorways to new areas.

At this point I need to use that “intuitive” word again, because that’s what this is and what everything else is, to the point that by the end you’ll have no idea how you got there, but at any given moment in time it was totally obvious! As the sand gives way to more complex and tactile structures, abstract histories slowly emerge from your interactions with them, both as stylised, almost primitive Arabic-like wall art as well as occasional physical remnants, with their settings also ushering in the next phase of your journey towards what’s now a growing crack of light in that slightly less distant mountain. And I’m not saying any more than that because I think I’m doing its ambiguous and very personal mythology a disservice by going as far as I have already.

What I will say is that as you progress, what started as bewilderment in the glaring sun and howling winds of the oppressive heat of the desert does become an almost logical and definitely linear set of motions through the increasingly fantastical wilderness. And you will feel the strain of every one of those motions on your nameless nomad, none more so than the late game’s more grounded frozen tundras, where those initial winds stirring up the burning sands are now serving up blinding snow like a tortuous wall to your final progress until neither you nor your character have any strength left to give. It’s truly incredible!

As personal as this journey (or Journey, as you like) may be, it’s uniqueness didn’t stop at all the places we’ve just come from, but also in those fellow travellers you might or might not meet along the way. Yes, it’s multiplayer whether you like it or not (which might actually affect my experience playing again sometime without PS+ after all!), but the idea was that it encouraged cooperation without forcing it, and without any element of competition or even identity… if your virtual dimension somehow comes into contact with someone else’s by whatever internet black magic allows for that, they’ll simply appear, always anonymous for as long as you’re together in your shared game world, with only that single sound you can make for communication – which is surprisingly effective considering! When I played again recently, I was pretty amazed to be joined by anyone else at all so long after release, but it happened within minutes! What’s really blown me away whenever I’ve played though is that when the game is over you’ll finally be told who your companion was with their PSN username, and every single time, without fail, it’s been more than one person, even when it’s all happened in one sitting. Just seamlessly in and out of each other’s worlds without any influence from either side, quietly travelling side by side or independently or with one or the other as a guide. My kind of multiplayer!

Journey’s art design and visual curation is staggering. There’s not a single scene that doesn’t have your finger itching for a screenshot at the very least, though inside an ornate frame hung in an art gallery might be more appropriate! Every single colour is exquisitely pitched to elevate its relatively simple landscapes and architectures into a sumptuous abandoned utopia, while every shadow hammers home the draining heat from the relentless sunlight, while wind effects almost physically dry your throat, and suddenly you have a level of immersion way beyond any individual elements have any right to demand. And that’s just the first bit! On PS3 it’s still a technical tour de force in action today, with exquisite attention to detail spreading from the very behaviour of its grains of sand through to the almost liquid motion of its colossal supernatural inhabitants. And then there’s the PS4 remaster, with more of all of that plus even more texture, more resolution and more frame rate if you believe in that stuff! And whether you’re slowly trudging up a sand dune or casually skidding down the other side while trying to build up a bit of momentum for a decent leap, it doesn’t matter how many frames are behind that motion because not a single one will be wasted.

Gush all you like over the graphics, but they’re nothing on how it sounds! Now, I know I’m a bit of a reformed game soundtrack philistine, but while none of this is quite the militaristic space rave of Commando on Commodore 64 to me, what’s here is definitely that extra push over the cliff that takes Journey up to eleven! We mentioned earlier that your little chime comes out in tune with the current music, but there’s way more to it than that – the music is also working dynamically with everything else too, evolving and unfolding in perfect union with both the player’s actions and their immediate environments, then incorporating those (as well as any other sound effects encountered) in real time, resulting in washes of electronica to full orchestral pieces. Every one of its eighteen compositions, spanning an hour, revolves around a single, universal theme rather than being attached to different areas or situations, although individual instruments will often have specific attachments… In the words of composer Austin Wintory, it’s “like a big cello concerto where you are the soloist and all the rest of the instruments represent the world around you.” Meaning you get to play as a cello, other players you encounter are harps and violas and so on!

You’ll make it through Journey in well under a couple of hours, and that’s exactly how it needed to be. It’s made to be played in a single session, and that’s also exactly what you’ll demand of it, whether it’s your first play-through or your tenth – respectful of your time rather than short, you might say! I’m not sure you could physically make it much beyond that anyway; I can’t think of any game that’s ever left me feeling so spent at the end…. Aside from Track and Field, obviously! And that’s not down to challenging gameplay because it’s not challenging, even when your sense of direction is as bad as mine! It’s because just under two hours previously you were sucked in to a mystery, and as you gradually worked out why, the dark arts of its combined mechanics created a connection in your brain with both the world and anyone else you encountered there that left you, the player with absolutely nothing left at the bottom of a mountain, just as much as the exhausted little character sprite on the screen in front on you.

Journey’s influence might now be everywhere, but that’s as close as anything is ever likely to get – including that free-to-play mobile game they eventually tried to follow it up with! But that doesn’t matter, because for all of the accolades that will now form its legacy, its real legacy is the one that stays with anyone who’s experienced it. It’s a Journey that will never leave you, and no matter how many times you experience it, it’s one that is unlikely to end.