Declared game of the year for 2012-13, Journey is unique because it takes gamers on an experience without words

Journey arrived in style, and reached the top of the Game Developers Choice Awards, 2012-2013. It bested the video games competition rope in five different categories — innovation, audio, game design, visual arts, best-downloadable-game and was declared the Game of the Year. The game certainly had the journey of a lifetime considering it is wordless. It was nominated for the Grammys.

You have to give it to the developer thatgamecompany — Journey is artsy and sublime, which co-founder Jenova Chen acknowledged was possible because “they were standing on the shoulders of giants.” The PlayStation-3 “adventure” game has a mysterious hooded figure that must trek across a desert, through temples and towers to reach a mountain. Other players appear, but for everyone, mum is the word. All you hear is haunting music in the background.

A wordless game? In 2013? (Check 20-minute session on YouTube). “But the journey is more important than the destination,” said Naren Pradhan, a teen gamer. “It is serene, poetic, has no action, no competition. It is a visual novel on a game system, a unique electronic experience.” As the figure walks, jumps, flies exploring a safe environment, you learn about why he is here, his purpose. Then you project yourself into the game: at the mountain top you discover who you are and in a life-changing moment, you encounter another figure like yourself. The emotion gets universal, but essentially, it is “go there, be yourself and enjoy the individual experience.”

Breaking records

Journey broke PlayStation Network sales records, but drew its share of flak — from shooters. “Over-rated” said gamer Ashwin. How can it beat God-of-War, Zelda, Mario, Far Cry, Uncharted, Metal Gear? Looks like it was awarded not for quality but for being “different” to what they have been seeing. And shouldn't a game be universally appealing to top awards? “Journey isn't completely new,” said Naren. “Flower had a gust of wind. You touched a flower, carried petals, touched the whirling colours, changed them.” There was Pong — two lines and dots, considered amazing because of its novelty.

I go to Akhilesh Deshmukh, Founder-Editor, for the verdict. After Flower and Flow, thatgamecompany took a vast step in making Journey, but got the ingredients right, he said. “Innovative game-play, unique game mechanics, beautiful score.” The-scarfed figure adrift in a desert-of ruins to reach the summit is deliberately ambiguous, he feels. To Akhilesh, Journey is about artistic design and a unique game-play. “It felt bland at first, but as I took flight and slid through cliffs, I was mesmerised by the eloquent animation.

Will games move into the future voicelessly? Yes and no, said Akhilesh. It works well for Journey, meshes well with its simple, no-combat style and ambiguity. Its co-op mode is a good example: with just a few chirps he could communicate with his anonymous partner in a way no VoIP or text-chat could. “Remember protagonist Gordan Freeman in Half Life series?” Developers had labelled him “a man of few words”. The joke worked — that silence urged the user to make the decisions. However, gamers are a communicative lot and hunger for interaction. When that is denied, they feel handicapped! “While sliding through the sands of Journey, I felt like Dastan escaping from the Prince of Persia, and was left suspended for a bit as my character was voiceless.” Voiceless genre works with the right game, but can hardly be the trend of the future, he said.

Maybe you should see Journey more as an interactive art-piece than a game. Maybe you shouldn't compare it to “traditional” games. “It certainly deserves recognition for getting people to look at video games differently,” Ashwin conceded. “Change in how games are viewed could ultimately benefit the video game industry.”