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Are games art? 'Journey' moves debate to new ground

A screenshot from Journey, a game perhaps better described as interactive poetry.

ThatGameCompany

Journey is less a video game and more a work of interactive poetry.

Made by ThatGameCompany – the same people who brought us Flower , a game that's become synonymous with the concept of games-as-art – it is a meditative and reflective work the value of which stems from the player's ability to find personal meaning in what he or she experiences.

The adventure begins in the middle of a vast desert dotted with ancient, sand-covered ruins and lengths of metal that look like grave markers. In the distance we can see a mountain highlighted by a pillar of light reaching into the heavens.

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Dropped into this barren but beautiful world is our avatar, an androgynous, glowing-eyed creature dressed in a short brown robe. We are provided no instruction or guidance of any sort. So we do the only thing we can: Begin a slow trek through the sand toward the mountain.

We slide over dunes and float on a mix of wind and magical energy. Our avatar's flowing scarf, which billows in the breeze and slowly lengthens as we find glowing glyphs scattered around the world, powers our flight.

We encounter occasional obstacles – tatters of cloth that can be transformed into bridges, gusting winds that force us to take shelter, a serpent made of stone whose path must be avoided – but these things never deter us for long. This isn't an exercise in solving puzzles or fighting enemies. It is instead, as its name implies, a voyage; a study in forward momentum, toward the mountain, toward the light.

It's also an experiment in companionship. We are connected to the Web throughout the game and often run into other players, though never more than one at a time. We cannot communicate with our fellow travellers in any way, making these encounters a little like meeting someone who speaks another language. However, the loneliness of the deserted world combines with our parallel objectives to create a natural bond, an instinct to help one another as best we can, even if it's just by running side-by-side for a moment so as to exchange and share magical energy.

The game's wordless narrative will have different meanings to different players, but I think most will see it as an allegory for the great journeys we undertake in our lives, be they physical, spiritual, or metaphorical. It's a meditation on our instinctual drive to return home after time spent in far off places. It's about persevering through the hardships of a long pilgrimage. It's about discovering unlikely camaraderie in strangers who we meet along the way and with whom we share a similar purpose.

It won't be to all tastes. It's not a test of skill, though most gamers are likely to take pleasure in the simple, satisfying interface, which allows for precise control over our avatar's flowing movement. And it's not the sort of game in which one's performance is crudely measured and scored, though those interested can attempt to scour the game's world for hidden items and locations that will earn trophies for their PlayStation Network accounts.

But it will leave an indelible imprint on those willing to let its magic work. They'll be touched by a world of glittering sand that flows like liquid and architecture that is at once mysterious, beautiful and majestic. They'll be moved by its symphonic score, which crescendos during moments of joyful movement and flight before disappearing again to let us feel the barrenness and loneliness of the land. And they'll likely discover a personal resonance in the long trip from sandy dunes to snowy summit that few other games possess.

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It is, after all, the journey, not the destination, that matters.

Journey

Platform: PlayStation 3

Developer: ThatGameCompany

Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment

Release: March 14, 2012

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ESRB: Everyone

Score: 9/10

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About the Author
Game and Gadget Reporter

Chad Sapieha has been writing about video games and consumer gadgets for the Globe and Mail since 2003. His work has been published in magazines, newspapers, and Web sites across North America, and he has appeared as an expert on television and radio newscasts. More

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