I was sitting eight or so rows back from the stage at the Spike TV VGAs this year. My first day on my new job and I was handed the opportunity to attend the event on a whim. I watched producer Robin Hunicke accept the award for Best Independent Game for a game I had heard of and knew people were playing, but hadn’t thought to play myself: Journey. More than anyone else on that stage that evening, I saw someone who had a deep passion for their work, someone who, in her own words, wanted to prove that “games can be something different — independent, experimental, moving, emotional, modern, inclusive”.
So, I looked up what information I could about Journey. I saw that it had nice graphics, was gaining almost universal acclaim, and had even snagged only the second Grammy nomination for a video game (the first was won by Civ IV’s Baba Yetu). Still, I was playing Far Cry 3 at the time, and was quite focused on completing it. This would prove a bit ironic.
Then the GOTY nods started coming in. Major publications like Gamespot, IGN, Revision3 all named it their favorite and it even posted #1 on Amazon’s “Top 20 of 2012”. At this point I dove right in, knowing that Journey was something different, something people were taking note of for some reason.
I must say that Journey ranks amongst the most beautifully crafted games ever made. I can entirely understand why the major journalists in the industry seem to universally praise this game. It wasn’t all about the graphics though, or the story or the music. It is loved for a much more important reason. 2012 was filled with major game releases, many of which are extremely enjoyable and memorable. However, many of them have something in common.
Think of all the games with HD or Remake in the title, how many were focused on dancing in your living room, how many were filled with newer versions of what we did last year? The fact that most of 2012’s most anticipated games were sequels is not itself the problem – though if you want a short list there was Darksiders 2, Guild Wars 2, Black Ops 2, Borderlands 2, Far Cry 3, Assassin’s Creed 3, Halo 4, Dead or Alive 5 and Resident Evil 6 for a few - the problem is that there are only so many times you can fire a rifle before it gets boring, so many times you can sneak up on someone in bushes or sit in awe at explosions. In the decade since the enormous success of the original Halo, we have seen gaming move away from its more fantastic roots to the mainstream successes of over-the-top action. In its wake we have seen many imaginative series fall by the wayside - just look at the current state of the Sonic franchise – to be replaced with modern gaming icons like Nathan Drake and Niko Bellic.
Gaming is still as imaginative as it has ever been, don’t get me wrong. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t have wonderful games like Bastion, El Shaddai, Braid, Limbo or Okami. The ability to explore these new colorful worlds is still there, as it is really what gaming has always been about. However, Journey does something very special, something right off the bat that Limbo comes closest to achieving for a new gaming generation but doesn’t quite accomplish.
How many of you can remember the first time you picked up a controller and played Super Mario Bros? How many of you can remember asking “What do I do?” and the answer being simply “Go right.” You didn’t know why you were going right, you just knew you had to get there. You knew you had to overcome the obstacles in the way and figure things out as you went. Journey is the first game I have played since the inception of 3D gaming to give me this same feeling of wonder, this feeling of being dropped into a game world raw, unready, unprepared. We don’t have a backstory to fall to for understanding, or an intricate sequence of events to give us hints about our hero. We have the character and the world – the rest, you must discover.
In a modern gaming world filled with tutorials and handholding, lessons and training, to be suddenly stripped of all that and have the pure essence of gaming itself distilled, controlled in our hands once again, that has become a sadly rare thing. Even less common are games that you can experience in a single sitting, at least ones that are truly worth your time and money. And this is why Journey has been so acclaimed, why it has become a beacon to many a gamer beyond its beauty. Journey, to many, hearkens to when games didn’t have to rely on proven concepts, didn’t have to be focused on the profit margin or the marketing potential. Games are a place where anything is possible, especially now more than ever. If we can imagine it, it can be created.
I ended up finishing Far Cry 3 not long after I had completed Journey for the first time. After thinking about the game, despite how much I liked the gameplay itself and some of the acting, Far Cry 3 suddenly seemed so much more boring than it had just a day before. It was the realization that it was the fourth or fifth time I’d beaten a game in as many months which was a shooter, that even characterization can only take a game so far – looking at you Handsome Jack and Vaas – and that a drastic change may be needed in gaming.
I still look forward to playing the next Bioshock, the next Elder Scrolls or Metroid. I eagerly await the announcement of a new Mario Kart and wonder if there will ever be another game in the Chrono series. However, it is abundantly clear that the gaming world needs to take more chances, be willing to go out on a limb and do something truly crazy and imaginative. The reaction gaming journalism has had to Journey is testament to that. In 1985, Mario saved the industry by simply telling people to “go right”. Maybe Journey can do the same for a few people today by reminding us all of how great the distilled essence of gaming can be.
“You have to go that way.”
“That’s for you to find out.”
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