I used to characterize my love of video games in the broadest sense possible: "I like video games." Sort of like how, when we were young and asked to define what music we liked, the answer was almost inevitably "Pretty much everything." (Or, where I grew up in the urban Northeast, "Everything but Country") As I've grown older, I've realized--with some degree of melancholy, though there's a dash of pride in there as well--that my tastes are more...specific? Refined?...than such generalizations allow. And perhaps they always have been, but it's quite the moment in one's life when their demographic changes, even if it is from such a loose and, perhaps, wishy-washy one such as this.
As they pertain to games, this revelation in personal taste came quite recently. Although I was keenly aware of my dislike for the MMO genre since its inception, I always avoided introspection by simply assuming games like Everquest and the like were the, to return to the music allusion, "Except Country" of my gaming pallette. I was similiarly in denial about my hatred for the multiplayer functions on sports and FPS games, always writing it off to the fact that I was simply never going to be as skilled as most of the players online, and therefore was destined to be the whipping boy in most contests. (And not to equivocate, but in the online sessions of games I really do enjoy--like Assassin's Creed--I find that I quite often amthe one getting his butt kicked more often than not)
It wasn't until I saved my pennies and rushed out to pick up Dishonored last year and found myself squarely and nakedly in the role of contrarian that I understood I wasn't quite the omni-gamer I had thought I was. It was a game modelled after Bioshock, but that's where the similarities end. It looked like something released on the original XBox, scripted by the hacks found at your local bookstore's writing workshop, and voiced by some of the most absurdly melodramatic hams this side of Spartacus: Blood and Sand. In short, it was a trainwreck. Yet it has drawn nearly universal critical acclaim, and despite a rash of criticism from gamers early on, it maintains a very strong user score of 8.1 at Metacrtiic.
I tell you this because what I'm about to say about 2012's most adored game might make you think that I'm just another troll who likes to take the contrarian's position on popular items. And...come to think of it, I haven't really said anything to dissuade you of that opinion, have I? Well, then let me say this: I love games. I loved Skyrim, I loved Demon's Souls and Dark Souls (and I'm ever bit as nervous as you are about the change of directors for Dark Souls 2) and I loved the Mass Effect Trilogy...though, I have to say, while I didn't like the original ending, I was among those who loved the Extended Cut, but didn't feel it was a necessary addition.
Okay, you know what? I'm kind of painting myself into a corner here. So, just forget it. Sure, I'm the contrarian who hates everything you love. Hey! I'm Tom Mc Shea!
With that said, I was massively disappointed by Journey.
Not with the core gameplay, or the story-told-through-hieroglyphs narrative style. I very much appreciated those as a change of pace from the hand-holding and utter lack of subtlety present in most games. In fact, the first 2/3 of the game were quite enjoyable. I relished the unexpected ability to explore, I was awed at the best-in-class visuals, and for the first time in my adult gamer life I could not fathom what awaited me around the next corner. It was truly a unique experience.
And then the snow happened.
What had been a thrilling, sometimes challenging, sojourn through a fantasy desert became a slog through snowcapped hell. There was nothing fun about the wintery final section of the game, but that's not necessarily what gaming is all about, and I'm open to games that take a different tack. But all of what Journey was up until that point disappeared--the amazing vistas, the cinematic scope, the very uniqueness of the game, gone. It was replaced by slow, repetitive, familiar play. Waiting out rhythmic wind gusts behind gravestones? Trudging blindly through the snowpocalypse while the game gives you the unshakable sensation that you're going the wrong way? And from a narrative standpoint, what was with the death and rebirth? The appearance of the White Robes as a kind of gatekeeper or guardian throughout the game means this isn't quite an example of deus ex machina, but it sure feels like one, and in either case it's an acquiesence to convention that I wasn't expecting.
In spite of its last few minutes, Journey still accomplishes something few other indy titles have, in becoming a necessary experience for anyone who wants to know where gaming was in 2012, and protentially where it's going in the future. Sadly, this snapshot of a moment in gaming history could have been much more than that. Where it raises interesting and important corallaries regarding the relevance of game length, the pricing model, and what all of this means for AAA titles (and, by extention, retail stores) Journey could have been the answer to those questions. It could have stood as an example, a proof-of-concept for games that can take their rightful place as art rather than meekly waiting for it to be given, as if an honor rather than a birthright. Perhaps most importantly, it could have been a transcendent game that did not require a physical copy to play, which would have been a first, in my view, in console gaming history, and perhaps the first log on GameStop's funeral pyre.
Many will still make these arguments on Journey's behalf, but a tremendous opportunity was missed, and a great game became a flawed one. But hey, maybe I'm just that guy who disagrees with popular opinion. Or maybe I'm not. Do yourself a favor when you play this game: Shake off all the glowing reviews and just play the damn thing. See if the critics who claim Journey accomplishes all of these things are saying so because it's true, or because they desperately want it to be so. I think you'll be surprised by the answer.