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Journey preview: A million little fibers


"Our goal is to expand the boundary of emotional experience that games can communicate," Jenova Chen, ThatGameCompany's co-founder and creative director told me following my preview session of Journey. And in the span of 30 minutes, I would run the emotional gamut from fear to confusion to acceptance and back to fear. Clearly, the journey is both metaphorical and literal.

The game opens with the fading of a white-hot sun, the dimming light revealing vast sand dunes. A beacon of light, emitting from a far-off mountain barely visible in the distance instilled in me a sense of urgency. Silently I stood for a while, ignoring my instincts in an attempt to soak it all in. There we were, the sand and I, alone. It was an almost comforting bleakness.

As I took my first steps forward, pushing the sand out in front of me like a sheet with a pocket of air trapped under it, I made it my goal to reach the light. Walking up and down dunes small and large, I eventually stumbled upon what I could only describe as a shrine. Suddenly, my character was surrounded with an aura that highlighted the folds of my clothes and gave me a the tiniest bit of a scarf.

As it happens, the game is less about me and mostly about that scarf.


With no in-game text or dialog, the image of a PlayStation controller prompted me to press the X button. A tap would cause me to pop up into the air and glide, holding it down forced me even higher. At first, it was a one-time use, but the scarf's power could be increased, I discovered, allowing for multiple uses. Turns out, this scarf is magical.

Journey's tutorial section is marvelously efficient. Just as I learned an ability, there was a task that called for it, though it was never blatantly advertised. Once I learned the glide ability, I was able to avoid plodding through the sand by gliding from one rock to another. Floating bits of fabric throughout the environments recharged my abilities, and soon I was making great progress toward my goal.

Coming upon a large, open bit of desert, I could see the remnants of giant columns, dilapidated from years of neglect. These pieces, I assumed, were collectively once a bridge, leading toward a large hallway inside of an even larger mountain. I knew I had to get up there, but how?

The only thing I had to go on were these large, thick pieces of fabric flapping in the wind at the base of these fallen columns that jutted out from the sand. The fabric didn't look like mine -- the pieces were old, faded and, frankly, spent far too long in the rinse cycle. As I stepped near the closest piece of fabric, I noticed my presence start to bring the fabric back to life. As I soon learned, it was time to shout.

By tapping the circle button, the main character can shout (think a cute version of "hey, listen!"). Intensity and tone of the shout can be affected by how long or hard the circle button is pressed. Here, the game told me to hold the button down and so I shouted, rejuvenating the entire piece of fabric. This caused it to float away and form a bridge up to the first fallen column. I knew what I had to do.

With my bridge I made my way up to the entrance of the cave. It was there I learned the story of the people of the planet, who once used the magic of the cloth to bind their society together. They used it in their buildings and every citizen, assigned a rune, mastered it. It all started to make sense. I was the last of my kind. Then, the visage disappeared and I was forced to soldier on, alone and in silence.

I pushed forward and was met by a small kite. At first, I thought I was imagining it, but no: It was shouting to get my attention. Maybe I wasn't alone on this world? It's just fabric, but if Tom Hanks can befriend a volleyball, certainly I can befriend a kite made from magical fabric, right? It was pretty obvious the thing wanted me to follow it. It's not as though I had other plans.

Sliding down large hills and pushing through the vast ocean of coarse sand, it all seemed so daunting. The confidence I had built by building the cloth bridge had all but melted away, leaving only depression. What's the point of continuing forward if all I find is bleak nothing, picturesque though it may be? It was an odd reaction for a game to elicit, but Journey was making me question myself.

Eventually, I could make out a building in the distance -- a ramshackle, ugly structure made from what looked like pieces of bamboo and sandstone. The closer I got to it, the darker the sky got; a threat of an incoming sandstorm. I could sense the oncoming danger, but before I was able to experience it, the preview was over.

My brief play session was one full of emotion -- I marveled at the environments and beauty of it all; I questioned myself, my motives and what it was all for; and, most importantly, I persevered. It was empowering in a way no racing game or shooting game could ever replicate.

I imagined the feelings I had playing Journey are the same Jacques Cousteau might have felt as he explored the seas. There's a certain magic in discovery and figuring things out for ourselves, putting the puzzle together without a hand to hold us. I may have questioned the point of my own journey while I was there, but I can't wait to pick it back up again.

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