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Once More Into The Desert
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Journey, by thatgamecompany, is probably this generation's finest videogame.

It's of some significance that an indie studio has produced this generation's best slice of entertainment. In the face of almost inperceptable amounts of money being pored into whichever franchise was falling over the others for attention, Journey, from thatgamecompany, is the game that'll be best remembered as the one that captured the hearts of (almost) everyone that played it. It was the epitome, the absolute apex, of what gaming should be about, and it had a hugely powerful effect on me, and - as we'll discover throughout this blog - continues to do so.

I first saw it in motion in a bricked-up London warehouse at some Sony press event. It was, as you might expect, away from the glitz and glamour of the main area (where the likes of Resistance 3 and others were being loudly demonstrated) - instead, it was hidden away upstairs, and fronted by the unwavering duo of Jenova Chen and Robin Hunicke. It changed considerably since that first showing, but I was hooked within minutes.

Ineffable? It probably was, and is. Something about Journey seemed to capture my imagination and the more I played the game, the further the hooks went in. I was disovering new areas, new ways to communicate with the strangers I was crossing paths and was taking more from the (admittedly somewhat open to interpretation) storyline. I was lurking on message boards, scraping every last morsel of information and lore I could from anyone who talked.

But despite the endless quality of the production and my appetite and hunger for time in the desert, at some point last year I decided to move on. I'd wrangled everything I could from the game, I'd cemented the hinted at depths of exposition in hundreds and thousands of words in unpublished, unordered text files and I'd - quite simply - moved on. Journey might only last a couple of hours, but I'd perfected speed runs, seen everything there was to see, and maybe, just maybe, I'd got burned out by the repeated playthroughs. You can, it seems, play a game too much.

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Journey's Broken Bridge section is one of the game's key moments. Not least because it's the area that I seemed to come across most other travellers, and it's where communication techniques were honed and practised the most.

The desert awaits: a lonely, confusing, disorientating wilderness.

That, however, was last year. Two hours isn't a particularly long time to dedicate to a game, even for me, so - bouyed by the game's winter promotion and with hopefully the notion that I'd find some of the experience at least a little bit unfamiliar, I recently fired Journey back up. Flipping over to my 'alternative' PSN moniker (one that hadn't played Journey, so as to be as fresh as possible) and selecting the icon from the XMB, I settled back, excitedly hunched over the DualShock, ready for that beautiful attract screen to stir into action.

Oh, the memories. I was staring at that hill in the middle distance, punctuated with the markers, the wind whipping at the material flapping in the breeze. The desert, so pristine and delicate and yet dotted with the gravestones of travellers long lost. And the mountain, its figurative and metaphorical presence looming away at the horizon. Muscle memory took over, and within seconds I was already gracefully gliding down the other side of the hill towards the first structure.

Some things you simply never forget.

And so, there I was, at the Broken Bridge before I knew it, glyphs collected and I'm running around mentally ticking off boxes whilst my character opens up the grates that'll enable the whimsical animations to kick into life. I'm watching the sand bounce off my cloak as I hide near a cave; I'm skipping over rocks; I'm perched atop the final stage of the bridge, just before the cut-scene. Ah, the cut-scenes. I'd perhaps forgotten those the least, and the powerful, maybe even awe-inspiring story they convey. Delivered piecemeal until the stage with the Tower, they're Journey's sense of wonder, they're Journey's everlasting hook, they're Journey's spirit.

And then, it happened. Like a magical, rousing beat that still manages to give me goosebumps, I see it. There's someone below me.

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Journey's magic isn't in the visuals or the gameplay, it's in the individual, personal tale.

Flashbacks, instant replays of moments long pushed to the back of my mind. Journey's multiplayer isn't so much that there's someone else alongside you, it's that there's a sudden and yet persistent companionship with a character you neither know or truly understand. Its implementation is clever and precise, but the result - a true sense of complete trust and shared wonder - encapsulates everything that I love about videogames. They can, from time to time, come up with moments you'll never forget.

Naturally, I leap from my lofty position and join the other traveller. We circle the bridge structures for a few moments, then dash back to the top of the bridge. Once in the desert, it's clear I'm in the company of someone who knows their way around, and I'm shown all the buildings and collectables in a strangely hypnotically structured manner. I don't mind, and there's one precious secret I always make time to pass by - happily, I'm not disappointed by my guide's pathfinding abilities.

As the game moves from the blistering sun and dazzling sand to the altogether more sinister, dangerous world beneath the surface, I'm reminded of just how seamless the whole experience is. The pacing never dwells on one element too long, there's no puzzle or platforming section that disrupts the flow and all the while Austin Wintory's amazing soundtrack elevates the experience to a different level. My companion and I drift in and out of closeness and harmony, but they're always a chirp away.

Throughout, though, I'm disappointed by my own recollection. I struggle to remember the most basic things in life and yet I know exactly what's around every corner of this game: I know when to hide, when to jump, when to veer off the main path in search of shiny trinkets. There are no surprises - a ten year gap will probably have a similar effect - but there are still moments of true brilliance, and I'm always shocked and dumbfounded by the single sideways scrolling section mid-way through.

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Journey has won many accolades and awards, and it's widely regarded by critics and gamers alike as one of the best games ever crafted.

And then, we're at the mountain. It's cold, and we're slowing.

I'm not here to dwell on the events that close the game. The trip up the mountain is a tortuous struggle that is always best experienced with controller in hand rather than interpreting someone else's version of events, let alone their thoughts on what it all might mean. The reality is simple, though, my partner and I valiantly pushed towards the end, both knowing exactly what fate lays ahead. It's still a deeply tragic, moving and emotional few minutes, and I don't think it'll ever be equalled.

Quite why is probably down to subtletly, something most other games seem happy to skip over. The moment when the audio falls to silence and your footsteps grow ever closer, your character unable to even talk, is such a momentous achievement for the developers simply because they let what's onscreen do all the work. There's nothing there to suggest what's happening other than the bonds you've made with your character (and, of course, a potential other) reinforcing what you're seeing, and pulling like hell at your heartstrings.

When you fall, never to regain your footing, Journey shows itself as a game of real nobility and grace. And what follows, the riotous, swirling ascension towards the heavens is as epic and brilliant as you could have hoped.

There were seconds when we were alone, but when I was ahead I waited, and when my partner was ahead they too paused to let me catch up. We'd gone as far through the game together as we could have done: we'd built structures, we'd hidden from danger, we'd danced across the desert and we'd both tried to climb an unclimbable mountain. And now, we were making patterns in the snow, silhouetted against our ultimate goal, and moving steadily towards the game's definite, unavoidable conclusion.

My final trip, my final journey.

For me, this was the perfect way to replay the game. It had played out exactly as my fondest memories suggested it might, and I couldn't have wished for a more appropriate host. As the credits rolled and the game pulls back the curtain, my thoughts were - as they often were at this point - very much wanting to run through the game again, repeating the tale. I waited for the game to reset, paused for a moment, and switched off the PS3. That was - I told myself - the final run.

We'll look back on this generation of games for years to come - there's been some truly stunning titles throughout the seven or so years we've had these machines - but I can't see how anything can top my own personal experiences with Journey. For me, it's an old worn LP of The Stone Roses' Second Coming. It's Lord Of The Rings read by my dad from an old hardback edition I still have somewhere without the cover. It's jumpers for goalposts on a Sunday afternoon in the rain with mates I think about every single day.

And I think that's the point.

Alex C for TheSixthAxis, January 2013.

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