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Journey Is the Perfect Escape for Social-Distancing Gamers (and Non-Gamers)

Developed by Thatgamecompany, Journey was released in 2012 for PlayStation 3 via PlayStation Network. Gamers and critics alike fell in love with this surprisingly emotional interactive story, and, by the end of the year, Journey had nabbed several “game of the year” awards and earned a Grammy nomination, a first for video games on the whole.

If you have yet to play Journey, now is the time. Better yet, it’s the perfect game to recommend to a non-gamer pal, as the game has finally released on iOS devices at a low $5 price-point. Despite the way this five-time BAFTA winner blurs the line between games and art, it still feels accessible, even for casual gamers.

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The player controls a nameless, robed figure who is traveling toward a mountain, the peak of which splits and catches the sun. Otherwise, you traverse an expanse of relatively empty desert, encountering the ruins of a lost civilization and, occasionally, another player. Unlike traditional co-op modes, Journey’s is fairly asynchronous, but there is a real emotional resonance to playing alongside a stranger. Even when you meet up with another player, the game insists upon maintaining its engrossing marriage of audio and visuals, and, as such, players can’t communicate via speech or text. In fact, in the original PlayStation 3 version, you don’t learn your comrade’s username until the end credits roll.

To collaborate, players harness the power of a musical chime, which has the ability to transform the lengths of cloth that help you navigate the game’s world. Something about the anonymity of a small character in a vast place makes the bond between players stronger. While the game works exceedingly well as a solo experience too, there’s something about the simultaneous feelings of distance and intimacy built into Journey’s atmosphere that feel particularly comforting while social distancing.

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Austin Wintory’s soundtrack plays a huge role when it comes to the gameplay. Although there are platformer elements to Journey, it’s free of the typical stress factors, like wayward Koopa shells or deadly obstacles. Instead, everything unfolds organically, and deliberately. Moreover, the music responds dynamically to your actions. As a stand-in for language and an element of the gameplay itself, the music becomes mimetic of the narrative’s emotional arc. Each frame looks like a painting, so much so that there’s really nothing else like it, save maybe Shadow of the Colossus, which, although a bit more challenging in its gameplay, also weaves a melancholy story with incredible vistas and vital orchestrations into a seamless experience. There’s something welcoming about it, which makes it perfect for less experienced players who would typically shy away from a niche, indie game.

The sense of discovery, and that growing anticipation as you near the split mountain, all of it builds in a way that’s perhaps best described as cinematic. Still, even that fails to capture the atmosphere, both delicate and bold, that Journey conjures. Needless to say, if you’re feeling a bit lonely or anxious, this game is cathartic. In leaning into the particular feeling of isolation — and in letting the narrative buzz and grow beneath the surface — Journey captures the truth of what it’s like to navigate uncertainty. And it lets you feel a bit more in control of that uncertainty, if only for a few hours.

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Journey is the perfect game for all your social distancing needs in today's world, and there's no better time than now to revisit it.

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