Journey: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

From The CRPG Addict

The winning screen you’ve been desperately anticipating for 8 years.


United States
Infocom (developer and publisher)
Released in 1989 for DOS, Amiga, Apple II, and Macintosh
Date Started: 20 March 2011
Date Finished: 21 May 2019
Total Hours: 23 (including 9 in 2011)
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)
Yeah, this one requires some explanation.
I was sitting around the other night trying to decide what game to play with the couple hours I had available. I had made some progress with Kingdom of Syree but wasn’t loving it (it’s another Ultima clone), and I was holding out hope I could dispense with it in a single entry. The self-imposed deadline for my next entry was looming and it didn’t look like I’d be able to win that fast. At the same time, I wasn’t keen to start on a complicated game like Darklands. So I did a quick scan of all the games I’d skipped and abandoned over the years to see if I could find a quick win. House of Usher (1980) looked promising, then The Amulet (1983), but both ended up as “NP” (and on my “Missing and Mysterious” list) when I couldn’t get them to emulate.
My eyes then fell on Journey, an adventure game that I blogged about in 2011. By the time I was a few hours into it, I realized it wasn’t even really an RPG (and MobyGames has since removed that designation). But I’d numbered and rated it anyway, so its loss was counting against my statistics. I began to wonder what the problem was. How hard is it to win a freaking adventure game? Why would I have abandoned it? Was I too proud to get a hint? How long could it possibly take to turn this loss around? That last question was particularly important because, as often happens, at this point I had spent longer trying to find a “quick win” than it would have taken me to just play a regular game.
Infocom called this a “role-play chronicle.” What does that even mean?
I read my first and second entries from 2011 and began to remember the title, as well as the core problem: you have to reach the endgame with a sufficient number of reagents still in your possession, or you can’t cast the final spells necessary to win. Since there are a fixed number of reagents to find during the game and plenty of opportunities to use them, you can put yourself in a “walking dead” situation as early as the first 5 minutes and not know until you reach the end, two or three hours later. I was apparently so disgusted with that prospect that I refused to re-start and took the loss. I was more willing to do that in 2011 than I am now.
So I restarted Journey with a willingness to play it through a couple of times if necessary, and it wasn’t long before my “quick win” had taken over not just my few allotted hours but rather the entire afternoon, evening, and night until about 03:00. During this time, I restarted not once or twice but about 30 times, filled pages with notes about cause and effect, broke down and consulted two walkthroughs and still couldn’t win because the walkthroughs were wrong, and finally–14 hours after I started–ended up with the set of actions necessary to get a party from the beginning to the end. And make no mistake–there really is only one.
In case you forgot, Journey is the game that canonically establishes that orcs and grues are the same thing.
By the end, I had a much clearer picture of the game than I did in 2011, and I reached an obvious conclusion that I’m surprised I missed back then: this is the worst adventure game ever made.
Journey hides this fact with nice graphics and typical Infocom-quality prose, but the game’s approach is all wrong–fundamentally an insult to anyone who cut his teeth on both text adventures like Zork and graphical adventures like King’s Quest. Every option it suggests is a complete sham, every hint of an RPG influence a complete farce. And its story isn’t even that original–so much is lifted from Tolkien that he ought to have a co-author credit.
I feel like I’ve seen this somewhere before . . .
Journey (whose subtitle of The Quest Begins exists only on the box, not the game screens) tells the story of a ragtag band of village peasants who set off on a quest to determine why their crops have failed and their water has gone foul. A better-equipped, better-qualified band, led by the village blacksmith, Garlimon, left the same village the previous year and was never heard from again. This new effort is headed by the village carpenter, Bergon, and includes a wizard named Praxix, a physician named Esher, and a young apprentice food merchant named Tag. The game is mostly told from Tag’s perspective, and the game lets you rename him in its one nod to RPG-like “character creation.”
The party later finds Garlimon insane and living as a hermit.
The title differs from previous Infocom outings in that you do not type any of the commands. Instead, you select them with the arrow keys from an interface that distinguishes between high-level party commands (most of which move you to a new place or situation) and micro-level individual commands, aspected to the skills and abilities of each character. Thus, the party leader, Bergon, can almost always “Ask for Advice.” Praxix has a perpetual “Cast” option, and Tag has most of the inventory options. I find the interface inoffensive, but not as revolutionary as the developers were clearly intending.
Some of the options in dealing with a party of orcs.
The party’s initial quest is simply to find their way to a powerful wizard named Astrix who lives on Sunrise Mountain. Once they arrive, Astrix explains that the land is being threatened by the return of the Dread Lord, and he gives the party a quest to find seven magical stones. They must first find four (Nymph, Wizard, Dwarf, and Elf), which will lead them two others, which will lead to the final one, called the Anvil. Astrix believes that the stones are the key to defeating the Dread Lord. In their quest to find them, the party has to negotiate with dwarves, befriend elves, defeat bands of orcs, and explore ancient tombs. In these adventures, they make use of the special skills of several NPCs that swap in and out of the party.
Astrix gives the party its final quest.
If they recover the first six stones, Astrix tells them to seek the Anvil on the Misty Isle. The party must travel to the port city of Zan, dodge agents of the Dread Lord, and convince a captain to take them to the Misty Isle. Praxix has to cast some spells to help the ship navigate. Eventually, the ship crashes on the island and the Dread Lord attacks. Praxix is knocked unconscious, and Tag must figure out how to mix the right reagents to call a lightning bolt and smite the Dread Lord.
Tag saves the party in the final combat.
Just about every episode has some Tolkien source, though mercifully not in the same order as The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings. There’s a dwarven mine that recalls Moria and an escape that not only feels but also looks like the bridge at Khazad-dûm. Another moment recalls the discovery of Balin’s tomb. A ranger named Minar joins the party early on in an Aragornesque episode. There are echoes of Gandalf in Astrix and of Bilbo in the initially-hapless but ultimately-competent Tag. There’s an episode that mirrors the Fellowship hiding from evil crows, and a tense episode in a tavern at the end that recalls the hobbits in the inn at Bree (the solution even involves turning one of them invisible). There’s a Tom Bombadil-like figure named Umber whose nature remains a mystery until the end. The Dread Lord is, of course, an exact analogue of Sauron, and the stones are the game’s equivalent of rings.
Crebain from Dunland!
Tag, just like Frodo, freaks out when he sees some suspicious characters in the Prancing Pony. If they stay at the inn tonight, the party will be killed.
The whole thing is reasonably well-written and would make a serviceable young adult novel, but as a game, it’s nothing but endless frustration. Here is a small list of its sins:
1. It is completely linear. The one saving grace of difficult adventure games is that they are rarely linear. Usually, you can move back and forth between locations and solve puzzles in a variety of orders, taking the time to figure out what must be done in each place. Journey subverts this tradition entirely. You have to choose the right options the first time you arrive in a new location or you cannot return. For instance, there’s one castle where you have the option to go to a left room or a right room. If you go to the right room, you see a chest full of jewels. If you’re not exactly sure what to do there and leave the room, you can never enter it again. This happens repeatedly throughout the game.
The second screen invites you to enter a tavern or “Proceed” down the street. In any other adventure game you’ve ever played, if you proceed down the street, you can later turn around and go back to the tavern. Not here. Hit “Proceed,” and you’re out of town and on your way. It’s pretty easy to hit some of these options accidentally, by the way; one too many ENTERs while scrolling through text will accidentally activate the default option on the next screen. An “undo” option could have helped a lot.
2. A “Back” option doesn’t really take you “back.” Most screens have a “back” option, and sometimes this returns you to a previous screen so you can choose a different direction. But much of the time, it serves as simply another way to go, usually one-way.
A simple choice to go left or right has enormous consequences for the rest of the game.
3. You’re almost always walking dead. As I previously mentioned, if you don’t reach the end of the game with the right number of spell reagents, you can’t win. It is very easy to miss some of the reagents that you might otherwise pick up along the way, and also very easy to accidentally burn too many reagents casting spells. One of the options that burns too many reagents, by the way, is asking the wizard to “Tell the Legends” of magic. Usually, the “Tell Legends” option produces some useful lore about the game world, but if you ask him about magic, he does a little magic demonstration as part of his tale, which wastes necessary reagents.
The reagents are the most egregious example, but there are plenty of others. Fail to purchase a map early in the game–a map that the shopkeeper himself encourages you not to purchase–and you can’t find your way to Astrix. Fail to ask a dwarf companion about some elf legends at the right time, and you don’t have the right words to speak to an elf woman and thus miss your chance to get the Elf Stone. Fail to do a number of things just right in an early encounter with a nymph and you miss the Nymph Stone. Fail to accept a suspicious character into the party early in the game, and you miss later encounters because you don’t have his scouting skill.
The shopkeeper tells you that a required inventory item won’t help you.
Not only does the game give you no warning when something like this happens, but lots of other things happen that seem like they might be mistakes. In particular, party members disappear, get lost, get wounded, and even die on occasion, and you feel like you need to reload–only to discover, 20 turns later, that you can find or heal them in a different location.
4. Some of the walking dead criteria make no sense. Except in a single place where the dwarf Hurth has to “die” (or seem to die) only to be found alive again later, no character can die in a successful game, even if that character is no longer needed. This particularly bit me towards the end, in the city of Zan. If you don’t do the exact sequence of events correctly in several locations, the Dread Lord’s thugs are able to find your party and kill Hurth before the rest of the party members can escape. Even though Hurth’s skills are no longer needed for the rest of the game, his death prevents you from winning.
5. Not only do you get no notifications of walking dead situations, a lot of text is wasted in such situations. It feels like fully half of the game’s text would never be seen by a party destined to win because such text only appears when the party is already walking dead. There are entire areas of the game that, if you enter and experience any of the adventures to be had there, you’ve already gone the wrong way and cannot win.
A lot of text and programming–not to mention the graphics–went into a battle you’re not even supposed to fight. You’re meant to take a different path.
6. A lot of the options are completely nonsensical. Basically, on every screen, at every option, and at every encounter, you have to try every potential option and note the result–keeping in mind that its implications might not be fully realized for several scenes–and then try to assemble the “best” list of options in the right order. Some of the “successful” options you’d never hit upon by logic alone. Most involve the use of spells. For instance, Praxix encounters a stump on the ground in his explorations. If he casts “Tremor,” the stump splits and reveals a passage into the Earth. It’s both nonsensical to assume (without any other evidence) that such a passage would be revealed, and that “Tremor” would be the spell to reveal it. Later, you have to use the “Wind” spell in a random cave to reveal a hidden rune. Other encounters force you to discern at the outset whether you can cast a regular spell or need the extra “oomph” that comes from mixing the regular spell with grey powder, only the game has given you no gauge to determine the normal strength of spells.
7. The game randomizes some variables. Even if you can make an exhaustive list of the “right” options in the “right” orders, you’ll still lose the game because each new session randomizes some of the variables. The most obvious is early in the game, when you’re trying to navigate the paths to get to Asterix’s tower. There are six choices of left or right, or 64 possible total paths, and you don’t know if you’ve chosen right or wrong until you arrive. Each new game generates a different combination of correct paths. Now, technically you can bypass this navigation by casting a “Glow” spell on the map you hopefully purchased in the first town, but after a few sessions of this game, you’re so paranoid about conserving reagents that you’re more likely to sigh and start working your way through all 64 possible combinations.
The name of the boat captain you need to ask for at the end of the game is also randomized.
One of the things that the game randomizes is the color of the reagents that correspond with the different “essences”: wind, fire, water, earth, and so forth. At the end of the game, Tag has to figure out what reagents to mix, and only a throw-away line in an earlier scene about brushing some color of powder from his hands keeps him from, again, having to reload multiple times and work through dozens of possibilities. 
Failing to note the “fine orange residue” early in the game makes it nearly impossible to cast the final spell.
The one nod the game makes to its own difficulty is by letting you view Tag’s “musings” once you’ve lost the game. This screen lets you go one-by-one through all the things you did wrong, but only those things that led to your particular demise, and even then it’s maddeningly vague with advice like “conserve reagents,” not “you used reagents when you didn’t have to in this specific place.”
Tag muses on the many things the party did wrong.
Given all I’ve described, I have to highlight this particular paragraph from the game manual:
Your Journey will provide you with many hours of enjoyment and many hundreds of difficult decisions. But unlike other games you may have played, there are virtually no dead ends. Any action you take will advance the story toward one of its many endings. But there is only one ending that is the best.
I’ve never read such a blatant lie in a game manual before. There are no “alternate” endings–every single ending except the victory screen above has the main character reflecting on the literal destruction of the world. And the only way it can say that “there are virtually no dead ends” is because the damned game lets you keep on playing as long as possible even when you’re in an unwinnable situation. That’s not a virtue!
“Not a dead end.”
These various failings are why it took me ultimately 23 hours to win a game that only lasts about 1 hour if you hit all the right options. And that’s with using walkthroughs to help in some areas. With Journey, what you basically have is a cruel Choose Your Own Adventure book that you have to read 25 times, each time getting maybe an extra paragraph. It’s barely a “computer” game, and of course certainly not an RPG. It has no character development, hardly any inventory, and the combats are all scripted.
The most frustrating part is, I’m the only one who sees how bad this is! In the June 1989 Computer Gaming World, Roe Adams–Roe &@&$*# Adams!–practically wets himself, calling it “the best effort to date of any game designer struggling to find a new way for the game to interface with the player,” although he does caution about the use of reagents and mentions some of the more illogical puzzles. He seems to have been seduced by the interface–which is innovative but not all that great–and the plenitude of the graphics. European Amiga magazines gave it in the 80s and 90s.
Only more modern reviewers have failed to be lured in by its promises. In 1998, All Game Guide rated it a 40, called it “shallow,” rejected its RPG credentials, and said that “it fails to take advantage of what a reactive computer can do that a non-reactive book cannot.”
When I got done typing all of this and started searching for other modern takes on the game, I was delighted to see that Jimmy Maher (“The Digital Antiquarian”) had covered it in 2016. As I read his piece, he at first scared the bejesus out of me by calling his initial reactions “a unique and very pleasant experience.” But his opinion evolves as he plays, and eventually we get to the good stuff:
[T]here inevitably comes a point when you realize that everything Infocom has been saying about their game and everything the game has been implying about itself is a lie. Far from being the more easy-going sort of text adventure that it’s purported to be, Journey is a minefield of the very dead ends it decries, a cruel betrayal of everything it supposedly stands for. It turns out that there is exactly one correct path through the dozens of significant choices you make in playing the game to completion. Make one wrong choice and it’s all over. Worse–far worse–more often than not you are given no clue about the irrecoverable blunder you’ve just made. You might play on for hours before being brought up short.
When I rated it in 2011, I gave it a 23 without even bothering to explain the GIMLET. I don’t know what I was thinking with some of the ratings. I gave it 2 points for “character creation and development” when it deserves 0 and 4 points for “magic and combat” when it deserves maybe 2 (some of the uses of magic to solve puzzles are at least well-described). A revision brings the score down to 17. It does best in the “game world” (3) despite being derivative, and in the graphics, which are credited to Donald Langosy. I agree with Adams that they’re well-composed, and the game didn’t skimp on them: practically every scene has a different set. 
Evocative graphics are one of the game’s few positives.
The most surprising thing about Journey is that it was written by Infocom-founder Marc Blank, author of the original Zork series as well as the Enchanter series and several other Infocom titles. It certainly has his quality of prose, but it’s hard to believe that he didn’t understand why the basic approach was so much worse than the open-world games for which he was famous. Maher’s account of the game’s development suggests that the developers were in love with the interface: “an experiment to find out whether you could play an interactive story without having to type.” There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t explain why the interface had to so relentlessly drive the player forward, to punish him so severely for minor mistakes, and to waste so much of his time in unwinnable scenarios. Fortunately, it didn’t begin a trend. I like to think that Blank himself was dissatisfied with the result, which is why we saw no more games in the “Golden Age Trilogy,” as the secondary title screen has it. 
I like to think that the next two would have been Destination and Return.
So there it is. In an attempt to get a “quick win,” I managed to waste a lot of time and get myself highly frustrated on a non-RPG, for no benefit except to increase my “win” percentage by 0.31%. This does not bode well for an eventual return visit to, say, Wizardry IV, but we’ll see.

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