With all of the game consoles begging for our affection, and all of the video games vying for our attention, it can be incredibly difficult to navigate today’s gaming landscape. Making a decision about which games are relevant to us and which games can actually keep us engaged all the way through to the end is far too often an ordeal. There’s nothing worse than buying a game you’ve been hyped about for months, or even years, only to discover that it’s not as interesting as all of the trailers and gameplay videos mad it seem, that you actually kind of hate it, and that you can’t get a refund. I can’t even recall how many times I’ve felt tricked by a game that advertised itself as a groundbreaking and fresh experience that simply couldn’t be missed, only to discover that it was only really heading in that direction until someone got reminded that they had to hit a bottom line. Every once in a while, though, some divine gaming providence intervenes and leads us to a game comes along so surprising and so moving that it makes us fall in love with gaming all over again, and we can’t even imagine how we lived without it. For me, that game is Journey.
If you’ve never heard of it, Journey is an indie game developed by thatgamecompany (who’s been in the news lately for their newest project, Sky, which was announced at Apple’s coveted 2017 iPhone Keynote Address) that was released as a Playstation 3 exclusive in 2012, with a remastered version on the Playstation 4 in 2015. Thatgamecompany describes the game as an “anonymous adventure where you travel on a life’s passage, with the chance to connect with companions along the way,” in which you “soar above ruins and glide across sands as you explore the secrets of a forgotten civilization.” You play as an armless humanoid made entirely out of cloth that’s making their way through a vast and beautiful desert world towards a glowing mountain in the distance. Along the way, players are actively and randomly paired with one another so that they may play, connect with, and experience the journey together with a stranger. The whole game only takes about an hour or two to complete, there’s no dialogue, there’s no means of communication besides a button that makes the player’s character sing, and while there is some semblance of a story, the entire game was created so that each player might find their interpretations and meanings.
After my first playthrough I remember just sitting there watching the credits in a sort of silent state of reflection and awe. I’d never had such an experience with a video game before. I’d only ever felt these kinds of emotions after finishing a good book, and the fact that I was feeling it now after a video game of all things immediately changed my relationship with gaming, elevating my appreciation of video games as something more than just entertainment, but art. Journey meant something, it was intimate and personal, and it was no doubt meant to feel that, was meant to mean something different to me than it did to the person or persons I’d played with, not to mention all of the people I would recommend the game.
For me, the entire experience was something of an ode to life and the human experience; of eternally struggling and striving towards some higher purpose, whether it be success or happiness, all throughout life and beyond the point when we inevitably expire and continue on into whatever comes next. Each level in Journey is representative of the different stages of life, and is depicted by the different cycles of the sun—morning, noon, twilight, dusk, midnight, and dawn. The mountain is a metaphor for motivation, for the things that keep us going, the goals we set throughout our lives, and the ideas we have about what we’ll find after we depart. I am not religious, but I think for those that are the mountain is a clear representation of that, an idea that is reinforced by the sort of utopia that we are propelled into after we collapse in the middle of the blizzard. The machines are representative of the ways in which we hold ourselves back, which stems from the story told to us by the tall white elders, which depicts a flourishing society both built and destroyed by technology and industry. The end—when the screen fades to white and a star that emits from the top of the mountain to begin its separate journey back to where the game began—is a form of reincarnation, whether literal or symbolic, which allows us the opportunity to start over with all of the lessons we’ve learned; a metaphor, perhaps, of knowledge, and the way it can change or otherwise better prepare us for the experience, while at the same time demonstrating the value of gaining the knowledge first-hand. But the most provocative and affecting part of Journey has to do with the voice of the character we play and the way it’s used to both communicate and interact with the game’s world.
The people we connect with along the passage—the players that appear for only brief moments or stick around for the entire duration of the game—are representative of relationships. It’s both beautiful and sad to think about the people we befriend, love, and lose throughout our lives, and Journey makes me feel this, makes me think about this. It’s one of the many reasons I love it, because there’s something truly special about finishing the game with the same person you started it with, and there’s something truly heartbreaking about losing someone you’ve worked and connected with.
Beyond the simply act of connection, the way in which players communicate with one another is exceptionally provocative, as it not only does not matter if each player speaks the same language. Whenever a player presses a certain button, their character “sings,” a round orb emits from within them, and a symbol marks its center. This symbol is unique to each player, is different every time they play the game, and when utilized releases imprisoned creatures, rallies creatures together, lights candle-like structures, thaws the cold and lifeless, reveals secret murals, and can be used in quick bursts or long beautiful chords to communicate with others. This may not seem like the best tool for communication, but it works, and anyone who’s played the game can tell you that more often than not you can actually feel like you understand what the other player is saying. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve followed another player off of the main path simply because I felt like they were trying to tell me something, and I knew this only because of the way the player was moving and the frequency of which they were chirping. Every time I did this I was rewarded by learning I was correct, that the other player was trying to show me a secret area or hidden collectible I hadn’t found before, and every time it felt a lot like I was attempting to communicate with someone who didn’t speak the same language. I can’t help but think of this as a demonstration of the power of language in all of its forms, a reminder that we don’t need to speak the same language to understand one another, and that we don’t need to know or even understand each other to connect or to trust. But there’s one more part of this picture that really brings it all together, and that’s the fact that even though every player’s “singing” symbol is different and unique, the symbol on every player’s scarf remains the same no matter how many times you play it, and no matter how many players you meet.
There are so many possible meanings we can read into this scarf, especially since it’s the very source of the main character’s ability to fly, but my own interpretation is that the symbol repeated along its entire length represents that which unites all living things; whether that be their bodies, their consciousness, or their souls. After all, isn’t that what makes Journey come together so beautifully? As a celebration of life, Journey found its footing and its success because of its ability to resonate with people, to make them feel something, to make them forget about the hustle and bustle of their lives and remember all of the things that make it all worth it. The “journey,” in the end, is a spiritual one, a lesson about essentially taking the time to sniff the flowers, to enjoy that gorgeous view of the sunset, and to cherish the time you have with the people you’re with, because you never really knew when they will leave, where your life’s journey is headed, or how it will end.
After five years, Journey still moves me, and it still gives me a special little thrill every time I manage to find the time to replay it. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it, let alone any other developer quite like thatgamecomapny, and I absolutely cannot wait to play Sky, to see how they take all of their ideas from Flow, Flower, and Journey, and take it all even further. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait too long.
What’s your interpretation of Journey? Do you have a memorable story? Tell us about it in the comments, or shoot us a message!