Why I’ll Never Shut Up About Journey
Journey. What a fucking game. Anyone who’s ever spoken to me about video games knows I love this game a little bit too much. Even here on this very blog, I seldom get through any game related post without typing the phrase “Journey be praised”, and while that’s somewhat of a running joke more than anything else, I really do consider this game to be one of the very best I’ve ever played.
My affection for this game is hard to explain. It’s just a few hours long, it follows a very predictable and time tested formula (more on that in a bit), and while it certainly has replayability it’s very limited after a point.
However, Journey exhibits phenomenal design and gamefeel. It’s clear the creators know games intimately and what makes them so powerful as a medium for conveying ideas. It’s a pure, simple work of art, and it is among one of the most emotional and meaningful gaming experiences I have ever had.
How does Journey accomplish this? I’ve studied this game intensely, I’ve spent countless cumulative hours thinking about it, I’ve played through it several times and exhausted myself on it. I’ve done all this so you don’t have to. You’re welcome, internet.
I’m not going to tell you what the story means because honestly that’s a very personal experience. The beauty of having no dialogue or text is that the player is free to draw their own interpretation, and as with any art no interpretation is more or less correct than another. I will, however, start by explaining how the game is set up and why that format is so effective.
In 1949, Joseph Campbell wrote a book entitled The Hero With a Thousand Faces. In it, Campbell discussed how throughout history and all over the world there are certain patterns that tend to show up. Based on this observation, he devised a theory dubbed “The Hero’s Journey”.
This formula, he postulated, is what causes so many stories to resonate with us as humans, and as a result once Campbell outlined this framework it became a powerful tool in formulating stories. If you’ve ever spent any time studying media, this was almost certainly required reading.
I can’t do the complexities of the book justice, but I will run a brief outline of what the Hero’s Journey is, or at least the more broad stages that are typically used in media. The cycle is basically as follows: the call to adventure, refusal of the call, supernatural aid, crossing of the first threshold, belly of the whale, the road of trials, meeting with the goddess, woman as temptress, atonement with the father, and apotheosis.
There’s much more to it than that, but I don’t want to get bogged down talking about the formula here. If you want an excellent video detailing how Journey follows this formula and what the steps mean, Extra-Credits did just that. I encourage you to watch it, they do a far better job than I could.
What they only briefly talk about in the video, though, is how this game manages to be so deeply emotional and personal despite being, more or less, a basic formula that’s been abused by media forever. As they pointed out, even the title, “Journey”, reflects their intentional use of this framework.
The answer is, basically, that they use it only as a tool and not as a fill-in-the-blank worksheet. Journey uses much more subtle elements do bring you in for its short but powerful story. Part of it, as they stated in Extra-Credits, is the interactivity, the fact that you have to live through it. But what exactly is it that you’re living through?
So the game opens, and your avatar strolls into view. You’re in the middle of a desert, so the scenery is mostly unremarkable, just rolling hills of sand. Except, that is, for one key visual: a tall stone with a strip of cloth tied to it blowing in the wind, at the top of the hill the game starts you facing. Obviously, you’re drawn to this, so you climb the hill, and at its top it all comes into view: The Mountain. With capital letters.
This mountain is clearly the goal. It’s magnificent. There’s a great cleft in its peak with a brilliant light shining from it. You know immediately, without a single prompt or line of exposition, that the entire game will be spent trying to get to this mountain. And below you, on the other side of the hill, there’s a great expanse filled with those stones you walked up the hill to look at. It looks almost like a graveyard (spoiler: it’s a graveyard).
So already, without any text, without any backstory, you’re sucked in. What’s with that mountain? Why do I desperately want to get to it based solely on visual and musical cues? What happened here? Am I the only one left of my people?
Throughout the game, you uncover the answers to all your questions. This is done through exploring and observing murals, great paintings illustrating this land’s past, and also through cutscenes between chapters, in which very tall, white-robed version of your avatar show you visions cave painting style of the history of your race.
But make no mistake, that’s not what this game is about. It’s there, yes, and it fills you with curiosity and motivation to progress, but I have an interesting theory: it’s all a trick.
That’s not where you thought I was going with this article, is it? No, to me the story is interesting but unimportant, you just don’t realize it’s unimportant until the end, possibly not even until several playthroughs.
See, I think the story is just there to motivate you to explore, to wander through this world and experience its wonders. Because what ends up happening is while you ponder fervently over what the game’s events and what they mean, you start to imprint yourself into them. Again, you don’t realize at first it’s happening. But eventually the entire game means something to you that’s hard to explain to other people because it means something totally different to them.
In the opening you feel the vastness, the heaviness of your pilgrimage. In the part after the “tutorial”, after the main hub, you feel a sort of playful curiosity about the things you see and interact with. In the downhill segment you feel free and elated and possibly even thrilled. In the underground segment you feel uneasy, disheartened, maybe even disappointed or sad. In the trek up the mountain, you feel desperate determination despite how painfully slow and difficult it is. You’ve come so far, you can’t stop now!
And then you die. Or collapse, or whatever, it’s pretty vague. The point is, with the help of those great white spirits, you’re blasted upward, through the storm, above the clouds and into a breathtaking view of the mountain peak, now so close, so obtainable.
And when you finally reach the end of the road, you feel fulfilled. You probably feel emotional, sentimental, almost like this game that only lasted a few hours lasted a lifetime. And as the end credits roll, and that glowing symbol flies from the mountain where you ended, it travels all the way back through the game’s levels. And when the cinematic reaches the beginning, a new avatar strolls into view and you’re left to either play the game again or not.
I’ll talk about the replays later, but the point I want to make is all the game’s stages start to mean something to you emotionally. You draw subconscious parallels between the themes expressed in the game to your own life experiences. Maybe the journey represents the cycle of life to you, starting with the curiosity and exuberance of youth to the trials of adulthood to the heavenly afterlife after a long arduous life.
I won’t tell you what it felt to me as a metaphor because it’s far too romantic and silly, and therefore leaves me open to public mockery and ridicule. But it suffices to say by the end my eyes teared up. I felt nostalgic and emotional and wanted nothing more than to hold on to the past several hours and the things I felt, because they were things I hadn’t felt in years, things I didn’t think I was capable of feeling anymore. It was, in a tragic understatement, beautiful.
The startling thing for me was that games (and media in general) don’t typically affect me in this way. I don’t often cry at movies or make rash emotional decisions after reading a particularly moving novel. I’ve got a flair for the dramatic in real life, yes, but most people who know me all say I just seem relaxed and calm and have a tendency to joke about, well, everything. And yet this game, unexpectedly, absolutely gutted me. It made me feel extremes of the entire emotional spectrum.
Confused and a little concerned that maybe I was overreacting to a silly indie game, I had a friend play it. By the end, he was misty eyed as well. And online you can find all kinds of passionately worded stories saying basically the same thing. Even critics, used to turning art into an analytical judgment, raved about this game and how it touched them.
The cynics out there will proclaim this is largely due to the use of The Hero’s Journey formula, that it was calculated to pull at your heartstrings. But to that I pose the following question: so what?
Journey wanted you to feel something emotional and personal, so why not use The Hero’s Journey framework as a tool to do so? In fact, it further proves that this tool can still be applied in such an effective way after so much time, despite every bland, predictable summer blockbuster flick using it to death. It only serves to prove how rewarding the product can be when enough passion and care is put into it.
But that’s not the end. I mentioned earlier about how the game prompts you to play again. Not with text, of course, but by simply placing a new avatar into your control after the credits without any interruption. If you choose to play again, even if it’s not immediately, you experience an entirely new set of emotions, which is an almost impossibly neat trick to pull off.
You see, in this game there’s a sort of not-quite-multiplayer. While connected to the network, sometimes you’ll encounter other players in very small quantities, often (possibly only? I don’t remember) just one. But there’s no chat. No text boxes. The only form of communication are the little blips you can make your avatar chirp by pressing a certain button. This is accompanied by a white glyph that flashes above your head, each one unique to its avatar.
When you encounter these other players, any number of interactions can occur. Maybe you ignore everyone and plow through the game alone. Maybe you just screw around with them for awhile as a distraction from your tasks. Maybe you team up and work together to find secrets. Sometimes you’ll encounter another player that has white robes and a self-recharging magic scarf, which is only obtainable by finding all of the hidden glyphs in the game.
What happens most often, though, is one player will help the other, become a sort of protector and mentor. My first time through I played offline on purpose. I wanted to feel alone with my feelings. The second time, I decided to do more exploring and allow others into the world. What happened was I met up with someone who acted as my guide.
They showed me all kinds of neat secrets and led me to all the hidden glyphs I didn’t know about. We quickly formed a sort of code (all without any text or speaking, of course) where series of blips meant different things, almost like Morse Code. A single, isolated blip usually meant “ready?” or “okay?” A rapid two chirp response was a confirmation. Frantic chirping meant “Fucking pay attention, over here! I’m trying to show you something!”
And what’s strange and wonderful is it started to feel like a friendship. At one point, in a frantic segment towards the end, I thought we had lost each other. When we reunited there was a lot of jumping around and excited blip patterns. We played through the entire game together, and in the very end, after the credits, a screen comes up and displays for the first time the gamertags of the people you encountered while playing. Shortly after, I got a friend request in my inbox from the person who guided me through the game.
I never spoke to this person, and I never really interacted with them again. But what’s truly wonderful about this game is that this is not uncommon. In fact, when I played the game yet again a week later I acted as the guide for someone else. You gain experience not in numbers or achievements like in most games but in actual, living experiences. And you pass on the knowledge from those experiences to new players just as they did for you.
Here, in the landscape of gaming, where most multiplayer experiences are defined by racial slurs and screaming and competition, we find utter altruism. There is no reward for helping others in this game. You just do it. Because you want to. You look out for the less experienced instead of exploiting them. Granted there’s no benefit to leading them astray, either, and there’s no possible way to inflict physical harm as this game gives you no tools for violence.
But that doesn’t cheapen it for me. With no reward for either, why do either? And yet people consistently help each other. It’s almost hard to believe, and yet there it is, a testament to the community and kindness humanity is capable of. In a world where it’s hard to ignore the despicable darkness humans are capable of, this is refreshingly optimistic and uplifting to witness.
Like I said, whole different set of emotions.
Like all games, Journey is not flawless. I’m sure there are a few mechanical hiccups and glitches, and some people might not feel anything but bored playing it. But it’s still a goddamn masterpiece. It’s beautiful and emotional and brilliantly executed, and I cannot stop praising it. It’s fun but meaningful, short but powerful, has breathtaking visuals and a phenomenal, gorgeous soundtrack. It’s a commendable example of cohesion between all game elements to create a larger overall effect.
As I stated before, I regard it as one of the most remarkable experiences I have ever had with games or really any other media. To some it might sound strange, but this game permanently affected me. I still think about it over a year later. It actually brought me to some realizations about myself as a person, things I still keep in mind and apply to my daily life and the decisions I make. That sounds almost ridiculous, but I really don’t think it is.
In fact, I’m not even going to undermine myself by ending this post in my usual Jurassic Park quote, I’m just going to end by saying if you have not played this game, please do. It’s excellent. And even if your emotional experience is not nearly as profound, it’s at least an interesting, unique, and polished game that any fan of the medium can appreciate.
Until next time, friends!