In 2012 thatgamecompany released a little indie title called Journey on the PS3. The title was a hit and went on to win numerous awards and has been hailed as one of the greatest games of all time. Despite its short length (the game can be completed in under two hours) there are many secrets to find in the game, and for a completionist, it can be stretched out to around six hours. The aesthetics of the game are simple, and quite beautiful. You will find no overly rendered sprites here, instead it is like a glorious work of art.
Having played the game once before, but never in one sitting, I set myself the challenge to complete the game in one take to experience the game as it was meant to be – an emotional journey. There is a lot of talk about what the game is actually about. The talk is valid, and like any real auteur’s work it is the work that is the conversation piece. The game lacks a traditional narrative, there is no over-stuffed plot that unfolds over many, many hours, we are given encounters of a benevolent nature with a higher spirit that guides us on our story through the game.
I don’t need to go into detail with what Journey is about. It’s an experience. There are no enemies to kill. There are simple puzzles to solve, but the game is a statement, a game free of conflict. Whilst this may sound unusual, it’s not unheard of, a game can be anything it wants to be, that’s one of the beauties of gaming – the limitless palette that comes with it.
So, what is Journey about? From the opening we start in a desert. A vast, endless void of sand with a giant mountain in the distance. Through instinct we naturally know we need to head that way, it is one of many visual cues that nudge us on our way. And on our journey, we will go from desert, to the underworld, to a frozen wasteland, and to bathe in the light. Light gives us power here. It enables us to fly, it enables us freedom, it is the darkness that grounds us, along with the cold that silences our only way of communicating – to sing. To break the game down, the first question to ask is does it deliver on its premise? Yes. The title is a simple statement, roll it around your mind for a bit – journey, what is a journey? Well, it’s defined as: ‘an act of travelling from one place to another’, and it does do that. Even if you looked at this game from just that statement it takes you on a quest to reach the mysterious mountain in the distance. Whilst I have read many theories about the meaning behind Journey, some call it about birth, others call it about death, others say it has no meaning and is just an experiment of a game. I disagree with all of these. I don’t think the game is meant to be a literal interpretation of anything that could be defined as a concept as simple as life or death, instead I think it is about another idea – Ascension.
The game does follow a solid narrative path – a classic narrative you might say. In storytelling there are certain rules, beats, we adhere to when telling a story. You might not notice them, but they’re there, in almost every story you will read or watch, or listen to, this thread will be there. We go from meeting our protagonist in their normal environment, we then will have an event that changes the protagonist’s life, this then results in rising action, by the midpoint everything will be going the protagonist’s way, but then at the midpoint it is flipped and everything will start to go wrong, no matter what the protagonist does they have a challenge ahead of them, then we have a darkness before the dawn moment, and this will lead into our last act and denouement with the protagonist’s life being changed forever. Journey does follow these rules. Just because it has no dialogue, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. The desert we begin in is our starting point. It doesn’t matter why or how we got there, we’re just there. like the start of every great novel or film, we do not need an explanation for our situation, we just need to know how we are going to combat our situation. Comic readers will be familiar with this when back in the fifties and sixties, each issue would have a hook right there on the front page. It could be Batman hanging perilously over a ravine, or Superman dying from kryptonite, it didn’t matter, the cover was there to grab our attention and get us to read what’s inside. Journey does a similar trick but not to that extreme, instead, we mount the crest of a dune and the entirety of the desert is spread out before us. There are ruins to head for, there is a song to be sung, we learn the basics quickly. We discover sentient cloth creatures, we reform bridges that have long fallen away, we journey onwards… and upwards. Each time we leave one area we are greeted by a watcher, a guardian dressed in neutral white who will give us a small nod of guidance as we progress on.
And progress we will. We will go from the desert, to a great bridge. A bridge we restore and navigate across. We will be helped along on our path by others on a similar journey, our only way of communicating is a chime to each other, but now we know we are not taking this journey alone. Each checkpoint we reach a temple of light illuminates on a map that charts our journey, but this is no ordinary map, this would not look out of place on the wall of a tomb in Egypt. From temples of dust in the desert, we move on to the darkness, the dark night before the dawn of Journey’s narrative. Here we find ourselves being pursued by a giant flying predator that uses a searchlight to hunt for us. We are smashed into the ground every time we are spotted, the life beaten out of us until we have to rise to start again. But then we flee the darkness and find the temple of light we foresaw in the pictograms shown to us earlier. It is our mission here to restore the light in the darkness. If this were a film this would be act three. We become a being powered by light once more, we are steps closer to our journey to ascension, our uplift to a higher being.
But there is a death in this game…
Beyond the desert and the underworld lay the frozen wastelands. A land of forever winter. We push on in our journey, to a land battered by wind and snow. Towards ancient ruins, with each step our protagonist grows more rigid and broken. Our only companion here is the moon, and that soon becomes blotted out by the blizzard we find ourselves in. A lightning storm heralds our doom, each step towards the distant temple ends us. In the end, when all is said and done we find ourselves stumbling lost through the snow, our strides becoming fewer, the life leaving us, until we fall, we submit to the frozen wastelands and it is there that our journey as this being draws to a close and the screen fades to white.
That’s not quite the end of our existence here though. we find ourselves resurrected by six guardians and we glow, more powerful than we have ever been before. Nothing cam harm us, nothing can stop us. We have cast off the physical and now we are an agent of light. No longer do we touch the ground, we are free to soar above the world. We have reached the highest point in the plane of existence in this universe, we have ascended beyond what we could ever have hoped to be at the start of the game.
Journey teaches us a lesson. That is what this game is. It’s an example that to achieve where you wish to be, you need to make sacrifice, and you need to work through the hard times. It’s a game about a singular goal, about rising above what we are at the start. I don’t think it’s a game about life and death, I think the game IS life, a representation of life, and how we are all just grasping to reach the light.