I awake in the molten sands of a desert. Rising, grains of it fall from my scarlet robe, I know I am on a journey, the title has told me that much, and it is all I need to know. As the sand moves under my feet I set off on my pilgrimage, into the unknown of the undulating dunes.
Journey is the latest game from ThatGameCompany who brought the world such varied experiences as Flow and Flower. If you ever plan to play this game then please stop reading, refrain from seeing or hearing any more on it, as the more that surprises you about this game the stronger the experience is.
Whats new about Journey is not the methods by which it leads the player along its path but the way it evokes feelings whilst doing so, one reviewer commented on the elements inspired by other games, and there is evidence of drawing from other game's strengths. The iconic landscapes of Shadow of the Colossus strewn with crumbling viaducts and bridges features in one section, while the constant goal of the lit peak on the horizon is quite reminiscent of the ever present singularity tower in Half Life 2: Ep.2, always reminding the player of the importance of certain narrative points.
Jenova Chen, co-founder of TheGameCompany, is often reluctant to talk on the artistic intent of his games, but in an interview he did reveal one of the themes for Journey whilst designing its gameplay mechanics. When walking down a street in a crowded city people rarely greet each other, the interaction between people is not cherished as it would be on a moutain hike where to see another person is a rare occurance. Maybe you walk with them and talk a while before separating ways again. This is the experience, and the emotions of companionship and shared memory that go with it, that they strove to create.
In the online gaming community of sports, shooters, and MMOs: identity is paramount. You must connect to your avatar because then you will invest time into developing your character's skills and appearance in order to differentiate yourself from you team mates or competitors. This culture of individualism would have destroyed the experience Journey aims for as it is very important you don't have this separation of identity when you meet a companion. For your companions are in fact other pilgrims, on other consoles, travelling with you through bandwidth, and sand.
Journey creates commonalities between players to help foster that kinship of two travelers. Mechanically you have a common destination, the very act of walking beside someone, whether you're leading or following creates literally a shared direction. Visually you have a common appearance, you are clearly here for same reason. Your red robe and dark face mean that you have no reason to discriminate or even differentiate between yourself and your companion, you belong together. Aurally you speak the same language, an alphabet of woodwind words, flute-like in timbre. This simple method of speech allows primitive expression that can connote fear or excitement with some rapid toots, a call or farewell with a louder sustained note, but none of this is taught to the player or written in a manual it merely exists as a system of expression between players to further unify them.
Yet for all this common ground between players it is still essential that players are strangers to begin with. As strangers the evolution of your acquaintance with each other parallels the evolution of the journey you take together, you discover a new place whilst simultaneously discovering a new person. Another of the game's metaphorical systems of play is the attainment of scraps of cloth to add to your scarf. Mechanically this allows the player to spend longer in the air as they expend the magic symbols inscribed along the length of their scarf. It also gives the player a sense of history, like each scrap is a memory collected and stored, and who has the most memories? The well traveled, the experienced: the elderly.
When I met a companion with a scarf significantly shorter than my own, I had subconsciously understood the game's systemic analogy for age and automatically felt a sense of responsibility that I couldn't place without the hindsight I now have. My relationship to this companion took on the role of teacher and disciple, the veteran pilgrim leading a traveler on their transition into adulthood, though I had never completed the journey myself, I took the lead followed by my companion, when I waited so did my companion. I developed a connection to the point where I gasped when my companion was attacked by a leviathan of a creature that resided in the cave we were passing through, I feared my disciple was gone, permanently. I felt responsible. I had not been the protection I should have been. This consistent 'tight coupling' of mechanics and themes is something that I spent 9,000 words advocating in my dissertation, so to see it in a game the day before hand in was just a complete joy.
There are other anecdotes of abandonment, euphoria, and relief at not being alone at the end. And this is only one person's experiences with a game that offers such an emotional range I imagine there are thousands of emergent stories being told by players, all variants on the template which ThatGameCompany created. Journey is just one of those very rare games that manifests its vision so completely, so elegantly.
"This move (to abstraction) underscores ThatGameCompany's sophistication: in a medium where interpretation is scorned as indulgent and pretentious, Journey gives no ground: the player must bring something to the table." (Bogost, 2012).
After its all over you are presented with a screen of PSN ID's, the online identities that you spent your journey with. So if you did value your time with you fellow traveler, maybe you actually did find a like minded person who you now have the opportunity to contact, now you have the opportunity to extend that relationship beyond the boundaries of Journey. But the screen fades before too long and I got into the digital equivalent of that situation where you lost the contact details of someone you met on holiday, so if my companion debellatoro1 (or similar, because that PSN ID didn't work) ever reads this, send Olninyo a message.
I'm glad I was not alone, on my journey to the end.