[Spoiler warning: This post discusses the ending of Journey]
I’m close. After traversing a couple hours of beautiful, difficult terrain, the end is nearly in sight. I look up the snow-covered mountain peak and see my destination—a high shining light—looming large through the clouds. I take a moment to take in my satisfaction. I draw a deep breath and begin to walk.
My path is steep. I move forward as frost collects on the edges of my garment. I’m able to keep my usual pace for a few moments, but I soon begin to slip. My steps become shorter and slower. The light on which I’ve been transfixed throughout my journey disappears as clouds compound. Wind howls and thunder booms. The frost continues to climb up my back. Shorter and slower.
My light is gone, lost to the competing flashes of lightning, which seem to cut through the clouds much easier. My walk has become a crawl, though the whirlwind of sounds has dwindled. Desperation sets in. I push forward with every bit of will, though it makes no difference. I make few gains—little progress. Disoriented and directionless, I arbitrarily inch through the snow. In my mind, I’ve come too far to quit. I’m resolved to make it.
It makes no difference.
I fall to my knees, then to the ground. My senses fade slowly. First, my hearing, then, my vision. I can’t even perceive myself. Nothing but white. It’s over.
Depictions of death are common in art of all kinds. Death is certainly a fixture of most videogames, regularly depicted with a wide range of seriousness, poignancy, realism, and reflection. Even most casual gamers have “died” countless times throughout their play over the years.
Initially, I was struck by the inevitability of death in Journey. In most games (though not all), death is the pesky teacher who shows up to slap the player’s hand only to send him or her back into the story. “Continue,” it says. Death is rarely final—it’s a minor nuisance meant to be conquered through multiple attempts. It’s a warning not to make the same mistake again. In Journey, things are different, death is an inevitable experience. Everyone who plays Journey reaches the same snow-covered climb. Everyone who plays Journey becomes powerless in the face of physical forces beyond their control. In that world, death comes to everyone.
But there is another, more profound way in which Journey engages death. Journey is an example of the ability videogames possess to move beyond mere depiction of an experience such as death. Whereas other artistic mediums can carry someone to empathy or even to vicarious experience, only games can carry someone to something approximating a genuine first-person experience.
With a combination of simple, intuitive gameplay mechanics and highly effective art direction, Journey affords the player the ability to closely identify with the traveler on the screen without distraction. The fact that the player doesn’t merely watch the journey, but actively participates in it (through the admittedly limited input afforded by a Playstation controller), allows a deeper, more experiential insight. This input allows an inter-mingling of real-world player and game-world avatar.
In Journey, the moment of death extends from the avatar to the player. It is difficult to watch a beloved character in a film approach certain death, but it’s something else entirely to experience the dread of my avatar sputtering to a stop (despite my will—and my left analog stick—striving to move forward). It is painful to watch a character finally die and lose contact with their world, but it’s something else entirely for me to experience the quiet helplessness as both my input into the game world and my sensory awareness of it diminish into nothing but a faded white screen.
After the moment of death, there is a period of white silence. On my first playthrough, I remember sitting there, heart-broken. Moments passed. I feared that this was the unavoidable end of the game. I could imagine why Thatgamecompany might have opted for an ending like this. It may have been intended as a simple acknowledgment of the cruel world in which we live. I wondered if the game would even allow me to quit and restart. I hit my start button, but it didn’t register. I was stuck, the white of the snow in the final image to be burned into my eternally-fading consciousness.
Dying in Journey forced me to reflect deeply on the value of life and the horrific finality of death—not as an outsider looking in, but as an insider unable to look out. It drew up a longing in the face of dreams left unfulfilled, first in the game, then in my life.
For a moment I thought about my longing to one day have children with my wife, and to know them as they grew up. I thought about growing older and wiser with her. I thought about our plan to soon relocate to a new city after excited months of imagining and preparing. I thought about the lingering mystery of what I might do for a career when I “grew up” and what contributions I might make to my future community. I saw these dreams being buried in the snow.
This death was a gift.
Of course, those who have played Journey know that the game doesn’t end there. In that world, death isn’t the end of the story.
Moments after my existential crisis, my senses returned. Before me were the “Elder” characters from earlier in the game. I might get to realize my goals after all, I realized, and in a grander fashion than I had ever dreamed. Gratitude welled up. Hope flooded. They lifted me from my bed of snow, restored my strength beyond what it had ever been before, and shot me up the rest of the peak.