In all of my 29 years, there is no fate in life I have learned to hate more than limbo – that awful feeling of having no control over my future course, and no idea what the future will hold. When I believe strongly in a God who is in constant control of the universe, who has specific plans for my life, it begins to feel like cruelty. Why would God allow me to simply flounder, alone and helpless in this aimless dessert without giving us some kind of purpose?
Journey is a stripped-down, understated videogame. We’ve played this game before: the one where you have to go from point A to point B, fighting monsters and saving humanity. We play because it is fun. But we play Journey for some other reason: because it is supposed to be meaningful. We are invested in the game as if it were in a museum or on a movie screen. Journey rewards us for that by presenting us with a media experience made up of mechanics and symbols that are subtle enough to be read into. It’s not a story about a man on a Journey. It’s our story. It’s your story.
And so, most of the time we press forward. We walk to the nearest landmark, just to find some purpose. And we think: maybe we’ve found it. A kind of altar exists, and our avatar bows and prays. In return, it provides guidance – but not nearly enough to satisfy our curiosity. We begin to realize that these landmarks provide us with a kind of foreshadowing that prepares us for our part in the story. Through a glass darkly, we see what awaits us, but only barely. It’s not enough to convince us, but it’s enough to keep us going.
It’s my story.
It’s enough to keep me going. Journey provides very little guidance, other than a simple explanation on the front-end of what the individual controls do. There is no explanation of objectives, enemies, or the way systems interact with one another. It’s simply me, stranded in a vast desert. I wonder around collecting pieces of cloth – an unlikely sort of magic that gives me the ability to jump, and later, to soar. I see a great light in the distance: not a guarantee, but a mere semblance of hope.
It’s the pursuit of that symbol that instigates a series of delights along the way. Far from the typical, “It’s the Journey, not the destination” cliche, Journey presents the player with a concrete destination – a real, actual mountain exists in the distance, and the player is given real motivation to plod forward, even when things get difficult.
Difficulty is foreshadowed, as are moments of stunning innovation and beauty, by mosaics that come to life and depict future events. A kind of visual scripture, these mosaics provide hope and guidance to those who find themselves struggling with motivation to go forward. When the ultimate goal, the end of all things, isn’t quite enough, the supernatural beings who watch over the travelers give them guidance.
With all of these pieces in place, Journey seems hopeful, meditative, but also, boring. It can be a monotonous romp over sandy hills and snowy ice caps. It becomes drudgery. Thankfully, within the world of Journey the pilgrim is provided with a crucial gift: another fellow pilgrim. These actual online players of unknown identity and temperament tend to appear out of nowhere somewhere toward the beginning of the game. They are given no introductions or fanfare. At times they are seen for the first time far in the distance.
It’s an awkward moment, coming into contact with a fellow player, traveler and pilgrim. The question is whether we both have the same purpose. I press a button and call out vaguely to this player, timidly waiting for a response. They wonder, ever so slowly, up to me, and call out vaguely as well, only louder. The forcefulness of their “words” gives me even more ability for flight. It restores me.
Journey’s “call” option is purposefully limited, providing only one basic sound that changes arbitrarily in tone. The result is a distinct feeling of helplessness when communicating with the other player. As both players call and respond, the calls become more frequent and playful. It’s impossible to communicate feelings, thoughts, and plans, so there are hints. A player wonders over to a stream of falling sand and they speak. I follow them, and discover a cave with a secret. We speak again, and we understand one another a little bit more, even if nothing new is said. When dangers appear, we protect one another.
When I fall, she doubles back to help me up. Which is stunning, because there is no in-game mechanic for helping another player up. She isn’t able to help me, but she tries anyway. She runs in circles around my avatar until I am back on my feet, and we continue moving forward. We trudge forward, hiding in small enclosures together, from the storm, and from those who want to hurt us.
At this point I think we both kind of feel it: that the game isn’t really all that fun anymore. Much of the latter part is spent walking against the wind, fighting the forces of nature that don’t threaten as much as slow us down. It feels futile. There is a sense of limbo – of having no control over our future and no sense of what will happen. But we buckle down and we keep one another warm.
We have, after all, seen a lot – and at times, we’ve seen the purpose of things. We both look up, far into the distance, and see a great light emerging from the mountain. We forget about the struggles, we forget about the past. We look forward, we press forward, we push ourselves as hard as we can. We feel certain that we will never make it on our own.
And then: we are propelled into the air, with a kind of resolute and unchecked freedom that causes the other player to disappear for a moment, because here we are, finally on the path we anticipated but never predicted – with the mountain directly in view. There is no ambiguity any longer. We fly through the sky, bypassing the dangers we had encountered before as if they were mere adornments.
And then: Flight.