The road less travelled...
At a bustling city restaurant over a table crammed with food and drink one of my friends interjects in a conversation I am having on gaming and asks, “...but, can games be as meaningful as a book, are they as useful at conveying morals and life lessons as books or films?” It’s a conversation that is nearly as old as the medium itself and while we want to be able to clearly and definitively put the debate to rest, if we are honest with ourselves we will have to admit that ours is a difficult case to make. However, much like other expressive mediums there comes a point, an isolated moment, when we get to glimpse the purity and perfection of what can be achieved. For me Journey is that point, that isolated moment, the exception that we yearn to be the rule, the sublime distillation of interaction and experience. There could be a danger to overstate the importance of Journey, a possibility of getting carried away on a tide of critical praise but here it is absolutely deserving of hyperbole and every accolade is hard won. Journey, it has to be said, will not be for everyone as it is simple, short and will affect people very differently or perhaps not at all but if simply for what it signifies it deserves to be played by every gamer.
The main strength of Journey is its unspoken thematic universality; the classic theme of the ‘journey’, or quest, is known intrinsically by each of us. Whether it be achieving a tangible goal or the development of an abstract concept, we all know what it is like to have to get somewhere, meet someone or just survive. This idea of the quest is woven into our very being, we see remnants of these types of story in tribal cultures, classical cultures, medieval cultures and even children's stories - from Gilgamesh to Skywalker the core of these stories are the same. In Journey your quest is clearly set before you; that glistening mountain-top draws your eye far into the distance and you just ‘know’ that is where you have to go despite not being told to do so or having any idea what awaits you there. Everything is alien in the world that Journey lays out before you yet somehow so familiar, from the pseudo-religious clothing to the abstract hieroglyphics everything just seems to make sense. It is this constant balance and marrying of theme and design that really makes Journey a special experience.
Much like life you will begin your first playthrough with childlike eyes, testing your new abilities, exploring your surrounding and inquisitively approaching anything that seems alive. There are few moments more joyous in gaming than the feeling you get while sliding down a sand dune under the watchful eye of the blistering sun. There is a real majesty in the world created here and you are very small within it, as towers loom high above you and the lonely mountain in the distance beckons you forth you will feel all at once insignificant and important. Once again Journey seems to tap into that innate sense that we are predisposed to as humans; that we are here for a purpose and have a role of importance in this world.
When people talk of those defining moments in videogames that made them fall in love with the medium you will hear so many great stories, and each of these are imbued with a real love for a medium that made that person feel. I have had many of those moments over my twenty years gaming experience and Journey not only gave me that feeling but also made me fall completely in love with video-gaming all over again. That moment for me was the first time I saw another character caressing the incline of a dune with all the glee that I had previously expressed. I had felt alone, I had just gotten used to this world and my place in it and then out of the corner of my eye emerges another ‘person’. My little legs couldn’t carry my character quickly enough across the sand to meet this other pilgrim, I had no idea what to do when I got there but all I knew was that I had to approach this traveller.
It is here that the mechanics in Journey won me over like no other game before, for here I had a person in my game that I couldn’t speak to, I couldn’t mark an area of interest and I had no idea of what their name was. What you have is a solitary ‘sing’ button that will emit a singular note, there is no way to texture this communication but in some strange way you manage to develop some kind of shorthand. I am still not sure as to how this works and with every new player you meet it will feel different, from voicing concern to asking if the other person is ready this method of communication seems to just work. We have become so accustomed to having the ability to be unlimited in our ability to communicate in games whether it be discussing tactics or shouting abuse we have been spoiled through technology. There emerges a real liberation in this restriction and the truth is that you don’t have to even bother with anybody else as the game is quite easy to complete on our own.
The masterstroke here is that you ‘want’ to communicate, this other player is just like you and within the confines of this game world they are all you have to share your experience with. I remember spending a summer, some might say wasting, repeatedly playing two-player Streets of Rage 2 with my best friend and getting soaked up in the game but also with the experience of sharing with the other player. It can be all too easy to see other players as being in ‘your’ game, negatively affecting the game you are trying to play but here you have a person who has no real impact in your game beyond what you want. Much like the journey in life the journey here is much more enjoyable with company, as you slip into the dangerous under-realms of this world your diminutive figure will be glad of the company as the feeling of purpose and powerlessness starts to swell.
In my time gaming I have often been so concerned with in-game statistics, getting frustrated as my kill-death ratio slips a point in the wrong direction. Yet here I have ran clear into danger to merely check to see if my companion is okay, there is no benefit for this, no reward and bizarrely what you will feel is compassion and empathy. I guess that this is a reward in itself, while we tend to feel empathy for generated characters in a story it isn’t often you would feel for another human player. The characters in Journey are devoid of a face with characteristics, what could be said to be happening is that we are projecting our own persona unto those players we meet, that we are in fact reflecting on ourselves and helping ourselves progress. I think there is a real truth to that and that the characters you meet are removed of any identifiable features, colour or ethnicity offers up the sense that we are all the same when stripped back. We are all human.
Journey can be seen as an interactive metaphor for life, you are born into the world, you explore and discover what you can do, you find companionship and then you discover that the world can be dangerous. It is at this point in the game that the tone shifts, you are faced with the last stage of your journey as you stand at the base of the mountain that has beckoned you. As all life around you freezes within the blizzard that envelops the mountain and as you get pushed back by the strength of the wind you start to feel a real struggle emerging. The beautiful score can scarce be heard for the howling winds, you will find that you can not communicate with your companion as the wind steals your song with little or no care. The best you can do is to stick close and persevere. It is truly a beautiful thing to suddenly realise you are huddling beside this other person not for any advantage but because you don’t want to do this alone, and even more beautiful is when you realise that they are doing the same thing. I have walked this road with different people and every time it has felt unique, there is no manipulation and there is no heart string being cynically pulled.
As you push on through the blizzard there comes a point at which you begin to slow down, where every footstep can be heard but through sheer exhaustion your character can barely muster a whisper. As you slow down you are urging your character on, you are urging them not to fail after having travelled so far but like much in life we are not predisposed to success merely because we attempted something. As I watched my companion slump onto their knees and then collapse I could feel the experience reach me, like the game had taught me something. I pushed on but made it only a few steps more. I died. More importantly, I failed. There have been few games that have dealt with death quite the way Journey has, the one that would stick out in my mind was the sequence in Modern Warfare in which you character crawls from a helicopter wreck only to die a few moments later. It is powerful stuff and too often games treat death as nothing more than a way to tell the player that they should have just been a bit better. However here it is a necessary experience, you can’t always expect to succeed, failure is a part of life no matter how difficult it is to accept.
We may fail at various things in our lives but the real failure is in not learning, in repeating the same mistakes that led us to failure in the first place. Journey gives us the ability to finish our task just at the moment we have accepted our fate and failure, resurrected by the powers that seem to have guided your purpose. It is a glorious experience when you are resurrected, flying through the air, unaffected and too powerful for the forces that had been a threat earlier in the game. As you fly freely, the rousing score aurally articulating your emotion, you feel the sense of purpose flood back but now you are fuelled by the desire to finish the task you were set and the want to make the most of this second chance.
On reaching the top of the mountain and looking down that long pathway towards the light I immediately looked for my companion, I did not look to run ahead and get the closure I wanted but instead waited to share this experience. And so, side by by side, we walked the final path together with the occasional song to one another, translated as a mixture of excitement, apprehension and appreciation. Walking into the light side by side with a stranger was one of the most affecting experiences I have ever had in a game; this person had stuck with me to the end with no advantage on their behalf. I found myself sitting through the credit sequence in some state of shock, desperately trying to digest what it was I was feeling and what I had just played.
The graphics were lovely, the controls simple, the design was immaculate yet somewhere in this digital experience I learned more about life than I had from reading a lot of classic literature. The complete circle of life was laid out as an interactive experience, there were messages about struggle, commitment and purpose. Some might say that I am perhaps reading too much into the game, and that could be true, but the genius of Journey is that it will be many things to many different people. What struck me with Journey was when I loaded it up a few weeks later is that I wanted to help people within the game, I wanted to make sure their passage through this world was as great an experience as mine was. Every time I have played Journey I have found myself thinking about how I deal with others, how I want to be treated, how I can help others and that failing is human. I cannot envisage a game reaching me, at my core, like Journey has but I would love to be proved wrong. The best game ever? No. The best gaming experience I have ever had? Without question.