Three meditations on Journey
The first time I played Journey, I was a sojourner in a strange land. I started alone, climbing a sand dune to catch my first glimpse of a mountain with a brilliant light glowing at its peak. As I walked toward the mountain, I encountered a glowing mark which wrapped itself around my neck and gave me the ability to float through the air. I found living scraps of fabric which carried me to a platform where I closed my eyes and saw a figure in white.
That figure would return as I moved forward to show me the story of the world and the people who came before me.
There is a balance every narrative game has to find between what the game gives you, and what it leaves for you to find. My first trip through the game was carried almost entirely by what was given. There was the experience of the world as I traveled through it, and there was the story of the world as revealed in the visions/cutscenes between levels. Every vision showed a little bit of where I had been, a little bit of where I was to go next, and a little bit of what had happened. It’s brilliantly difficult to be more specific than that, as the visions are images entirely free of text.
There is an entire meditation, in Journey, on writing. The visions are iconographic — the graphemes it uses are representations of embodiment and embodied action, and like all representation, it operates by demanding interpretation. The revealed story — the story communicated through the visions — is perfectly clear and perfectly ambiguous. Life, living cloth, both flora and fauna, emanate from the energy of the mountain. People begin to direct energy, first into greater cloths, and then into structures which use cloths as energy sources. The people attain great heights, and then the energy starts to flicker. There is a tearing of the cloth. New, terrible machines are built under storm and cloud. The world is covered in sand. A single traveler appears, and moves through the ruins of the world to the mountain.
All of this is recorded. All of this is shown. None of it is explained. None of it has meaning independent of the traveler and the player’s experience. The traveler reconstructs the story by moving to a place in the world where a new chapter can be told. While the story, like all stories, is dependent on an imagined past, the play itself re-creates the story from the very first play. Without the traveler, without the reader, without the player, the writing is just an encoded possibility, a hope for a story. Every book, every game, every story is a ghost, a trace, a breath waiting for a body to enliven.
The second time I played Journey, I was a companion. I was initially indifferent to others. The game has a trophy given when the player encounters 10 other players within the game. I earned this trophy on my first playthrough, as I moved forward and left other players behind. The second time, however, I met a traveler in a white robe.
Unlike most games with online multiplayer functionality, Journey doesn’t give players a way to talk to each other using voice or text. Instead, you can press a button to make a noise (which varies in tune with the game’s soundtrack) and create a single luminescent glyph.
There is an entire meditation, in Journey, on language. Because you can “talk” quietly or loudly by tapping the button lightly or holding it down with greater pressure, the game’s single hailing action can be incredibly expressive. I soon realized that the other traveler was calling my attention to places in the world I should explore. I found new ruins, hidden flowers, and secret glyphs which added to the story told in the visions. We had a way to acknowledge each other, to keep track of each other, and, most interesting of all, to chatter. Sometimes our speech had a clear purpose — “Come over here!” “Thanks” “Can you see me?” — but sometimes it was more a way to share excitement, or nervousness, or wonder. That is, it was a conversation in which clear communication was taking place, but in which that communication was entirely indifferent to individual words. It was a striking reminder of how much of a conversation is carried by tone and context rather than grammar and syntax.
As we moved through the world, the traveler taught me, and I was able to say thank you. In the moments of greatest beauty, we sang to each other. We were not only acknowledging each other, but acknowledging the world, and participating in it.
I returned to Journey after my two complete playthroughs for a number of smaller, partial attempts. After the game is completed, the end of the first, tutorial level becomes a gateway where the player can jump to any of the later levels, rather than having to play the whole game in order. I collected the glowing symbols I had missed. I found the final hidden glyphs. I earned a white robe of my own. I tried and failed to take on the role of teacher.
So the third time I played Journey, I put the robe away. I gave up the external signs of experience, and simply entered the world again.
There is an entire meditation, in Journey, on humility. While the story is dependent upon the player as a reader, an actor, a participant, the world itself endures unchanged. In most games, replay value is measured by variability of outcome — different choices resulting in a different story, different actions leading to a higher score. Journey has no score, and the world, the symbols, the glyphs, the visions, and the outcome are the same every time. You may approach the mountain alone or with a companion, clothed in brown or white, with a long flowing scarf or with almost no scarf at all. The mountain always strips all of these things away. The end is always the same.
And yet Journey is the only video game I can think of which I’ve played from beginning to end three times.
And the third time I played Journey, I met a traveler. Somehow, I was better as a guide in the brown robe instead of the white, and I showed my companion the better paths. As we approached the mountain, in the final wind and snow, we were separated, and I did something I had never done before. I waited. When my companion was blown from the path, I sat in one place so that he could climb back and we could finish the journey together. Even then, somehow, he got ahead of me without my having seen him, and I found myself rising to catch up. I’m still not sure if I was mistaken somehow about his having lost the path, or if I was inattentive, or if he found a new way. None of these things seems likely, but I know for certain that we were separated and found each other further ahead. My patience, apparently, was nothing compared to my companion’s, as he waited for me to finish waiting for him. We entered the mountain together, to begin again, alone.
The first time I played Journey, I saw the world.
The second time I played Journey, I learned the language.
The third time I played Journey, I was part of the world.
I may yet return.
Gavin Craig is co-editor of The Idler. You can follow him on Twitter at @craiggav.