To create a story that is entirely dependent on its witness, that uses no human language in the telling, is truly something else. Thatgamecompany’s Journey is something else.
I’ve played Journey an uncountable number of times. While my initial playthrough left me in quiet tears, each subsequent play brought a new kind of emotion to the table. In one, I lost my partner in a snow drift — sorrow. In another, the hooded figure journeying with me quit and dissolved into nothingness — abandonment. In still another I never encountered anyone — desolate loneliness.
But nothing in my Journey experience so far has hit me as hard as my latest travel through the world of shifting golden sand, when someone else — another figure in a hood of white, with the longest scarf I’ve yet to see — made himself accountable for me. Without question, without missing a beat between our initial meeting and that first hopeful “shout”. Someone else took responsibility for guiding me through the snow. Someone else, a stranger, looked at my stumpy cloth and decided that they would lead me on, watch over me, and stick close enough to hear my feeble cries as the wind and ice wore us down.
It’s one thing to have an unknown companion make the conscious, deliberate choice to follow you to the ends of the earth. It’s quite another to have him become your self-appointed protector. And this, this is what changed the story for me irrevocably, for I know that when I next venture into the game I will seek to protect a “baby scarf,” should I find myself journeying alongside someone with a shorter length of cloth.
Journey can’t be called a visual novel or a choose-your-own-adventure game, though it can be thought of as a soft cross-breed of the two. While the game relies on several short scenes to convey backstory and move the action along, they are neither long nor abrupt, weaving seamlessly into the tapestry of gameplay. These are no long-winded CGI cutscenes but brief “visions” conducted by the player’s character, the nameless red-robed figure.
While there is no way to articulate in-game, there are more abstract ways to communicate. Other than a few simple pictorial directions in the opening minutes, the game chooses to communicate with you through chirping bolts of animate cloth. These wispy flying fabrics will often lead you in the direction you should be headed, sometimes picking you up to carry if you’re too sluggish. The presence of cloth often indicates a puzzle that needs to be solved with a “shout,” the noise your hooded figure makes to activate special stones and revive “dead” cloth.” Other than this, interaction with the environment is completely open. You can fight back against the raging wind or take shelter behind protruding monoliths, make a straight path through the desert or stop at various oases to collect glyphs that elongate your scarf.
There is no right or wrong way to play Journey, and as such there is no right or wrong way to interpret where it leads you. Director Jenova Chen designed the game this way, leaving everything cracked wide open for translation. But that doesn’t mean there is no story. Journey is trying to say something, but what it is depends entirely on how the player reads the elements of the game. Placed onto a character blank with complete control over player-environment and player-player interaction, the stories that are spun are individual — completely unique.
So how do you tell a story without telling a story?
It’s all there. The exposition begins when the player realizes they are working towards the mountain in the far-off distance. Rising action begins with a steady pacing across the desert, then complicates as the environment changes, dumping the player into abandoned subterranean networks and pushing them up the frigid wind-scourged mountainside. The climax, the bittersweet release from your anguished trek, arrives in a heightened burst of sound, clear blue sky, and the ability to freely navigate the final level according to your whims. Birth, life, death, and that moment before the soul passes from the physical world — that ethereal “something else” — form the backbone of the tale. But what happens between this slender framework is undefinable, ever-changing and unquantifiable.
The story players adapt to in Journey is raw and real. It touches on the primal instinct to seek companionship, to avoid loneliness. Through explorations and glowing visions the player learns they have been placed in the wreckage of a fallen civilization, a desert of tombstones and tattered cloth. How they cope with their ancestor’s fate, as well as their own, is a string of decisions that are theirs and theirs alone. Players can choose to guide, be guided, work in tandem, or simply float along in self-reliance.
The experience Journey provides overflows the senses, so much so that someone has even created a Tumblr dedicated to sharing Journey stories. None are alike, but all carry the same breathless tone of wonder, the same softly intimated emotions. Based on their interactions, some assume the gender and age of their companion, an interesting twist as this ascription of defining traits colors their viewpoint and the way they transcribe gameplay. Immediately noticeable is one prevailing feeling: love.
Players talk of “falling in love” with the hooded figure that clings to them, of looking up to the one guiding them. People write of not having the heart to abandon another player, of becoming anxious when their companion falls out of view. Journey can be a love story, or a tale of utter abandonment and solitude. As human beings, though, we seek and place great stake in love — so love, naturally, is the core on which co-op gameplay is built.
Love. Love for someone whose name you don’t know, whose face you can’t see and whose voice you can’t hear. Love for a complete stranger, someone who you have no obligation to help and who has no obligation to help you. The sort of altruism Journey inspires is love in its purest form — the simple, unbiased desire to assist and accompany another being. No promises are made and no rewards are offered. There isn’t even a points system. All players know about each other is that they are human; gender, race, age are all unknown, removing all basis for judgement. What little of each other’s personality that can be gleaned comes from movement and the clear, ringing “shout.”
My own story ended with my white-robed guide carefully positioning himself before me as we made the final upward climb. His scarf, delicately fluttering behind him, flickered over my own robes as the wind whipped around us, granting me just enough power for a few more feeble jumps. When we fell, we fell together. When we were revived, as we twirled through blue skies and crystal waterfalls to the final mountain peak, somehow I lost him. Desperate, panicked, I flew up and down those kelp-like cloth structures. In the final moment, in the clutch, I had lost the one who protected me. He had led me to hidden glyphs, sheltered me from ice and those laser-firing serpents, and in those climactic moments of triumph I was not with him.
But there, at the top and just before the entrance to the mountain, beyond all of the pain and suffering we had endured, was my white-robed friend waiting for me. He chirped joyfully until my feet touched the ground, and then he circled me once, twice, three times. In his “shouts” I felt, or almost heard, him singing to me. He was proud to have been there for me, proud of me for making it — I could sense in the way he kept stopping, turning, waiting, making sure I was beside him as we walked into the blinding light.
Minutes after the credits ceased to roll, we had found each other on PSN. I received a message: “Safe travels, little one…”
A game that inspires love, real traces of human love, creates a story that bleeds beyond its own boundaries and lingers long after the console has been turned off. You are not watching scripted characters dance through a complicated plot. You are watching yourself, cloaked in red and gold, interact with others seeking the same end. The plot that unfolds is unscripted, organic. Real. True.