Journey: The Lone and Level Sands
I’ve been meaning to play Journey for a long while. I didn’t own a PS3 when the game came out, and by the time I did own one, I feared that that no one else would still be playing it. It seems to me that most people seem to agree its greatest value is as a co-operative experience. Fortunately, the recent PS4 release gave me a good opportunity to finally check-out what all the buzz was about and not risk having to trudge through the whole thing with just my lonesome self.
As was detailed by creator Jenova Chen before release, Journey’s deeper creative aim was inspired by the stories of the spiritual journeys astronauts had went through during their voyages through space. It’s easy for most of us to abstractly understand that our world is just a relatively small spheroid rock that circles a star that is one of countless many in an unimaginably vast and mostly empty void. But to actually face the reality of such a fact first-hand, well, unsurprisingly most astronauts ascribe it to be a very unique and profound existential experience. And to try to capture those feelings in a game is certainly very high-concept and quite ambitious for a creative medium that is overwhelmingly concerned with lone heroes single-handedly defeating vast armies of enemies. Perhaps more interesting is how Journey developer thatgamecompany went about trying to artistically replicate how these astronauts may have felt. Journey has nothing at all to do with space and is rather about a small hooded being’s personal quest to reach the peak of a sacred mountain at the far end of a silent and sometimes dangerous desert. Well, at least I assume the mountain is sacred. There is no dialogue in Journey and the story is relayed rather cryptically through a series of silent supernatural visions.
But after reflecting on the whole experience, I think I can begin to understand how the developers expected all of this to resemble the grandeur of space flight. The hooded being feels small. Not small like an insect, but small like a human being. The desert stretches out vastly around him (her?). There is no civilization encountered during the journey, which compliments the solitude of the hooded being’s quest and reinforces just how insignificant he is relative to the immensity of the desert (and the world and universe beyond). I imagine this feeling of insignificance is precisely how the game seeks to allegorize the astronaut’s experience far above the world in the greatness of space itself. Actually, the whole desert reminds me of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias, a poem set in the desert that themes itself around the impermanence and fragility that exists in even mankind’s greatest accomplishments.
While the hooded being’s journey feels burdened with solitude, ideally he is not alone on his quest. The game is meant to be an anonymous co-operative multiplayer experience. Along the way, you will encounter other hooded beings who are other random players currently in the same area. These beings are strangers to you. Players are randomly and anonymously paired with each other, and there is no way to match up with people on your friends list. There is no voice-chat, and the only form of communication between players is through a chirping sound the hooded beings can make at a button press. You can choose to stick with those encountered and work together to complete puzzles, or you can run off and not deal with them. The game can be completed alone, without any help from a second player, but as I’ll explain below, this is not how you’ll want to play the game. I’ve heard and read many complaints about not being able to play with friends, but really, I think the unfamiliarity of the partners you meet along with the way is meant to reinforce how small both the hooded being and the player in the real world actually are. The game wants the player to be out of their comfort zone, and friends list connectivity and even voice chat between companions would undermine that goal. And after all, the world is not just vast in both space and geography, it is vast in the quantity of people that inhabit it.
This is important, because I think another thesis of Journey is that human desire for companionship is precisely rooted in their own relative insignificance within the enormity of the world. Multiplayer video game design has historically most often compelled players toward competition with one another. Even in cooperative games, players’ performances are often ranked against each other. In addition, many games give co-op players small ways to screw with one another (see Rescue Rangers, New Super Mario Bros., etc.) Journey, on the other hand, tries to eschew conflict between players to capture the importance of human companionship. There are no competitive hooks in this game, and it causes Journey to be a far more poignant experience. When I first encountered another player in Journey, I have to say that my immediate impulse was to try to establish that I was the better player. I’m programmed as a gamer to be competitive, after all. I wanted to be the one leading the way. I wanted to be the first to solve all of the quest’s (relatively easy) puzzles. I wanted to be the one finding all the collectibles and growing the longest scarf. But as the game wore on, I found myself less trying to be the dominant partner, and more just happy to be accompanied by another human being. I let go of trying to race to the next point of interest to make sure I could figure it out first. I found myself slowing down when the other player was having trouble keeping up, so that we could face the obstacles of the journey side-by-side. And I can honestly say that I think I would have felt far less satisfied if I had crossed the game’s final threshold alone.
Ultimately, I feel like I’ve heard it professed far too often that video games are nothing more than empowerment fantasies, and, honestly, while I’ve enjoyed hundreds of games that let me be an indomitable hero, I find it to be closed-minded to expect (or demand) that all games be of such nature. Journey is a prime example of something that deviates from this norm. It is not a game about empowering the player, rather it is about humbling them.