Don’t Stop Believin’

The author apologises unreservedly for settling on the worst title pun in history, but stands by its relevance to this post’s featured game.

In my 20-something years of console and PC gaming there has never been another experience quite like Journey.

I loaded it up for the first time a little before 9pm and by 10pm my story was told and my mind awash with questions, the most striking of which being…

What on earth did I just play?!?

Rather than delve straight down this rabbit hole of symbolic mystery, let’s start with the happy snaps*. The imaginative and refined art style of Journey is certainly something to behold, but as always still images struggle to do the real thing justice. The particle effects and dynamic lighting you encounter in game really bring the environments to life, whether you’re traversing shifting sands, sheets of snow or just pseudo-swimming like this:

I’ll save my lingering analytical questions for the very end so as not to influence your own interpretation should Journey still be on your To-Play list, but if you’re really spoiler sensitive then I’d recommend stopping here.

No Heads Up Display. No map or Point Of Interest markers. Its just you and the world.
There is an overwhelming sensation of symbolic immersion throughout Journey. If only it always employed the clear visual language of these spiritual encounters.
The mural of your existence, as revealed and expanded at the end of each stage by one of the towering beings from the previous image.
Hard and uncertain times endured with an anonymous stranger.
Blessed relief and complete restoration celebrated with another anonymous stranger.
“So what do you think we’re striving towards?” “No idea, random companion…”

spoiler warning sign

‘Playing’ Journey felt astoundingly like analysing English Literature texts back at school. From the outset there was the exact same sense of searching for tangible, relevant information followed by attempting to discern the author’s potential meaning. Thatgamecompany‘s decision to go with an absolutely minimal user interface, a relatively limited set of character abilities and no ‘real’ dialogue compels your creative mind to fill in the contextual blanks. Basic premises such as Who, What, When, Where, Why and How – that in many games are laid out plainly for all to see – are here left to the player to derive for themselves. Because of this, Journey feels to me much more like a piece of visual or performance art than a traditional video game. And just for the record I see no reason why a video game can’t inhabit the categories of visual and performance art, especially when crafted with the care and consideration that this one exhibits.

At this point (now three weeks and a couple of re-runs later) the main unresolved issues in my mind follow this train of thought:

  1. Is the Bedouin setting and style a deliberate reference to Middle Eastern society of our day?
  2. Do the robes and featureless (masked in darkness) faces further Question 1 to a point of social commentary on the role and experience of women in certain non-Western societies?
  3. If Questions 1 and 2 are reasonable and relevant, what are Thatgamecompany saying through the empowering flying scarf fragments and the player’s role in their liberation?
  4. Are Questions 2 & 3 simply wild interpretive leaps based on my experience of contemporary, feminist Western culture as presented and reinforced through the myriad information channels of the digital age?

Thanks to those glacial hours of literature study at high school, I can’t help but search for subtext related to social, cultural and gender identity when gazing into the nebulous form of Journey. All I can say with certainty is that Journey riffs on the full spectrum of life experience – encountering things that empower and things that harm; being taken to and past the brink of elation and collapse – and the fact that despite the individual nature of our own existences we are rarely, if ever, truly alone.

If you haven’t played Journey yet and aren’t put off by the potential intellectual wrestle it may inspire, I think you will find that it is an hour and a half well spent. Especially if you can acquire it for free like I did…


PS: My final step in towards answering the questions of symbolism above was going to be seeking out interviews with the developers themselves, but having checked out the Journey page of their website I’m content to leave it satisfactorily unresolved. To wrap things up with TGC’s words:

Journey is an interactive parable, an anonymous online adventure to experience a person’s life passage and their intersections with other’s… The goal is to get to the mountaintop, but the experience is discovering who you are, what this place is, and what is your purpose.

*Does anyone still use the term ‘happy snaps’?? Feels like something my subconscious just dredged up from the ’80s.

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