I had avoided Journey for a variety of reasons. For one it’s a console game and finding time to play those can be difficult. It’s rare that I get an opportunity to claim the television in my house, it mostly being the domain of the other human being that occupies this space, so evenings and weekends were right out. I knew it ran about three hours and was the kind of experience that demanded a single session, so that meant three untouched and solitary hours on the couch, something about as rare finding an actual gold coin wrapped in faux gold foil. The experience needed to be perfect, unsullied by mundane concerns like eating, sleeping, or pooping.
In short, I had to ensure that Journey would be everything people had made it out to be.
I found the perfect time on the last Friday of my holiday break from teaching. It was around three in the afternoon, the sun starting to set behind me, the sheath of light landing just underneath my television. The floating particles of dust, illuminated by the afternoon sun, danced around my living room like fairies in some urban forest, making everything look just a bit like the movie Legend. Adding to the fantasy was the fact that my wife wasn’t due home for another 4 hours. It was neither too hot, nor too cold. It was just right.
Journey is the story of a nameless creature’s pilgrimage towards an unnamed mountain. That’s all you know at the outset and, by the end, you know about the same. You start far away and, with each level, get progressively closer to the looming peak that casts a single beam of light into the heavens. All you can do on your travels is jump, glide, and make simple noises that can activate creatures made of cloth that can help you. There are flying rug things that you can ride on, massive jellyfish that you can use as platforms, and then there are other things…things that have a much more nefarious purpose…but to say any more would be to ruin the game.
It’s the story of your journey, plain and simple. It’s hard to write about it because, in all honesty, my experience felt so personal that to speak for you seems disingenuous. So in that vein, here’s what Journey was to me.
When I finished the game, two and a half hours later, I was at a loss for words. The last time I had felt this way was immediately following the end of Godfrey Reggio’s film Naqoyqatsi. If you aren’t familiar the –qatsi trilogy of films dates back to the 80s with Koyaanisqatsi, which is Hopi for Life Out of Balance (go watch it.) They’re a series of films that seek to capture the essence of the human experience in relation to nature by combining a mixture of stock footage and original camera work with a haunting soundtrack by minimalist composer Philip Glass. There are no words, no characters, and no real story; it’s just an experience. You walk away from the film with a base understanding, something that drills down to your animal core. By dodging all of the associations we form when personalities and characters get involved, Reggio is able to connect with the viewer at a primal level, dredging up emotions that we might not have known were even there.
In many ways, Journey does the exact same thing. By eschewing character and plot, it bypasses the player’s Ego and Superego in a desperate rush for the Id, our emotional core. There’s no need for language or understanding, it’s simply a matter of experience and feeling. All of the ideas presented are either through crude pictographs, music, or sprawling vistas, all universal modes of communication. No matter what country you hail from, the underlying impact is the same. Journey transcends culture in its quest to relate with you on a human level.
It helps that the story of the hero’s journey is as classic as time itself. Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero With a Thousand Faces, traces the core of the story through a multitude of cultural traditions, identifying examples as far back as the Mesopotamian hero Gilgamesh. It’s a story we all heard while tucked in bed, no matter what language it was being told in. We know it so well it doesn’t even need to be told, it’s that ingrained in our identity as humans.
The most interesting part about this is that, for as personal an experience as the game is, you go through the entire thing alongside another human being. Assuming your system is online, you’ll always be paired up with another silent crimson protagonist during your travels. You can’t communicate with them outside of tonal bleats (that also serve to recharge each other’s limited jumping capabilities) but there’s nothing in the game that would require it. You’ll dance with them, guide them, and follow them through the varied lands of Journey, but you’ll never question them or chat with them. You’ll simply be with them.
What makes this so amazing is the entire rawness of the thing. Split asunder by the game, completely opened up, you’ll find yourself relating to this mystical other person with an honesty that you could never have with somebody who has a face, a voice, or even written language. You are simply there, in this world, with another human being. You are just beings together, nothing more and nothing less. The purity of the whole thing is magical. It’s the same feeling that makes a one night stand with a stranger so exciting, the sense of simply being in the moment, all of your ideas of self tossed aside.
(When we finished the game, the other person [I almost wrote guy, but now I realize it very may have been a woman. He or she played a decent amount of Uncharted, if that says anything] sent me a friend request on PSN with a single smiley face as the message. I’m fine with that.)
I haven’t spoken about the controls, graphics, or anything else relating to the “game” portion of Journey for a good reason: it’s not a game. To call it one would be to do it a grave disservice. It’s an interactive art piece, something that you bring yourself to in interpreting but don’t actually shift or mold in any concrete way. While it may be your journey, you aren’t controlling it any more than you control the pace with which you move through a museum. There’s no death, no score, no system advancement beyond a very basic reward for exploration. “Victory”, if you could even call it that, is inevitable. All the things that define a game are missing from Journey, leaving instead a pure sensation, a love story to the classic voyage that lies underneath everything from Star Wars to The Odyssey.
I know in my heart that Journey is more than a game because I want every person I know, from my wife to my ailing grandmother, to experience it. People who wouldn’t know left trigger from right, who think Konami is that pleasant gentleman that runs the corner store. It transcends the term in ways that few things have.
So should you play Journey? Absolutely. Set aside three hours, draw the blinds, and banish anyone who you wouldn’t want to see you stoically wipe way a single tear. Make sure you’re connected to the Playstation Network. Then, strap in and enjoy the ride.