Editor’s Note: Journey is one of our favorite games—it’s mechanically simple but emotionally complex, and suitable for all ages. In this guest article, first posted at UW Bothell’s digital media blog The Next, author Emmett Scout examines some of the reasons why Journey is such a special experience.
Journey is an unusual game. A deeply emotional, spiritual, and nonviolent indie creation, it broke sales records on the PlayStation Network when it was released in 2012, won numerous awards, and received a Grammy nomination for its soundtrack. The game follows a nameless, cloaked figure in its pilgrimage to a distant mountain across the desert. The setting is almost post-apocalyptic; the player-character travels through the ruins of civilization, learning the history of the land and the civil war that destroyed it along the way.
Journey is remarkable as a feat of storytelling—it has no text or spoken dialogue, and its rich backstory is conveyed through murals. But equally remarkable is its subversion of the player experience typical to most successful games. Many games are power fantasies, and in many cases the player experiences the power through the evolution of their proxy character. They gain skills and weapons and experiences; they level up. Along the way, they face steadily greater and greater foes, and as the challenge escalates, so does the strength of the player.
There’s nothing wrong with a power fantasy, but Journey does something very different. The only power gained by the player is the ability to fly for longer and longer periods of time; however, that ability is entirely optional, gained by the collection of hidden symbols throughout the game. The empowerment of the player-character is not an essential part of this story.
Rather, Journey is about enduring in the face of overwhelming hardship. The player-character—which has no official name—is small and frail, especially when placed in the vast environment of the desert. When, after traveling above ground for the whole game, players fall into the dark ruins below the earth and are stalked by the stone dragons, they don’t suddenly learn to fight or gain a new power with which to confront the dragons. They must survive using their most basic abilities to hide, or fly out of danger.
Instead of growing larger and more powerful or gaining other skills to cope with the increasing difficulty of the voyage, players are forced to face their struggles as small and frail as they are. This kind of player experience is sometimes used in survival horror games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent to invoke a sense of helplessness and frailty. In both Journey and Amnesia players are not fighters and cannot confront their enemies; faced with monsters, their only option is to flee or hide. However, where survival horror invokes helplessness, Journey invokes agency and endurance. Since Journey has no fail state—the player-character cannot be killed or otherwise “lose”—it allows players to endure even the worst attacks by their enemies without fighting back. The goal is not to destroy the monsters (which, Journey shows us, is impossible) but to keep moving in the face of hardship. If players endure, they will survive.
Eventually, as the environment becomes cold and hostile, the player-characters lose their powers of flight and can be bowled over by the wind. As they slowly freeze, they lose their ability to vocalize as well, and can only walk at a snail’s pace towards certain death in the heart of a snowstorm. It’s a slow and agonizing process for the player. One of my fellow editors, watching her proxy character struggle and finally collapse in the snow, remarked that it was the worst thing that had ever happened to her in a game. And she’s played Mass Effect.
What Journey does so well is portray the raw and human effort to do something that is necessary but nearly impossible. At the beginning of the final level, players are given a hint that they will not survive the last leg of the journey; a mural shows their character bowed before the snow at the base of the mountain. As player-characters weaken, it becomes more and more obvious that there is no chance of them making it through the snow. But although it’s the intervention of spirit ancestors that finally gives the strength to ascend to the top of the mountain, it’s the player’s perseverance in the face of certain death that underlines what Journey has to offer: not a power fantasy, but an analog to the struggles of small, individual people to overcome things much greater than themselves.