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A Romantic, Tragic, Lonely Journey

March 31, 2012

The gaming world has been abuzz about Thatgamecompany’s latest PSN title, Journey. When it was released on March 13th, I was already itching to play it. I had done my best to avoid learning about the game so that I could play it with a fresh and open mind: all I knew was that the game begins with you starting off in a desert with a mountain in the distance, and the only logical step being to go toward it. That—plus a few screenshots—was enough to pique my interest. To my dismay, my schedule was packed with work and assignments, so I had to wait nearly two weeks to play it. Finally, last Sunday I was able to carve out the time at night to play. So, volume turned up and lights off, I began my journey.

Mine was a beautifully tragic experience. I caught a mere glimpse of what it could have been for me, and it haunted me. But before I explain that, I should speak a little about the game, for the uninitiated. If you’re at all interested in playing the game, please skip this post until you’ve played it: I do believe that going in knowing as little as possible is the optimal approach. Furthermore, I can say with great certainty that you will not fully understand this post or how personal my experience was until you’ve played the game for yourself. Here be spoilers.

Journey 101

Playing as a scarlet-robed figure, the only clear goal is to head toward the mountain. As you learn what you need to do, how to navigate, and what the purpose is for each thing in the world, you will undoubtedly come across another person: the game features online co-op. But whereas other games allow you to speak or type to your partner, Journey limits communicate to “singing”. Each player has a unique note or chord that they sing, and it’s up to the players to figure out how—if it’s even possible—to say something to the other: perhaps quick, frantic notes to suggest a direction, or maybe longer notes to get their attention from a distance.

Journey co-op screenshot

Imagine, though, that you have to leave the game for a second to let the dog out, or to go to the washroom—how do you communicate that? On the other end, if your partner has left (the character sits down when they pause), do you wait for them to come back, or do you go on without them? After all, maybe they won’t be back for many minutes and it’d be better for you to just continue. And what if you’re playing with someone for a while but suddenly have to go—how do you apologize? For the most part, you can’t communicate any of these things, and it’s because of this very narrow channel of communication that people have such profound experiences, as though the gritty specifics of human contact—who they are, what they’re like, what they say, how they say it—would just obscures the raw beauty of the meeting.

If you are abandoned, though, the game will soon match you up with another person. So you needn’t be alone. Of course, the online co-op is optional, and you can certainly complete the game without it. I would hardly suggest that you do, though: the tragedy of my journey depended on these (fleeting) connections.

My Journey

At the outset, I was determined to be loyal to my partner: my Twitter feed was flooded with people proclaiming the deep connection they felt with their (anonymous) partners; or else apologizing profusely to them for having to quit before the journey was complete. I had hoped that I would be able to meet one person and play the game through with them. But I met eight travellers in total, not spending long with any of them. Not for lack of trying, I assure you. Instead, I was abandoned and betrayed, and when I finally found a loyal partner, he was empty-headed and a burden. In lieu of recounting it in detail, I’ll share what I wrote immediately after completing the game. The experience left its print on me, and I was compelled to express myself at once—and although it was deeply personal and I might otherwise desire to keep this to myself, I wish to illustrate what a great game can do to someone. Behold:

I…am stunned, and hurt. My first companion left momentarily, so I sat with him and waited patiently. He came back, and we set off once again. I was glad to show him that I was loyal. Then he left again, and I waited. And waited. But I wanted to show him that I would be there. I would remain, and we would do this together. But then he faded away for good, and that was the end.

I continued. I met several journeymen. But none were of significance.

Then, I was blessed. She sang beautifully. When I chirped, she answered. And in rhythms! We sang together and danced. But the meeting was fleeting: she too sat down to reflect. I joined her. In mere seconds, she was gone! I felt real loss. It felt like I met the girl of my dreams, but then she was taken from me almost immediately. I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t.

I sang her a song at the place where she disappeared. Then, reluctantly, I went on without her.

Very quickly, I was joined by someone—is that intelligible singing?! Did she return??

Alas, it wasn’t her. It was someone else. He ignored me mostly. He just went past me and kept way ahead of me while I explored. We later met up again, but he clearly wasn’t interested. And so I was abandoned once again.

Another traveller was more interested in exploring needlessly, casting away the notion of continuing on toward the mountain. So when I sat down to meditate, he just continued running around nearby, ignoring the call.

Finally, I was cursed with a babbler. He sang, like my beloved, but his speech was empty, and he chirped without meaning, without structure, and without ceasing. He sang nonsense. Yet I was chained to him. I was forced to complete my journey through the snow with this fool! Why he even decided to ascend this mountain I do not know.

He was the punishment I didn’t deserve. I was loyal to all I met. Yet I was ignored, or I was abandoned. My journey was bitter in the end. I would have preferred to have returned to the quiet solitude of the desert, where no one would find me. Or leave me.

A Debriefing

There are a few things to note about my reaction:

  1. Despite the anonymity, I assumed—and truly felt—that the “girl” I met was indeed a girl.
  2. The idiocy of my final partner seemed to me objectionably true.
  3. I was deeply affected by the game.

The first two points are specific to the method of communication in the game. Is it not remarkable that so much seems to be said with such a seemingly inflexible mechanic? The Fool tapped his singing button incessantly and without rhythm, so it was clear to me that he was in no way holding this experience as sacred, which was entirely against the way that I was viewing it. Contrariwise, The Girl communicated with intention: when she had to leave briefly, she tapped the button quickly, then sat down, as if to say “hold up a second”. As we ran alongside one another, I would sing a note, and she would respond to me, and I to her. We bonded in the symmetry.

You should also know that you are limited in how many times you can jump: your scarf lights up with the amount of “jump power” you have remaining—when it’s empty, you are unable to jump until you can find some ribbons to refill it. Alternatively, your scarf refills if you are touching your partner or if they sing next to you. In such a way, you can remain aloft, flying together by continually singing. Together, these elements can build a feeling of intimacy between you and your partner: there is something powerful about touching another person. And it’s through this feeling of intimacy that Journey tapped into my romantic ideals: being in contact with and receiving the gift of flight from my partner made me feel like we had a personal connection, so I felt like it was a she.

I admit that I feel a little uneasy about confessing this openly, but I truly felt something for her, as is evident in my note above. So when she left so abruptly, my mouth hung agape in shock and I was torn. For a few minutes I had understand exactly how beautiful this game could be: I kept thinking, Just imagine if I could have played the whole game with her! Instead, I played the rest of the game with unstable partners, ultimately completing the game with someone I despised. How cruel!

These thoughts plagued me that night, and I lay awake for a long while as I wrestled with understanding how this game had affected me so, and why. The next day I could hardly focus on work, constantly turning my mind to the journey I had completed the night before. On the one hand, I could objectively suppress the emotions, knowing that I had felt them in a game only, but on the other, I kept asking myself why that should even matter: the game wasn’t real, but surely the experience was, and surely it had tapped into real things inside of me. Wait a second—am I now examining myself because of something I experienced in a game?

For the remainder of my week, I continued to think on Journey and what had happened to me. The immediacy and severity of the emotions faded and I can now think about it more clearly. But it suffices to say that Journey caused me to consider my view of games and the experiences they offer, and I will no doubt continue to think on it. In fact, I already have something planned out for next week: it’s applicable to many games, but was a train of though brought about by this game.

Journey—Alone

What Now?

Journey was overwhelming. I will forever remember that night, and its imprint on my perspective is already evident, and that excites me. I yearn for these moments as I look at becoming a game designer myself and seek out influences and learn to distinguish good ideas from bad. From what I’ve seen on Twitter and game sites, many people have been changed by this game, and its effects will surely be seen in games to come—it will be in mine, surely.

I think a logical follow-up question to this post is what I plan to do for my next journey, knowing what I do now—will I continue to be loyal, despite being abandoned? Maybe my loyalty will help a new player experience the game that I had wanted to!

But at present, these question are moot: I don’t plan on playing Journey again soon, if ever. Not because it hurt me, not because I’m too busy—but because why? And that question I will answer. Next week.

What was your experience with Journey? Did you try to stick with your partner? What other games have affected you in this way?

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Matt permalink
    April 9, 2012 12:00 am

    First off, I really liked this post. I’ve never seen your blog before, I stumbled upon it when I googled a question that I had about Journey that I’ll get to in a moment, but I just wanted to first tell you how much I liked this post and that I’ll be reading your blog regularly from now on.

    I came upon this post when I was trying to find the answer for what your companion sees when you quit playing the game. I just downloaded the game today. I played it for 20 minutes this morning, simply getting a quick intro to how the game worked and then I had to leave. When I got back to my house I started playing again and was quickly joined by another player. We travelled around for a while, exploring the areas and moving closer to the mountain. We worked pretty well together, not so much at first, but after a little while we began to stand by each other.

    After about 40 minutes or so I had to stop playing. I had been worrying about this since he or she joined me because I knew I wasn’t going to be playing for very long and I felt bad just leaving them. I was having slight anxiety about having to abandon my partner. I decided that leaving at the beginning of a new level would be my best bet because we’d be starting in the same spot. When the level began I paused the game because I wasn’t sure of how to go about leaving my partner. When I unpaused my partner was standing beside me waiting, which made me feel worse because he or she cared enough about me to wait for me. When I stood up he/she turned around and starting walking away, so I sang out and my partner turned around and looked at me. I sat down again and then turned off my console.

    I felt so bad about it. I didn’t want to leave my partner alone, forcing them to explore the rest of the world on their own. I couldn’t help but think about how they’d feel watching me sit down and then disappear (which is what I assume is what they see when I quit, correct me if I’m wrong). I’ve never felt anything like that while playing a video game. It’s crazy how connected you feel to the person that you’re journeying with. I feel better now knowing that they quickly get another partner, I just hope that the new one will help my partner out as much as I tried to.

    • April 9, 2012 12:14 am

      Hi Matt,

      I’m really glad you liked the post! I look forward to hearing from you in the future: it seems that you too have some rich game experiences, so please share your own perspectives in later posts.

      As for your experience with Journey, I’d like to say first of all that I feel some sense of…closure to hear the story of someone who was heartbroken over having to leave someone behind (in contrast to my own story of being left behind)—you’re right, by the way, that you would have just disappeared. It sounds eerily similar to my own experience, which makes me wonder how many other people have had this same thing happen and felt as we have.

      It would have been very interesting for the developers to force the left player to remain alone for the remainder of the game—I wonder what would have been like. Surely your own story would have had you feeling quite a bit worse, knowing that you’ve abandoned the other to solitude. That being said, I’m glad that I was able to confirm that your partner wasn’t left alone, and I hope that they had a positive end to their journey, too.

  2. wjomlex permalink
    July 20, 2012 3:14 pm

    Hmmm, I didn’t realize that you had this sort of appalling experience with your partners. I think I got a lot luckier. While I apparently encountered nine people, I only noticed four distinct ones, and I counted two instances of a nearby partner I couldn’t locate.

    My first partner was obviously new. The two of us ran around semi-randomly poking at bits of cloth. If he was an experience Journeyman, I probably wouldn’t’ve realized that he was human, so that was a good bit of knowledge. We stuck together for a little until he disappeared.

    My second partner was a whitecloak. I wasn’t entirely sure that he was also human, just because of the different clothing colour, and because he appeared *right* as a cutscene occurred. He taught me about how you could sing to regain your partner’s energy, so we went along through the latter half of the desert singing back and forth for constant flying. Right near the end of the desert I had jumped ahead of him and when I turned back he was gone. Where I didn’t take too much notice about my first partner, I definitely felt the loss of this one.

    I was alone through the bit where you first see the dragons, and I don’t think I’d want it any other way.

    My third partner seemed to just want to blitz, so we weren’t together very long.

    I had (what I perceived to be) one partner for the last quarter of the game or so, and it sounds like I was pretty lucky in this regard. He was another whitecloak, which I already suspected was a sign of experience (he also had a massive scarf). He taught me to take shelter behind pillars when the wind was blowing, and to hide from the dragons in the snow. That completely didn’t stop me from getting thrashed around and thrown across the map once though. Seeing my scarf half-eaten by the dragon was more devastating than I would’ve imagined. I’d been building it for some time, and had taken quite a lot of pride in its length, and how it whipped around when I moved. Indeed, I felt a need to instantly defer to this last partner when I met him because even though I’d been collecting all the scarf bits I could find, he still had a substantially longer scarf than mine. It was really quite comforting when my partner came looking for me after that dragon attack.

    We also had really good communication. He would send out large notes when I was falling behind so that I could find him, and I would send quick bursts of distress when I was lost. When we were walking together we would just… chat occasionally. At the very end he slowed a little to let me take the lead into the finale, and with both our scarves completely gone, I could only send out feeble “thanks” pulses.

    I think you need to go play this game again, Ben, and in particular, you need to play it twice. The first time might not be very meaningful, because your goal should be to become a whitecloak. But then you can play again as a shepherd and I think that would be really rewarding in a fantastically different sort of way.

    • July 20, 2012 3:21 pm

      Wow. Your story is very telling, and I think you’re right about needing to play again. From what you’ve said, I’m actually now very eager to become a guide for new players.

      I think I’ll play once offline to roam about, get the white robe, and take notes about the game design, then play subsequent playthroughs online as a mentor and guide. That sounds amazing.

      I’m glad that you had a great first playthrough and a good set of partners. I enjoy hearing of how you chatted and how you felt that your partners actually taught you things. It’s incredible how much you can communicate through such a simple medium, no?

      • wjomlex permalink
        July 20, 2012 3:25 pm

        Yeah, the communication is perfect 😀

        When I got attacked by the dragon, my first reaction was actually to be pretty pissed at the developers for having the audacity to damage *my* cloak that *I* spent so much time making… but upon reflection, it was a really good learning experience. My partner did warn me about this, so I don’t really have anybody else to blame.

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