Seeking Other States, Other Lives, Other Souls: Lessons from a Journey

I originally pitched the idea for this post to Paul as yet another list, one that sung the praises of five independent games that I thought merited not only playthroughs but ownership. They were Braid, Limbo, Passage, Flower, and Journey. Apparently one needs a one-word title in order to get any street cred. Duly noted, independent gaming industry! I had played the first four repeatedly, and each experience was a great one. I had even managed to download Passage solely on the recommendation of a friend, so blindly began playing with no idea what to expect. That may have been the first time two separate playthroughs combined to make one profound gaming experience, as opposed to simply providing me with an alternate storyline for my character. But, more on that in a later post.

Journey was the only game I hadn’t actually played when I pitched this piece. Flower (a game by the same developer as Journey) was exceptional, and I had every confidence that Journey was going to follow suit, so I went ahead and added it to my list. Holy hell, was I right. Not only was Journey exceptional, it cemented my belief that games are unabashedly an art form, in spite of what a certain movie critic who shall remain nameless may argue. PS. Why are we taking what a film critic says to heart when it comes to video games? Do we ask what literary critics think about paintings? Or theatre? Or music?

Journey was, simply, one of the most profound experiences I’ve had, ever. The artwork was incredible, the gameplay was easy to master, and the soundtrack served to heighten my emotions to the transcendent levels that I’ve only been exposed to at the symphony.

I began my trek as a naive avatar, a mountaintop with a beacon of light clearly being my ultimate goal. Why? I couldn’t say, but I guess I’ve played enough games that I was able to recognize an endpoint once the camera decided to spend a cutscene panning to it. I wandered, discovering how the world worked, singing strange musical notes over and over (your character can’t speak nor can you use the ubiquitous headset as the player), and unlocked mosaics that clued me in to the history of my people. I slid down dunes, I learned to fly with the aid of several different cloth creatures, and I found glowing bits of light that lead to me gaining a scarf of Whovian proportions. The scarf was a kind of health indicator and power meter, I eventually realized. I played rather late at night, as is my day-job-possessing wont, so I was fully prepared to never meet another player.

But here’s the thing. Meeting other players is the bread and butter of Journey. And fortunately, I did.

I felt a legitimate thrill pass through me when I realized the other red-clothed being jumping and singing wasn’t just another creature enabling me to fly, but a real flesh-and-blood traveler. Or more precisely, the representation of a real flesh-and-blood player. Sure, we could only sing to each other (each note bringing forth a pictogram that identified us, so there was no question I was who I was, or they were who they were), but we both seemed happy to find each other in the wilderness.

We traveled together for a great while, working together to gain access to the next levels, both pausing to sit down in the sand to meditate. Eventually, though, my companion and I came to an impasse. One particular portion of the game required a simultaneous bit of flying and singing that I was unable to master easily, and he or she decided to move on without me. They gained access to a high ledge that I was unable to reach, in spite of my floundering, and decided to carry on their journey alone. It was the first of many moments where the individual need outweighed that of the duo. They moved on, and I understood why—frankly, my struggle was just this side of embarrassing and went on far too long. I continued to work my way through what I needed to do, hoping futilely that I could catch up with them on the other side.

Soon enough, yet another adventurer came across my path, saw my predicament, proceeded to sing to me until they had my complete attention, showed me what needed to be done to reach the high ledge, then floated back down next to me to await my success. I only needed to see their example once to get what I had been missing all along, and soon made my way to the previously unobtainable position. (Lest you think I’m the worst of all gamers. We all need a little help, now and then.)

So now I had a new companion. The next stage of the game was considerably darker, both literally and figuratively, and we spent several minutes exploring the inside of a cavern, seeking out the sprites that would lengthen our scarves, making sure each of us collected those the other had found.

Then came the time to move on to the next stage. My companion suddenly became very vocal, singing their musical notes again and again, and moving away from me with purpose.

I didn’t understand. And then they floated away into the darkness, and I couldn’t hear them anymore. They left me. I was on my own. I sang out forlornly, hoping against hope that my friend was merely searching for more scarf-growing orbs, but to no avail.

I carried on into the darkness alone.

And let me tell you something, it was scary. You all know how scared I get from video games, so I don’t need to go into too much detail when it comes to the giant stone dragon suddenly bursting forth from the sand in front of me. I was alone. I had a friend right before I came into this place, but now I had no one, and this dragon (eventually two!) was relentlessly searching for me, aggressively dive-bombing once its one eye caught sight of me moving in a useless attempt to flee. Every time it hit, a bit of my beautiful, long scarf was torn away.

I made my way through the barbaric ordeal, and eventually came to a sunnier level. It was still tough, but at least I was back in the light. And I even found another friend to journey with. Right when I thought I’d be alone forever, having gone through the worst with no support, I found someone else. Someone who ended up staying with me until the very end. I’ll save you the spoilers for the rest of the game. Suffice it to say I wept. And suffice it to say I was glad for the company.

The forced co-op is where this game excels (you can only turn it off by signing out of the Playstation Network). The game is easy to learn. The graphics are stunning. The soundtrack is killer. The journey is epic. It would be possible to learn and grow from playing alone. But it is only through other people that you learn what’s important. And I’m not talking about the pedantic “it’s the journey, not the destination.” That is true, sure. But where this game becomes weighty is in the interactions you have with your fellows. Stripped of all modern communication, you’re left with only bare-bones joy and despair.

It is about the journey. It is about who you take with you. But it’s also about realizing some people will leave you just before things reach their darkest. It’s about finding the strength to carry on alone when there’s no one to help you through. It’s about discovering that once you do so, there may be someone waiting on the other side; someone to share the newfound joy you’ve so absolutely earned. No other experience save life will teach you these things.

Are video games art? Embark on this Journey, then you tell me.

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  1. I bought this game not understanding the multiplayer aspect, I was sold by the fact it was made by the people that made Flower.

    I am not a fan of online multiplayer, never have been. They are features of most games I skip entirely. And the first time another player showed up in Journey I did my best to stay away from them and continue playing at my own pace thinking I had missed a setting to turn multiplayer off. I found out that that was indeed the whole point of the game and ended up forming some very meaningful hour long partnerships in the later levels.

    I saved someone from a dragon, I helped someone find a scarf piece, I was helped in finding a scarf piece, and I watched in horror as a long time companion fell off a bridge, putting them 15 minutes behind me. They were chirping at me desperately, asking me to follow them….It was emotional to say the least. I have since recommended this game to everyone I know.

  2. I’m no great fan of multiplayer either, Xeno. Most of time it’s like volunteering to be sexually harassed, in my case. That might be why I found Journey to be extra awesome.

    Unrelated note: I just came here to read through my piece, sort of “see it in print.” It is hilarious how many boobs and butts were flying by the right side of the screen while I was busy waxing poetic about Journey’s emotional effects. Yet another metaphor for life!

  3. From Braid to Limbo, I agree with you that biggest impact games seem to make on an emotional level now seem to be indie games. I sadly lack a PS3 right now, and can’t play this game, and it is something I intend to fix soon. Great piece.

  4. Madame, you can WRITE. Thanks for this. I’m afraid I’ve missed the indie game boat. I spend so much time saving up for and playing the endless big-name RPG’s and multiplayer shooters that eat up 100’s of hours of my life apiece that I just don’t have the time (or storage space) for these smaller ones and that is a damn shame because these sound like amazing experiences.

    My most recent moment where I mentally told said nameless film critic (who has historically been TERRIBLE at his job. Seriously.) to fuck himself was while playing Catherine. What. A. Game. Filled to the brim with metaphor and allegory and fusing puzzle, social sim, RPG, and platformer elements into a deep and unexpected story about the horrors of becoming an adult and settling down (or not) romantically, that sucker is epic in a whole new way. If Skyrim and Arkham City hadn’t been out the same year, it would’ve been the best game released in 2011 in my opinion.

  5. I wish it wasn’t Playstation only. I’ve talked with the developers and they said it wasn’t going to be released on another platform, I need to buy a PS3 or use somebody else’s. Anyone want to borrow me theirs for oh.. a week or so? (dunno if it would take that long, but I’d like to get some Katamari Damacy playtime in 🙂

  6. Catherine is just fantastic. I had no idea what to expect and was utterly surprised at how deep it goes. I’m with you trashcanman. Definitely among my top 5 for 2011.

    Adam and Remy, this game only takes a few hours, so totally use a friend’s PS3! Or house-sit for someone with a PS3 or something. It’s worth it, I swear to you. Remy, you can say it’s for journalistic research and Adam, you can say it’s because you have exquisite taste.

  7. I caught the demo for Journey and I loved it. I haven’t bought the game yet, but after this blog posting you’ve made, I just have to have it! And you ARE an excellent writer! I felt I was in every moment you wrote about! Very Nice! and Thank You!

  8. Thanks for the kind words, Doc. The game is more than worth a download. I believe it was $14.99 last time I checked, which is a pittance for such a great time. I’ve paid more for horrible movies.
    And I just learned they’re also coming out with a hard copy of the game on August 28th. The disc will also have the developer’s two previous games, Flower and Flow (both excellent), plus extras. I’m super stoked about the included soundtracks!

  9. I bought this game solely on your review Sara and I want to thank you for the best, most profound gaming experience I have ever had.

    The whole game is beautiful and compelling, and the way they give the backstory using nothing but pictures is amazing. I loved the simple gameplay and the way you could cooperate with random players.

    This is my GotY now.

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