The game Journey begins without dialogue, without instruction, and without a narrative, with your character on a sand dune in the middle of a vast desert. In the distance you can see a mountain, and without being told, you know immediately that you must head toward that mountain. You’ll be compelled to. The thrill of most videogames is driven by reflex — a sort of kinesthetic joy — or the satisfaction of problem-solving, and sometimes a combination of the two. Though Journey has a little of each, its appeal is a sense of wonder and curiosity that drives the player to run toward the mountain.
But don’t confuse curiosity with exploration. There’s nowhere to go but the mountain — it’s completely linear — so why rush? Journey introduces the player to beautiful, exotic vistas, and I took my time, patiently meandering through the desert, floating through the air, and sliding elegantly down sand dunes.
But the most fascinating part of Journey is that it’s invisibly social. Journey is a solitary experience, and yet you play with other people. Without notice, the game automatically matches you up with other players who are wandering the desert. But in the vast, empty expanses of the desert, it’s easy to spot another traveler. You’ll naturally gravitate toward him/her, perhaps out of curiosity, perhaps out of loneliness. You don’t need another player to help you reach the mountain, but you’ll want company on the way there.
I met a fellow wanderer about twenty minutes into Journey, just as I had gotten comfortable moving around the desert. The other person was climbing some ruins. I assumed it was a “he,” but I had no way of knowing. In fact, I could never know anything about this person: how old they were, where they lived, whether it was a he or a she. I couldn’t really confirm that it was another person at all.
The anonymity is deliberate. Journey limits communication to a single noise — the other player can BING and you can BONG — which does little than get the attention of the other person (these interactions also remind me of Wall-E). I BONG’d at him a couple times, and he replied with a BING before quickly moving ahead. I followed him.
We weren’t necessarily a team, since there’s no advantage to working cooperatively in Journey. There’s also nothing players can do to harm each other either. I might as well have been playing by myself, but I intrinsically was drawn to the interaction of our non-interaction. The open, sweeping landscapes of Journey make gorgeous set pieces, but they’re also designed to make the player feel small. I felt less small when there was the two of us.
I generally hate playing videogames online, especially with people I don’t know. Anonymity turns a lot of players into assholes. (Anyone who’s played Halo online has had the unpleasant experience of being called any number of crass things by a prepubescent boy.) But stripped of communication and competition, the hyper-anonymity of Journey’s multiplayer is the opposite of that: it exposes the most sympathetic side of humanity.
I enjoyed the companionship of my anonymous friend. Our travels took us across the desert, from hot orange sands to cooler pink sands beneath a setting sun. Each locale feels distinct in tone and color. One memorable area paints the sand in a deep, dark blue, evoking the sensation of being at the bottom of the ocean. We both stopped to admire our surroundings. Maybe the environments are designed to be savored together.
But like traveling with any person for long enough, my partner started to annoy me. In one chamber toward the end of the game, he was constantly trying to jump ahead or glide around me. Nothing about Journey feels competitive, and that fact made his behavior even less tolerable. Sometimes he would BONG a bunch of times in a row to get my attention. As we got closer to the top of the mountain, the sands turned to snow. Where I once was able to effortlessly drift and float around, suddenly the game robbed me of my mobility and harsh winds slowed my ascent to a crawl. In the snow, I lost track of my partner. At that point, I thought, good riddance!
But when I finally reached the top of the mountain, I found my partner there. I was surprised. Whereas he’d spent the past half hour trying to leap ahead of me, here he was, waiting patiently for me to catch up. I wondered how long he had been waiting.
“BING,” he said.
“BONG,” I replied.
“BING BING,” he said.
“BONG BONG,” I echoed.
It was an acknowledgement of sorts. We’d made it.
The game’s ending, like its setting, is ambiguous. Journey’s developer, the also ambiguously named Thatgamecompany, isn’t interested in giving answers about what makes the mountain so special. Maybe this lets the player imbue their own story on Journey. I was just happy it didn’t posit any sort of heavy-handed allegorical meaning. A story would have been distracting from the experience. As the credits rolled, I felt satisfied. There wasn’t so much a sense of accomplishment or discovery, but a feeling of ease and comfort.
At the end of the credits, the game revealed a list of “companions met along the way” followed by the online handles of eight different people. I was floored. I thought I was playing with the same partner the whole time; I felt as if we had developed some sort of kinship. But I had actually played Journey with eight different people. It was unclear when each player was swapped in (or was I swapped out?), and suddenly, Journey took on a whole new meaning for me. It was no longer merely a pleasant, passive experience, like Thatgamecompany’s two previous games, Flow and Flower, but a thoughtful exploration of human relationships in their most basic form.
Journey may be more scenic than my bus ride to work, but it’s essentially the same linear motion. I ride it every day, and yet I almost never interact with anyone. Our impressions of people in real life are colored by the way people look and act; to speak to a stranger is a risk. Journey deliberately hides those features of a person; its desert is designed to draw you toward a person you’ve never met and know nothing about.
The relationship I had with my traveling companion was one I had imagined entirely on my own. I had given so much meaning to each BING and BONG, not knowing who I was even trying to communicate with. For me, Journey revealed that we inherently want to reach out to make a connection with other people, even in instances when that other person is faceless and nothing can be gained from them. Or perhaps only in those instances.
Whoever I was playing with at the very end was waiting for someone, but he wasn’t supposed to be waiting for me. I was a stranger, and he showed me kindness.
Illustration by Cory Schmitz