There are various ways of controlling anxiety or stress: sitting down with a good book, taking a walk outside, or even enjoying a cup of tea with one’s current activity. Video games tend to be overlooked in this area. They are better known for being loud or fast-paced—not what someone would turn to if they were searching for calm, or emotional investment.
This is the obstacle Jenova Chen set out to overcome in Journey, the final game of a three-part contract between Thatgamecompany and Sony that came out on PlayStation in March of 2012. It eliminates the goal-driven structure most video games follow, instead allowing one to get lost in the surroundings and music. The atmosphere makes it easy for a player to feel small.
The story is told without any verbal narrative and uses cut scenes that are, at times, ominous. It was only after finishing the game that I decided to go back and read about the storyline, picking up on details that enhance one’s understanding but don’t hinder the gameplay if missed. Journey is the story of a now-ruined civilization. The player travels through the remnants, past floating centipede-like mechanical automatons that are on the lookout for intruders.
The premise itself is fairly straightforward: the player assumes the role of a strange robed figure standing in an endless desert. A large mountain looms overhead, with a light shining upwards from its split peak. The goal is to slowly make one’s way through the game in order to reach the summit. But putting it that way eliminates all of the things that are important in Journey. Here, the focal point is in the things that people tend to overlook when playing a game.
The music sets the tone from the very beginning. As the player guides the cloaked figure through the remnants of a destroyed civilization, there is already something meditative about the game. This is particularly evident when the figure’s scarf comes into play. Rune-decorated scarves and red ribbons are probably the central imagery of the game. The scarf lights up when fully charged by magical ribbons scattered throughout the environment. The charge is then slowly expended when you hold down the O button to fly. Later on, these ribbons form bridges, or make up huge floating jellyfish and serpent-like creatures. The player has to charge up at one creature before gliding on to the next one.
Large, white-cloaked figures reminiscent of Tibetan monks appear at occasional checkpoints to further elaborate on the story. The meditative quality of the gameplay is heightened by encounters with anonymous figures at various stages of the journey. These are controlled by other players somewhere in the world who happen to be at the same stage in the game. Players can communicate via a series of chiming tones, and can choose to work together by charging up each other’s scarves. These encounters build a sense of companionship that is strengthened by the anonymity and lack of competition between players.
Yet all of the above is still focused on the minute details of the game. The reality is that one must play the game in order to fully understand the effect Chen was going for. Despite how short it is—taking only a couple hours or so to complete—playing it feels like one has wandered into a tiny time loop. It’s a game that elicits melancholy and longing, as well as joy and relief, taking you from a vast desert into dark underground caverns guarded by Matrix-like automatons, then up the mountain and through a blizzard. There is one particular moment, at the end of the underground cavern before one has finally broken out, that I would gladly replay over and over again, flying from one ribbon jellyfish to another through a sea of golden mist as it rises higher and higher, until it finally bursts into a warm glow. It was a moment that sent a tingling sensation through me, making me understand what all the praise and near-perfect reviews were talking about.
At the end of the game, after reaching the summit, there is a beautiful cut scene of the player’s figure dissolving into an expanse of white light. A shooting star crosses the sky from the summit and follows the journey backwards, illuminating the other players who are on the same path. Once it fades beyond the sand dunes and the sun rises again, one has the option of starting the journey over again. Regardless of how cliché or predictable it may sound, Journey feels like an entire lifetime shrunken down into a few hours, at the end of which there is such an overwhelming spectrum of emotions that it is difficult to leave it behind. It’s a few hours of pure, unfiltered magic that has been skillfully woven into a narrative that doesn’t care about overloading the player with details or imposing criteria, instead it seeks to comfort and move, and does both in the most unique way possible.
-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko