It has been 14 months since I finished Journey, Thatgamecompany’s most recent release. The appropriately named game sees players take control of scarfed and robed “travellers” as they go on a pilgrimage to a majestic mountain. The title is also an apt description of the game’s development cycle, which was extended several times due to the development team feeling like they have yet to fulfill their creative vision; and pushed Thatgamecompany to bankruptcy during the final months of development.
My time with Journey didn’t last very long, as I managed to complete it in less than three hours and in only one sitting (like most players did). I also chose to not play the game again after finishing it for the first time. However, the memories, and emotions brought about by my single playthrough have stuck with me to this day. What makes Journey so unforgettable? And how does it manage to become more memorable than games I played for over 50 hours?
In search of answers, I take an introspective look at my digital journey, and determine which parts of it affected me the most.
Right from the beginning, I recognized that the game didn’t have any text prompts or instructions, no heads up display, and the only seemingly clear objective was that I should go to the perpetually-lit mountain. As I made my way across the sand, I realized how simple my traveller’s abilities were when compared to the abilities of characters I controlled in other games. My avatar could only run, jump, float for a limited amount of time, and “shout” or emit a chime and a glowing symbol at the same time.
Just after the first “level”, I ran into a similarly clothed traveller, and because the game has no online lobby, both of us knew it was a random online encounter. Our PlayStation Network IDs were not displayed, and our only means of communication was the shout I previously described, which can be shorter or longer depending on how long or hard we pressed a button. This new traveller was as much of a stranger to me as I was to him; and I felt like this “encounter with a stranger in a strange world” mechanic was nothing short of groundbreaking.
Even without any explicit or direct form of communication, this newfound-companion and I decided to complete the journey to the mountain together. As we jumped and glided across deserts, caves, platforms, and bridges, we made sure to wait for each other and traverse through the environments side by side. I felt a strong sense of connection with my fellow traveller; someone who I knew was a real person but knew nothing about.
Around the halfway mark of my playthrough, I felt the need to use the bathroom. For several years, I’ve had a kidney/bladder condition which causes me to urinate a lot more frequently than most people. I pressed the start button to pause the game and was a little surprised to see my avatar praying. It turns out that this was the game’s way of telling the players I was travelling with that I paused the game. At this point, I thought my companion would just go ahead. He or she can still progress and finish the game by him or herself after all. After using the bathroom however, I was surprised that my companion was still beside my avatar, waiting for me to continue playing. It was quite moving on a personal level, as here was a person who I knew nothing about, could be from anywhere in the world, and couldn’t communicate with me directly, showing a conscious effort to say he or she wants to play the game with me so that we can finish and experience it together. It was the first time an online game I’ve played has made such an unbelievable scenario possible; and it was one of the most affecting video game experiences I’ve had.
Near the end of our pilgrimage, we found ourselves in a snowy range, where a floating stone monster threatened to ram both of us. As we braved the cold and tried to evade the flying creature, I was unfortunately spotted and was rammed by the monstrous being, sending me flying backwards and away from my companion. While this was a little frustrating, I saw something while my avatar was helplessly falling that lessened my frustration. It was my fellow traveller going out of his way to go back for me so that we can pass through the area together. He or she was even “shouting” while running towards me so that I can see where he or she was and know that my companion was coming back. I returned the favor when it was my fellow traveller who was struck by the monster.
Seeing another player, who’s a stranger to you in many ways, coming to your rescue while you are helpless, forms a lasting impression of friendship and concern. This was the first time I’ve felt this sort of connection with a stranger I met while playing online.
And that is why I think Journey succeeds in being a memorable experience. The game is able to elicit emotions out of players that no game before it has been able to. It makes players feel a strong sense of friendship, concern, belonging, and equality with other players; instead of constantly presenting ways on how you can outdo others via combat or competition, and prove you are the best like most games do.
The memory of playing Journey is long lasting because it affects you not just as a video game player but as a person. I played Fallout 3 for about 80 hours and it was a great game. The post-apocalyptic story was well-written, the open world wasteland was vast, and the story and side quests missions were a joy to play through. These are what I remember from the game as a player. However, I don’t remember anything in Fallout 3 affecting me as a person. It didn’t give me a new sense of myself and/or others, and it wasn’t able to make me feel emotions that resonate outside of playing video games. Meanwhile, one of the things that Journey made me realize is that if I can have a strong sense of connection with a random online player, there’s nothing stopping me from building better relationships with my family and friends.
As for how my journey ended, me and my fellow traveller reached the sacred mountain and finished our pilgrimage. The game concluded and the credits rolled. The companion trophy was unlocked; meaning my companion for most of if not the entire game was the same person. At this point, I realized that the three hours I spent playing Journey have given me memories that will last a lifetime.