Never before have I experienced a video game even remotely similar to thatgamecompany’s Journey. The impact that its story had on me was profound and left me quite speechless at the conclusion. There are bound to be countless interpretations of the meaning behind the events in the game, but for me Journey is the most perfect expression of the human experience that has ever been created in the medium.
This was my Journey.
Spoiler Warning, it is highly recommended that you do not read this feature before playing though Journey for the first time. Bookmark this page and return to it after you have played though the entirety of the game.
While playing through Journey for the first time I knew that the game was unlike anything that I’d ever played before, however, during that initial playthrough I could not put my finger on exactly what was so special about it. As the credits rolled and the game returned to the title screen I sat in silence, trying to process all the events and emotions that I had just experienced. After several minutes of simply staring at the title screen, contemplating the journey that I had undertaken it slowly began to dawn on me what I had witnessed.
Journey’s story is far more than just the tale of a strange creature in the desert trying to make its way to a distant mountain. Journey’s true story is the story of us. The story of your life, of my life, the common experiences that make up all individual human life. Not the specific experiences that any one person has during their lifetime, but the general experiences that we all go though that define what it is to be human.
Every stage and element of Journey seems to be geared toward the goal of telling the human story. The best way to illustrate this is by looking at each of these parts to see how they mirror much of our lives.
Birth and childhood
As the game opens players find themselves in a vast desert, lacking skills gained later on and with no knowledge of how to use the few abilities they already possess. A mountain can be seen on the horizon, and with a lack of any other visual cues it becomes the only goal. This opening level is very similar to the start of human life. At birth and early childhood, we have no skills and must learn the basic abilities needed to survive from parents or guardians, much like the short tutorials at the start of Journey. Our only goal as children is to learn and grow up. A vague and distant goal to be sure, not unlike the goal of trying to reach a far away mountain for an unknown purpose.
It’s also worth noting that during Journey’s opening stages the game is much more open and the possibilities to move in any direction seem limitless. Those that have played know that, like all video games, this sense of freedom is an illusion. Journey is very much a linear experience, however, the endless desert provides a sense of freedom of movement not found in the game’s later more confined spaces. Again this mirrors the stages of life. As children we hold all the potential in the world, unhindered by having to deal with the ramifications of life’s decisions (because none have been made) the paths ahead of us seem limitless. However, as certain paths are chosen others close and over time our own paths become more linear, like the stages in Journey.
Starting with the broken bridge stage players must solve their first puzzle where the game does not directly tell them what to do. This marks the end of “early childhood”, where players are held by the hand and told how to proceed forward, and the start of Journey’s “preadolescent” stage. The puzzle, while not complicated, must be completed without a tutorial from the game, much in the same way that as children grow up they are expected to preform simple tasks on their own.
As a side note, this is also the first time that the player has a chance to meet others online and form relationships. This also mirrors human life, where many of us have our first relationships (outside of family) around this stage of life.
Much has already been said about how the game’s unique online structure and how it fosters almost instant bonds between players who actually never get to meet, so I won’t go into it in much detail here. What I will say is that much of the game’s emotional impact on me came from these limited online interactions.
In my many playthroughs of Journey sometimes I’ve been the student, other times the teacher, and at times on equal footing with my fellow traveler. I’ve found players that I bonded with instantly, and some where a connection was never formed. I’ve experienced joy at finding a companion, and disappointment when one showed up at times when I was hoping to travel alone. I’ve found humor in my interactions with other players, and deep sorrow when a treasured friend was lost. Journey’s ability to evoke these emotional responses though the game’s online system is simply astonishing.
The adolescence stage of Journey starts past the broken bride and back into a wide open desert. At this point players have likely increased their ability to fly to a significant level and with their new found power are given a huge landscape to explore. The cloth creatures in this part of the desert take on the role of an adolescent child’s parents. They provide gentle suggestions as to how to proceed, occasional assistance, but also the freedom for the player to find their own way.
This stage ends with the cloth creatures helping the player climb a dark tower. The mood of the game briefly change from one of pure joy and wonder, to something slightly more sinister. This change represents the slight fear of the unknown that is often felt as we leave behind our childhood and move towards adulthood.
Transition to Adulthood
The sunken city portion of the game is by far the most exhilarating part of Journey and also one of the most beautiful. Unable to stop their forward progress, the player slides down through the sunken city at breakneck speeds. This brief level is literally the player leaving behind their childhood (Journey’s early stages), their cloth creature guides (parents) and racing toward the next stage of their Journey (life).
The level is bathed in sunlight, beautiful, exciting, but it also ends with the player trapped in a deep dark cavern. The cloth creatures are gone, and you are left alone to venture forward into the dark unknown.
The trial section is the darkest part of Journey. The player can only venture forward through an ominous cave, filled with huge stone creatures that are bent on seeking out and destroying the scarf pieces that have been painstakingly collected. This level represents the stage in our life when we have fully left our parents behind, and move forward to forge our own way. This is often when we find out how cruel and unforgiving the world can be, like the giant stone creatures.
With the giant stone creatures that threatened to destroy them during the trial stage safely behind, the player finds themselves in an open vertical room with a massive tower. At first the task of climbing the tower seems almost too much, but it soon becomes apparent that lighting up the glyphs around the room fill the chamber with light. This light acts like water and gives the player tremendous power to fly higher and higher to their objective.
This level represents the middle stages of adulthood. Made wiser from passing though the pitfalls of young adulthood, we are often at our most powerful at this stage of life. Not yet hindered by the effects of old age, we have both the benefit of experience and some of the energy of youth. Overcoming life’s obstacles at this point still requires effort but we now feel as if we have the tools necessary to accomplish distant goals, like reaching the top of a high tower.
At the end of this stage the player is visited by a God-like creature, similar in appearance to themselves but much larger and dressed in white. This is not the first time that the player has seen this “God” (for a lack of a better term), but in this cut-scene is different from the ones before it. The player is shown glyphs depicting their entire journey thus far and foreshadowing the difficulties that lay ahead. For me this cut scene brings to mind someone who had passed the prime of their life and is reflecting back on their youth while also contemplating the unknown road ahead.
Old Age and Death
The next stage of Journey has the player traveling through the snowy mountaintop on their way to the summit. Progress through this level gets increasingly difficult, and as they push forward the abilities that have brought them this far slowly start to disappear, until ultimately they are barely able to move forward and eventually collapse in death.
This level of Journey mirrors the one certainty in all of our lives. The human heart is a marvel of design, but for as wondrous as it is, the heart is gifted with the ability to beat for a finite number of times. Some last longer than others, but at some point each heart will reach its final heartbeat. In this stage of Journey we are made to witness death. Death starts with the gradual loss of basic skills learned early on, followed by the death of any companion that has made the journey with us, and finally our own demise.
It was a shocking moment the first time I witnessed it and I have little doubt that it will go down as one of the most memorable video game scenes of all time.
After dying the player finds themselves surrounded by the God-like creatures, which resurrect the dead character and restore them to their full power. They are then shot straight into the sky towards a bright light where they emerge towards the top of the mountain and Journey’s version of the Afterlife, or Heaven.
While this stage is impossible to directly compare to what any Afterlife you or I may or may not believe in, because none of us have seen it, it certainly fits some of the more common descriptions of what life after death could be like. The area around the top of the mountain contains a beauty beyond anything seen in the life below, and the player is gifted with the almost limitless ability to fly as they race towards the light at the top of the mountain.
It’s an amazing experience the first time through and a fitting end to the story that Journey tells.
After Journey has concluded the game invites the player to start a new journey from the beginning, which for some will be interpreted as a reincarnation or second life. For those that believe in that, I can respect that point of view and interpretation. For me this Rebirth and second playthough symbolize a sort of child from the first playthough embarking on their own life’s journey. Armed with some of the knowledge of life’s perils that were learned from their “parents” (the first playthough) challenges are made easier but the experience is not exactly the same due to the change in companions that are met along the way.
That explanation of Rebirth fits my personal beliefs perfectly, but the game seems to be vague on purpose so as to support a multitude of different belief systems.
The entirety of Journey’s story is short, but this too is similar to our lives. From our current position the future almost always seems like some far away thing that will take forever to get to, however once there we often look back and feel that the time simply “flew by”.
In the two short hours that I spent with Journey during that first playthough I was born, lived, and died. I formed treasured bonds with people who I will never know anything about. I felt joy, wonder, sadness, regret, and loss.
For me Journey is the story human life, and it’s a story well worth experiencing.