Journey and Gaming as Art
I’ve written again and again about the value I believe games posses. Gaming is escape, it’s catharsis, it’s exploration and adventure; in short, gaming is art. Much like a play or a movie or even a moving orchestral piece, video games too can represent an amalgamation of talents that, together, create something poignant, evocative, and awe-inspiring.
Not every game needs to be considered a deep, serious masterpiece to be valuable, of course. There is merit in laughing together with friends at a good stand-up show or freaking out over the over-the-top effects of an explosive, Michael Bay-esque action sequence, if that’s what you’re into, and there is value in games that contribute similar enjoyment. But sometimes you come across a game that is one of those masterpieces. And no matter how much worth you already see in games from The Sims to Skyrim to Overwatch (recent Blizzard news notwithstanding), there’s something special, something extra, about a game that makes you really say “wow.” One that takes you somewhere new, makes your eyes widen again and again in wonder, and immerses you completely in a new, unique, and incomparably beautiful world.
Journey does all of that, and it does it without a single word of dialogue. It’s amazing. You start in a beautiful desert landscape with little idea of what to do. Moving around instantly becomes a delight. Your character slides over sand dunes, marches uphill, hops up stairs and, soon, flies. There is very little instruction and almost just as little direction, but figuring it all out is part of the fun that not only leaves you guessing but keeps you breathless. What’s coming next? The only way to find out is to keep moving forward. The gorgeous landscapes continue to change as you and your silent companion—someone a near-replica of your red-robed avatar who, like you, only communicates thought lights and alternating tones—make your way over sandfalls, float through underwater-without-quite-being-underwater biomes, and navigate windswept clearings. You encounter creatures large and small, each more incomprehensible and dreamlike than the last.
And always, you move forward. My companion and I (I dubbed them “Longscarf,” as my friends said part of the fun in the game is naming all the creatures you encounter), moved ever forward, at times directed by someone I call The Owl Mother, who let us know the mountain is our ultimate goal. Despite having a defined endpoint, we’re free to travel and explore at our own pace. There are amazing sequences of being airborne and dipping in and out of twirling flightpaths, slipping and slide down sandy slaloms with feet dug deep and cutting paths into the dunes, and our robes trailing hypnotically behind us as we swim through the enchanted air along with floating jelly fish and whale shark-like beasts made of the game's ubiquitous and mysterious red scarves. With each new area discovered, a new environment is uncovered, neither wildly different nor quite the same as where you just were, keeping each segment of exploration fresh, gorgeous, and captivating.
For a wordless game, Journey is surprisingly emotional. Originally developed for the PS3, my friends joked that the developers’ aim was to do everything in their power to show how gorgeous a game could be on PlayStation, and from the graphics to the characters’ movements to the score, they succeeded. Not since Shadow of the Colossus has a Playstation game made my jaw drop at its realistic (while somehow simultaneously unrealistic) beauty. And for a game where not a single word was uttered, I was amazed at how invested I was in my character (and their friend) at the end. A Rock Monster (my name for the beast) hit my companion at one point, and I audibly gasped. Not Longscarf! It was hard enough to see one of the little scarf-creatures destroyed by the brute, especially as the game up until that point had felt pretty consequence free, so it was shocking to see any type of violence, but my bond with my companion by this point had run deep. Through our wordless communications—cryptic though those pleasant tones and halo-like lights could be—it was obvious that we were in this together, and I was pained and frightened to see any harm befall them. There's no real way to fight back in the game, so my heart thudded in my chest as Longscarf and I continued forward, avoiding the beacon-like gaze of the hulking Rock Monsters as they surveyed the passageway we had to make our way through. I watched over my friend like an anxious mother hen as we navigated our way around jutting structures and through broken tunnels, avoiding the danger I had only so recently realized existed.
Journey does a great job of keeping you on your toes. You spend your time playing forever unsure of what exactly is going on while simultaneously reveling in the gorgeous experiences taking place all around you. You think you finally get a full understanding of what this world will throw at you, and that's exactly when a new challenge arises. It's an exhilarating mix of wonder and curiosity.
That's why I shouldn't have been surprised that the Rock Monsters wouldn't be players' last encounter with adversity in the game. The terrain grows harsh as you grow ever closer to your destination, and as you and your companion strive toward the mountain, your goal, the endpoint of your journey finally in sight, you find yourselves slowed by bitter winds, your scarves growing stiff in the sleet and snow, no longer lively and illuminated, no longer designating your ability to fly. You lose your ability to “speak,” and you suddenly become aware of how comforting those beeps and boops and the bright, circular light and little hops and spins you two shared had become to you, how even though you were never truly sure you were going the right way, or why exactly you were going there, you weren’t alone, and you could say so—in your own way—to each other.
At this part in the game, as our feet sank deeper into the growing snowbanks, our robed bodies hunched against the frigid wind, each step slower than the last, silent we marched on, and my heart ached for us. We’d been through so much, seen such amazing sights, survived such unimaginable things, we had to make it… didn’t we?
To me, this is such a fantastic example of what games have to offer, of the emotional journeys they can take us on, and the evocativeness of the creativity and collaboration that goes into them. Other than the title and the credits, the game has no words, but it manages to wow you, to make you feel—it'll make you elate and worry, mourn and celebrate, and form connections with voiceless beings better than games with books' worth of dialogue sometimes do. The music swells and simmers, pulling you along magical, gorgeous like an orchestra punctuates what's happening on stage, and it does it in a way that's immersive rather than intrusive. Everything fits together in a way that makes the game feel whole and balanced, with no one element standing out to overshadow the others. Visual, auditory, and emotional elements intertwine seamlessly to create an interactive masterpiece. If you can play Journey and call it anything but a work of art, I will be amazed. But I’ve yet to find anyone willing to make that argument, and, I imagine, likely never will.
As an aside, one thing I didn’t realize until I began writing this article is that apparently, my friend—Longscarf, as I insist on calling them—may well have been another player. There’s some debate on the topic, but when I was on my first playthrough, I was sure the other person was A.I. They always seemed to lead me in the right direction, always responded to my tones and lights (and gave their own when I was having trouble orienting myself to their location), and would come to find me when I struggled to get to the right area. Were they an experienced other player, benevolently leading me to the mountain, slipping and sliding with me, dodging Rock Monsters, and battling fierce winds at my side like an understanding older sibling, showing me the way? Or were they merely a computer creation, helping me not to get too lost in this vast, magical desert, where it can be all too easy to get turned around? I thought the latter, and unfortunately I didn’t watch the credits closely enough, as apparently, if you do play with another player, their name will be listed there.
Darn. Guess I’ll have to play again (and perhaps even a few more times, just to be sure) in order to figure it out.
But whether or not that mystery ever gets solved, I'll be satisfied. After all, it's all about the journey, right?
Enjoyed this post? See new articles as they're released by becoming a subscriber.