“Lend me your wings, bird. I’ll spread them and fly on the thermals.” – Stephen King, The Gunslinger
“Nothing can match the treasure of common memories, of trials endured together, of quarrels and reconciliations and generous emotions. It is idle, having planted an acorn in the morning, to expect that afternoon to sit in the shade of the oak.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars
When I first stepped out delicately into the dune, my foot sunk in past my ankles. This was not the hardscrabble of a wind-raked wasteland, nor the moist bleached sand of coral beaches. It was the sand that Frank Herbert imagined in Dune, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry recollected in his Wind, Sand and Stars. The kind of sand that welcomes your toes in, a finely sifted sugar.
The Elementary Particles 0f Emotion
What makes Journey stand apart from other games that have made the natural environment central to the experience (i.e. Fallout 3, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., the Mass Effect series) are the ways in which rich colours, luscious landscapes and pliable terrain serve to ground the player’s feelings. Thatgamecompany’s attention to the landscape comes as no surprise – both Flower and Cloud invite the player to delight in repainting and reshaping the earth and sky, turning a drab scene into a visual and audial bouquet. But, like Flower, not all of the environments are cheerful and bright… Journey makes room for the industrial, the cold, and the ominous. But in each landscape, whether carried into the sky by the strong and dry simooms that whoosh through the hot desert, or struggling against the bitter katabatic winds that rush down from the mountain peaks and flatten me to the ground, each kind of experience is tightly wound around a cluster of feelings. Warm, flight, playful. Cold, march, laborious. Each element, earth, sky, water, and fire, express the elementary nature of our feelings by showing how the terrestrial comforts of the sand are inexorably intertwined with the joyful airiness of the sky. We need both lightness and heaviness, and warmth and cold, to be complete human beings.
A Different Understanding of Multiplayer
But, as many have pointed out, the game offers a new kind of multi-player experience. When I explore the landscape, I inevitably run into other people. At times, Journey randomly selects one other PSN player and injects them into the same landscape as I, and we are free to explore the lands together (or not). By whittling communication down to the expressive cry – a single musical morpheme – players can ‘sing’ to one another. As I run and fly through the lands with my anonymous play partner, I cannot contain the peculiar smile that erupts on my face: we are managing to communicate with one another using the primordial languages of human and animal expression alike… singing, dancing, gesturing, and gliding like whirling dervishes. The Endless Forest is the only game that offers a comparable kind of experience.
If Journey is poetry-prose that explores the long march from childhood to death through the four elements, then Thatgamecompany has managed to dig deeper into truly human existence than any other game I can think of. Sure, Journey can be broken down into game mechanics, architecture, plot elements and characters, but ultimately the experience it offers involve primeval feelings, and those who will inexorably analyze the game will miss the point. Games like Journey beckon gamers towards a deeper appreciation for what is basic to human life; I hope invites developers and game writers to work towards understanding gaming as an inherently human experience.
Update: Jamie Love has written the article that I wish I had written about Journey in the first place, over at GameSugar. It partners well with mine, and focuses on different aspects of the game that I wish I had. Go check it out.