This article contains major spoilers for Journey.
I had a plan for all of this. It was simple, but meaningful. Thatgamecompany’s monumental 2012 PlayStation 3 achievement, Journey has withstood the test of time as a work of interactive art. For the past decade, it has remained an experience of sheer beauty, and that’s what this column was originally going to be about. I was going to isolate a moment from Journey’s emotional climax and spend a thousand words telling you why it represents a union of eastern and western religions, as well as a generation of creativity.
And so this past weekend, I decided to play through it again to refresh my memory, this time on its PlayStation 4 port. My plan was going pretty well for the first 15 minutes. I quickly found myself back in the beautiful groove of the experience. The glorious lighting, the subtle way the sand parts as I glide across the ground, and Austin Wintory’s transcendent score all came rushing back to me. I had made it through the first few areas without a hitch, entering the first “open” section where you have to guide your cloaked traveler to awaken various pockets of cloth that ultimately combine to form a bridge.
But that’s when it happened. While wandering through the valley and repairing the bridge, I spotted something in the distance. It shimmered like a mirage, but having played through Journey a dozen times before, I knew exactly what it was. Yet I was still surprised to stumble across another player — it might seem silly, but I kind of expected to be the only person replaying a game from 2012 on this specific afternoon in the strangeness of 2020.
At first I was hesitant. My brain said that I didn’t want the burden of companionship during my run through the game, whatever that meant. But looking back on it, I think I had just kind of forgotten what it was like stumbling across a new person. The fact of the matter is that I had met someone, which felt strange in a time when so few of us are able to do that.
I have no idea who I spent that time with. I’m not sure if they were experiencing the game fresh for the first time or, like me, revisiting it after a few years. We moved at a pretty similar pace, without having to use our words to figure that out. We liked poking around each area, looking for murals to uncover, scarf collectables to find, and even a few secret nods to past thatgamecompany games to stumble across.
We used the glow from our proximity as a means of keeping our jumping power charged, which allowed us to reach heights that we wouldn’t have been able to hit if we were alone. Sometimes one of us chirped in order to signal that we had spotted something interesting. Other times one of us chirped for seemingly no reason other than to assure our partner that we were still alive, and of course, the other one would chirp back.
I think it was the first conversation I’d had with a stranger in months.
We formed our own language as we made our way across the massive expanse of the desert. We’d chirp in excitement as we freed more and more floating squid-like creatures that helped us climb tall towers. Together, we experienced the beauty of the game’s sand-surfing section, where a combination of evening sunlight and a swell of music combine to form such a powerful moment of hope and optimism, before we were plunged into the terrifying darkness of Journey’s underground caverns.
Together, we slowly made our way through this tense and scary level, hiding from the giant mechanized serpents that we’d awakened from an ancient slumber. If I had been playing this alone, I would’ve just rushed through this section — I knew that Journey had no fail state, so there was ultimately nothing to fear from these armored predators. But I had no way of knowing if my traveling companion knew this, so amidst a flow of occasionally cautionary chirps, we stayed hidden in the shadows and inched our way from cover to cover, making it through the danger without ever suffering the wrath of our pursuers.
We moved on to Journey’s equivalent of the Water Temple, solving the puzzles with ease. I let my partner take the wheel most of the time — instead of just rushing forward to each solution or goal, I was content with moving just a step behind them, letting them have the satisfaction of discovering the solutions for themselves. By this point, I had become invested in climbing to the top of the mountain alongside this person.
I wasn’t going to set down the controller and go make myself a drink, leaving them unsure of whether or not I would return. We’d come this far, and we were going to see it through to the end. And so it was with this in mind that we exited the underground cavern and found ourselves at the snowy foot of our mountain goal.
Anyone who’s played Journey knows how this final push played out. The harsh winds and brutal cold shredded our scarves down to their most basic level. The elements prevented us from running and jumping and floating like we had done back in the desert. But we kept our characters connected, finding warmth and solace in the glow that formed whenever two players were in close-enough proximity. At this point it didn’t help give us any mechanical advantage or help boost us up to reach new heights — it just helped, and for the final push towards the summit, that’s all that mattered.
I’d died on that mountain a dozen times before. I’d watched my traveler slow down as they trudged through the deepening snow, eventually falling to their knees and succumbing to the elements so close to their goal. But this time, I did it side by side with my companion. I have no idea what was going through their head at this point. Our ability to chirp was one of the things lost in the cold. I don’t know if they were scared, or if they knew what was to come next. But I like to think that my being there next to them in the end might have helped ease their mind, even if just for a moment. I know it helped ease mine.
Of course, our time together in Journey didn’t end here. Our deaths led to our enlightenment, and so our remaining time together consisted of flying through the splendor of the game’s final area, a marriage of so many different philosophies and religions and ideas rolled together into a single moment of awe. I was genuinely delighted to be able to cap off our experience with a final celebratory push together, the two of us excitedly chirping the entire way up to the summit. There’s no way to say any final words to your traveling companions in Journey before reaching the ending, but I like to think that the chirps spoke for themselves.
And so we reached the end. I have no idea what they did after they had finished the game. I personally went to finally make that drink, and I like to think that just maybe they went to do the same. After sitting through the credits and seeing four separate names pop up under people I met along the way, not only am I not sure which one was my traveling companion, but I don’t even know if I was with the same person the entire time.
But honestly, that’s not incredibly important to me. Because for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon in the year 2020, I climbed a mountain with a stranger. For that brief period of time, when I was unsure of what to do, I let out a small chirp, and there was someone there to chirp back and let me know that I wasn’t alone.