Journey does not demand cooperation, as it can be completed solo, but the cooperative jump mechanic is central to understanding this game. I don’t intend to write an entire column about jumping in Journey, so I refer you Jason Killingworth’s brilliant analysis of Journey’s jump mechanic, which touches upon the spiritual and the religious. For our purposes, suffice it to say that singing long notes in Journey charges your partner’s ability to commit a mid-air jump, and two people singing long notes in unison while staying close to one another can effectively fly.
The desert wanderer I controlled in Journey was dressed in a simple hood and a brown robe, but the fellow wanderer I encountered was dressed in a robe with an elaborate design, such that it looked more like a skirt to me. Perhaps that’s why I eventually came to think of my fellow wanderer and partner as a she, but I think placing a gender on her had much more to do with how I related to her throughout the game.
I knew there was something special about Journey when I decided, after beginning the adventure, that I could not put the controller down because it would mean abandoning my partner, and in the moments where I thought I had lost her in the desert, I panicked. I had a responsibility to stay with and help her. I wasn’t overtly thinking about Journey as being about romance until the first time she and I truly flew and it reminded me of lovemaking. That has to be the strangest realization I’ve experienced in all my decades playing videogames, but it was undeniable. Flying with her was excitement meshed with caution meshed with alternately leading and following and becoming a single entity. We sang to each other in long tones, making each other lighter than air, soaring through canyons and under bridges of rock, and from that moment forward I would not abandon her, even at the expense of not exploring areas I wanted to explore. We was more important than I.
When I made mistakes I felt terrible because I’d potentially hurt us in the process. There’s a portion of the game where you ascend a snowy path at the base of the mountain. You huddle in the shelter of stone tablets from the wind, and when ice starts caking on your body, which slows you down, singing warms you back up. Two partners singing together can warm each other faster. Sticking to the same path and staying together becomes increasingly important in this part of the game.
The snowy path opens into a valley where a monster flies through the air, casting a spotlight on the ground as it searches for you. I didn’t follow my partner closely enough. The monster fixed me with the spotlight from its single eye, dove and knocked me through the air. I landed and lay in the snow, frozen. She immediately came running, singing to warm me such that I could get up and take shelter, but I panicked when the monster loomed and I stopped dead in my tracks. The monster struck me again.
Your ability to sing in Journey is limited by how much energy your wanderer has stored, and by the time you reach these snowy areas, all the energy you walk in with is all the energy you will have for the rest of the game. Every time my partner warmed me up, she used up more and more of her energy. By the time we walked into a huge plain of snow, I prayed we would reach the other side again quickly because neither of us had much energy left.
There are few things worse than letting down or not being there for someone you love, realizing you’ve been selfish and while you can apologize and not repeat the mistake, you can never go back to that moment and repair the error. It was my fault we were freezing to death. She had waited patiently for me when I’d wandered, signaling to me with song when we were separated so that I could find her again, and had been my partner and companion for hours and now we huddled together, trying to warm each other in the blinding storm. Our pace grew slower. All I wanted to do was apologize, and then she fell into the snow, face first, and my heart sank.
I don’t want to say one’s ability to appreciate Journey depends on experiences so specific as love or romantic relationships. I think plain-old friendship suffices as context, but I don’t see Journey as a videogame to be appreciated solely within the confines of what takes place on the screen and the mechanics that create the experience. The ability of Journey to serve as a mirror to hold up to ourselves is why it matters, because that’s what the finest creative works are all about. They’re not about what the artist intended, or what we’re meant to get out of them, but the why of how we react, and what that says about who we are.