This desert may look barren now, but it wasn’t always. Small stone markers line the shifting face of a sand dune – gravestones, perhaps, of a civilization that reigned before shrinking into sand. Half-crumbled buildings sit despondently in valleys of gold. Occasionally, in the spiraling sands, richly-patterned scarves flutter plaintively. Solid structures that may have once carried bridges stand stoic, now supporting only the sky and the glare of a perpetual sunset. It’s been here longer than you have, after all.
But life glimmers in the ruins. Life moves amongst it still.
As I revived old temples, pieced together bridges, and soared through the air like a superhero, I felt indescribably lonely.
STANDING TALL IN THE RUINS
Journey is about a lone figure’s travels through a desert; developers thatgamecompany are reluctant to say more. After all, it’s really a story that unfolds as you play, one sculpted largely by the people you meet within, if any.
The developers liken Journey‘s unique style co-operative multiplayer to hiking. You may see other players, the hikers in this analogy, dotting the sandscape, but whether you choose to hike together for ten minutes, stay with them for the entire game, or ignore them altogether is up to you. Adding to this, for better or for worse, is the limited form of contact you are allowed with others. Besides movement, the game only allows for two other methods of interactivity; there’s one button for singing at various pitches and lengths, depending on how hard you press it, and another for jumping (flying, if you’ve collected enough scarves). There are no player lobbies, no intrusive gamertags hovering over companions’ heads, no voice chat, nothing.
I had few expectations when the beta dumped me into this sad, glowing world without pretense. I journeyed through the game’s first few levels without encountering or even seeing a single other player. I didn’t think I’d be seeing too many others in a limited-access beta anyway, and I was content to watch my smiling, robed avatar kick through the sand, collecting scarves and floating on the wind when she could spare the energy for flight.
Solving the game’s huge-scale puzzles on my own felt empowering, but bleak. As I revived old temples, pieced together bridges, and soared through the air like a superhero, I felt indescribably lonely. The sand dunes swelled and fell around me in the wind, like the waves of a hungry ocean. I was the only soul in this massive, glittering expanse. I had begun to feel that it would be just me and the desert, until the game’s end.
I didn’t anticipate the flowering friendship that would take root in this parched earth.
SHE SINGS A SONG FOR ME
When I entered a new area and found myself standing next to another robed, motionless figure, at first I believed it to be some kind of character-duplication bug. I circled her tentatively, chirping a few times. My voice brought her to life, and she jumped happily in return.
I had made my first friend.
After exchanging a few trills and racing around each other excitedly, we set off into the desert. Sandy peaks and valleys spread before us, and a tremendous, royal-red kite dipped between the dunes, guiding us and filling us with energy. My new friend and I sprinted across the dunes together, occasionally taking to the wind. We sang to each other in varying tones, the ebb and flow of our song not too different to the sand that shifted beneath us. When one of us fell behind, the other doubled back to check that they were okay. We’d been together all of five minutes, but we were already inseparable, drawn together by the emptiness of the desert and a love of song.
I suddenly felt silly, like an annoying, yapping chihuahua.
When we came across the collapsed wreck of an old building, countless white ribbons burst from within, spiraling into the air like a dream. My nameless friend and I floated upwards on this pretty updraft, letting ourselves be carried high into the air, where we rested breathlessly in the sky and surveyed the endless spread of sand around us.
As we drew close to the base of a colossal cliff-face, I knew that I was going to spend the rest of my time in this game with this one person – for my avatar, that would be the rest of her life. I had found my Journey soulmate.
Together, we drifted towards the cliff, the screen fading to black.
When the game awoke again at the title screen instead of the next area, the sudden shock was overwhelming. The beta had ended there, as had my wordless whirlwind friendship. I would likely never see her again. If I did, I wouldn’t know it; she might have continued to live in a way that would change her from the happy, trilling figure I so briefly knew. She would look just like anybody else I might encounter in these sands.
HEAD IN THE SAND
The next night, as I sat down to play again, I wondered if my friend was wondering about me. Maybe she had returned to Journey to try and find me again? Maybe more of the beta would unlock, allowing us further progress through the game? Or maybe, just maybe, we would meet again and simply float in the sky for hours, watching time slip away like sand in an hourglass.
This time, I noticed another robed figure in what looked like a massive amphitheatre through which the disintegrated remains of stone structures arched. She sat pathetically by a large, flag-like ribbon. I approached her, circled her, and chirped.
She took a while to respond, and I imagined her fumbling with her controller’s buttons on her end. When she finally did, my heart sank. This was not the same, captivating friend I’d made the day before. This new person bleated the same short, graceless tune, over and over again, and didn’t respond at all to the way I bounced ecstatically around her. I suddenly felt silly, like an annoying, yapping chihuahua.
Nevertheless, I decided to stick with her. Maybe, like my real-life self, she was simply shy, and didn’t quite know how to express herself. She may have been having trouble with the game’s controls. Or maybe she was overwhelmed by the vastness of the desert, unsure of where to move next.
So I took charge, floating between the ruins with her trailing behind me like a lost child. Thinking that she may have had trouble solving the puzzles, I attempted to teach her through wordless demonstration. I stood on giant ribbon-flags until they glowed white beneath my feet, then stepped aside to allow my companion a turn. She never tried; she would simply stand, continuing to bark that one note at me, oblivious to my effort.
Journey’s beauty lies in its ability to harness the diversity of human personalities to create that profound experience.
I was beginning to feel ridiculous, like an unlistened-to mother at the end of her rope.
So I did what I do in any unpleasant situation: I gave up the fight. I activated flight, attempting an escape by propelling myself across the desert. To my near-horror, this antagonistic personality simply followed, shadowing me with her unbroken, discordant song.
As my avatar landed on sand again, tiredly, I had a sudden thought.
Was I being trolled?
Was this character really less than the unsure, awkward person I’d originally imagined her to be? Did she actually find tormenting me really funny?
And how was she able to antagonize me in a world with no speech, no text, not even names?
END OF THE DAY
These were the significant encounters I had with other players before Journey‘s beta closed. One was a veritable virtual soulmate, my partner in a gaming experience I’ll never forget. The other was, well, more irritating than anything else. How on earth had thatgamecompany made this possible with just two interaction buttons?
In a world without text, we’d been forced to learn how to use our bodies’ vocalizations and movements to differentiate ourselves from others. Song could differ greatly from person to person; where one person broke into a whimsical tune, another could baa like a sheep. Jumping indicated cheerfulness, and my circling of my first friend was a way of expressing my enthusiasm, my joy at having found someone else in a world so empty. For so few buttons, there was so much available to allow a player to shape his own story.
Journey itself does not create a profound experience. Its beauty lies in its ability to harness the diversity of human personalities to create that profound experience, altering every player’s experience each time they play and with each new player they meet. Both players I’d met, regardless of however sweet or antagonistic their personalities were, had adeptly employed what forms of interaction were available to them, making their mark on the world – and on my narrative experience. Both became a part of an intense story that I’d never anticipated before playing the game, and I was part of theirs.
I still think about my whirlwind friendship, sometimes, and I wonder if I impacted her game enough that she thinks of me too.
Katie Williams is a worldly traveller, author of two dozen unfinished speculative fiction novels, connoisseur of Japanese candy, and fan of hyperbole. Her blog is at Alive Tiny World.