Sep 24, 2012

Journey: A Game That Reminds Us of the Importance of Others



We had kept each other warm. We had given each other the courage to go on, the knowledge of where to go, and the warmth to keep our heads high. Our strength quickly and continuously draining, we would run to each other, our proximity fueling our hope. I watched that friend collapse in the snow, first to his knees, then completely. And he was gone. I had to face the final monster alone, the wind smacking at my face, the creature's eye locking in, flying close, throwing me. Alone. I knew at once what alone truly was.

It wasn't too long until I too passed, into the heavens, into the light, around the world, and back to the beginning. The list of companions that had made the expedition alongside me, after it was far too late to do anything about it. The menu reading "Start a New Journey". Of course, this was impossible. One cannot complete their life's work and immediately begin again. The weight of the body has departed, but the soul remains crippled by experience. Breathe, I told myself. It's just a game, I said.

Journey, a game released in the spring of 2012 for the PlayStation 3, won an avalanche of rave reviews upon its arrival. These notices mentioned the incredible score and breathtaking visuals, but more importantly, the seemingly slight game's heaviness. Journey was lauded for its ability to strike any number of emotions. Why this is remarkable stems from the complete lack of plot, the character's non-resemblance to humans, and the shortness of actual gameplay. 

The story is non-existent, save for the game's title. Your character is on a journey, attempting to reach the pinnacle of a mountain, a crevice bursting with light. You pass decrepit buildings, aid creatures resembling magic carpets, and occasionally meet, and play alongside, various other online players. These other characters can help you and teach you, but more importantly is their mere presence. 

Perhaps the boldest, most overwhelming aspect of the play-along system involves your character's scarf. This scarf gains a lighted rune-based design when charged, allowing the character to fly, until the light is gone. This charge may be gained by cloth that floats throughout the world. Or, as one quickly learns, by proximity to another player. You may charge your partner's scarf and they may charge yours. This reliance on each other quickly deepens the game. For, you see, it is never necessary to work with one another. Every level may be completed alone. But, as the game reminds us, isn't it always a little easier with someone by your side? 

By making companionship an option, rather than forcing it, Journey strengthens the bond between players. As in reality, relationships we are not pushed into often grow stronger than those we are thrown in. I no longer speak to my Freshman-year roommate, but one of my best friends lived just down the hall. I shared no connection when I was asked to; I had to find my own friendship. Journey benefits from this system for this reason. You know that the character next to you doesn't need to stay nearby when monsters are crawling all around. If they were forced to, it would mean much less. They instead are choosing to find comfort in your character. Two journeyers, less frightened together than they were alone. 

These monsters, as far as my knowledge and experience tells me, cannot kill you, nor any companion you are with. That death is saved for the end of the game. When climbing that mountain, striving for its peak, you watch your friend die. Then, after facing one last beast, you pass away as well. The ending contains a number of twists, turns that break the heart rather than the mind. I won't go into any more detail, but know that the game ends at the beginning, with the gamer tags of your companions listed before you. Your journey has ended. Those who helped you through it are not more than memories, names on a screen, seemingly signifying nothing. 

When completing the first few levels of the game, a detailed set of hieroglyphics grows more complete. The designs are beautiful, but don't have an immediate impact beyond that. Then a large, white hooded figure reveals that these drawings are a map, an archive, of your journey. Your character focuses on a specific section: you, and a companion, heads down, in the middle of a sand storm. It is an incredibly profound moment, and emblematic of Journey as a whole.

Journey is not made great through its music or artwork, though these both strengthen its power. The control system, placing a large gap between a slow trod through a storm and a beautiful flight through the air, again gives a greater impact to the game's themes. Those themes, that message, is what makes this a great, important game: Journey understands the overbearing, sad, beautiful, lonely, warm and tremendous weight of human existence. We gain friends and we lose them, we travel and adventure, we mourn and we celebrate. And then we pass. Our only hope is that before we go, we are allowed to see that mountaintop, celebrate the people we met along the way, and remember that every grain of sand we walked on was one piece of a beautiful journey.

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