All games are simulations. They use the cold, pure logic of mechanical systems to create warm emotional connections. It’s all a wonderful kind of manipulation, and when it works, it feels like magic. Journey is a great example of this kind of game, one that works its magic on the player whether we want it or not by reinforcing a certain thought process over and over again until the player unwittingly agrees to go along with it.
When I started Journey I didn’t want a cooperative experience: I actively avoided other people, I got angry at the mere sight of them, I didn’t want them solving my puzzles or showing me the way, yet by the end of the game I found myself chirping frantically for my lost companion, hoping he’d return.
It all stems from the scarf. You can only jump when your scarf is glowing, and you have to collect floating pieces of cloth to make it glow. That, or stand next to another player. This is all there is to Journey, at least in terms of cooperative gameplay. Making our scarf glow, giving us the ability to jump, is the only mechanic that the game uses to encourage a bond between players, anything more than this stems from the players themselves. If you don’t want to interact with people, there’s nothing else in the game that pushes you towards doing so. You don’t have to show them around, you don’t have to follow them, you don’t have to help them solve puzzles, you don’t have to let them solve puzzles for you, and I went through a majority of the game as a curmudgeon. And the game let me.
The final level has you scaling a snowy mountain, and the biting chill eats away at your glowing scarf until it no longer glows and you can no longer jump. It’s an excellent way of relating the pain of the cold to the player, but more importantly it takes away what has been, until now, our most important form of movement. This loss is devastating, especially coming after a sequence in which you’re essentially flying up a spire with an unlimited ability to jump. So you can’t jump, your walking animation is slowed when moving through snow, and then you have to hide from a flying creature that will eat what little is left of your scarf. Everything about this sequence is designed to make you feel weak—unless you’re with another player.
This is when the game turned for me. I met a companion just as we started the climb, and we stuck together the whole way so our scarves never stopped glowing. It should be noted that this part of the game is not a platformer. It never demands that you jump at any point (since you can’t jump if you’re alone) so we never needed our glowing scarves, but it was still reassuring to know that I had that ability. The game was able to evoke a sense of pain, support, and reassurance through a single mechanic.
But what I find it most interesting is that this mechanic only worked for me after the game threatened to take it away. So much of Journey is about giving you a sense of freedom, the ability to float and fly and explore as if you were in a dream, but this exaggerated reality is not new in games. It’s quite common. To experience it here was nothing special. It felt no more magical than hopping on the jet bike in Saints Row: The Third. But when the game tried to take that freedom away, and I still found a way to hang onto it, in however limited a fashion, that limited ability suddenly felt more freeing than it had before, even though I never actually used it.
It’s all matter of context. When the game gave me freedom, I didn’t care. When the game took away my freedom, then I cared. This is an example of one of the more powerful illusions games can create by virtue of their interactivity. The mere existence of an ability is enough to change the way we think. We don’t have to use it, we don’t have to need it, we don’t even have to want it, but the simple knowledge that it exists is enough to evoke an emotional reaction.
The emotional experiment of Journey that so many others have praised fell flat for me most of the time, but it saved itself in the end by changing its focus from provoking the standard gaming emotions of empowerment and wonder to provoking the more subtle emotions of safety and reassurance. I couldn’t resist.