I have made this crossing over glittering sand nearly a dozen times, but this time is different. Two years ago to the day, Thatgamecompany released Journey. Now on its anniversary, to relive my affection for the game and meditate on its excellent design, I glide over the dunes. An entire year has passed since I last played Journey, but the weathered ruins and scattered tombstones seem instantly familiar. I have come to this place as a pilgrim, transforming play into ritual.
I don’t use that word “ritual” lightly. From my secular humanist perspective, the term carries with it connotations of the reification of religious norms, of repetition, tradition without logic, of ceremony without reason. There is a beauty in ceremony, but I often find myself on edge when partaking in any ritualized practice.
It was easier as a child to wrap myself in ritual. Raised Catholic, I found myself comforted by the processes of faith. The songs, the holy water, the mysticism of communion, all were magical. Perhaps most importantly, faith was a social experience. The ceremonies of birth, death, and various other celebrations brought family, cousins, and play. Rituals were about connections between people. They created a sense of belonging.
Crossing into the sand filled basin, I spot my first compatriot, a fellow Journey player in a red robe. Could they really be new to the game so long after release? I run to their side and chirp wildly, hoping to get across my excitement at finding a fellow player on a late Thursday night. My white robes, I hope, express wisdom and expertise. Gliding over the landscape together, over the crimson cloth bridge, I anticipate the ritual ahead of us, my spiritual companion and I prepared to meditate on the lasting meaning of Journey. And then I fall.
My companion continues on without me.
I now know this about myself: I am so very reliant on social validation. Yes, I crave social contact, but it’s more than that. I am vulnerable to its absence, as though I have no means of defining myself if not for the opinion of others. To be alone too often is a profound discomfort even in an existential sense. I know this as a weakness because I know the fear it evokes, the fear of being socially adrift, of being ignored, of being found wanting in the eyes of those I love and respect. It is an extrovert’s curse of anxiety.
Maybe for this reason, so many years after meandering away from religion, I see more clearly some of its allure. There is a great comfort in the reaffirming presence of others. A shared faith can feel like an immovable bastion, a shared experience that stretches infinitely into the past, present, and future. Rituals in this environment of mutual validation are reminders that cross chasms of space and time and bind the whole.
I have found a new companion, also clothed in white. For a moment, after meeting, we sat on a ledge without moving. Maybe we were both appreciating the view or the silence of each other. To play with this new ally was joyful. We leapt and spun and chirped like two birds first discovering their wings. We were sharing in the marvel of the game and like all the others times that I have played Journey, it felt transcendent.
Then, in the dark catacombs, I lost that individual. Fleeing from the stone monsters that stalked the hall, I made a triumphant dash down a long sandy ramp to safety and waited—only silence keeping me company. When no one came down the hill after me, I made the long trek up back into the previous level. I meandered around the ominous columns, exploring the empty dark expanse I, as a player, was never meant to occupy. Finally, with a heavy heart, I moved on.
What does it mean to engage in ritual alone? If, as Janet Murray says, “games are ritual actions allowing us to symbolically enact the patterns that give meaning to our lives,” how do solitary rituals create meaning without the social aspects that so often define our lives (Hamlet on the Holodeck, 1997)? Perhaps these solitary rituals must necessarily be acts of self-reflection or even confrontation. Trekking through Journey alone, I started to explore my own approach to the game and to my sudden sense of loss. More than ever, Journey became a ritual experience.
Even now, far from my religious upbringing, I still enjoy visiting Catholic churches after mass. With only a few visitors praying in the pews, the emptiness is relaxing. The hallowed space, adorned with elaborate tapestries or simple candles, evokes in me a sense of safety. An empty Catholic church is still a place of forgiveness and love, so even with all my faults, fears, and frailties, I take comfort in myself. Anyone who creates and puts their work out into the public knows how rare a grace this can be.
The last third of Journey I experience alone with only an occasional white blip showing the presence of a new companion, but one that I never see. I fly through the golden tower, spend time admiring the ancient glyphs, and trod through the snow, contemplating the years since I first experienced this landscape. I pause a few moments at the base of the frozen mountain, the final ascent marking my character’s death. Nevertheless, I make the slow, solitary climb and collapse.
I suspect that every year, when I play Journey again on the anniversary of its release, I will discover new meaning in this rebirth. This time, my flight though the final stage is both a crowning achievement and a pensive moment. It feels like a goodbye. Finally, standing on the final ledge, I linger, drawing shapes in the snow, waiting, just waiting. At last, I move forward, fading into the bright light, alone.