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Discovering the Familiar in 'Journey'

Eric Swain

Despite having reached the end of each journey, after the nomad shoots into the sky and lands back in the desert to begin anew, players are somehow still willing to pick up their controllers and travel across the familiar landscapes again.

Journey is a game about discovery, but there isn’t a whole lot to discover in the game. When we think of games about exploration and discovery we generally think of large open world games or deep, procedural system-based games. Journey is neither of those. It is a linear platformer. Yet, the very ethos of the game is based around discovery.

The game in its cutscenes and in a few key moments does hint at a theme of spiritual discovery. The journey up the mountain to the bright light is as strong a symbol of enlightenment as possible, but the majority of the game is spent dealing with the visual spectacle of environments that you’re traveling through at any given moment. It is only during moments of reflection that the larger implications and meaning of the game filter through. There is a spatial component to the sense of discovery that allows players to replay the game with a continued sense of wonder.

Journey takes the player through a number of wonderfully lavish environments. Of particular importance is to note how grand all of them are. From the wide open deserts that seem to stretch out to infinity in all directions, to the scale of the architecture of the sunken city, to the blindingly infinite climb in a frozen snowcap of a mountain. These aren’t tiny or forgettable places. Even the most linear of them, the sand surfing through the city -- which is basically an on rails experience -- is memorable due to the exhilaration of the activity. It’s is a big change of pace from most of the rest of the game and stands out on that basis.

All of that makes the places that you visit memorable, but what about them make them continuously discoverable? Some of the answer could lie with how the game conncets you with other people. Experiencing something on one’s own is very different than experiencing it alongside someone else. The random matchmaking of the game allows the player to clash or collaborate with other people during the journey. It certainly changes the dynamics of play or at least the subtly of interaction and therefore the player's interpretation. But this in and of itself does not correlate to a continued sense of discovery.

I think that the answer has to do with a little of all of it. It has to do with the player’s spatial awareness, even in the digital realm, and the type of place being lived in. By contrast to large landscape games like Skyrim with so many caves and details to discover or procedurally created games and their infinite possibilities like those of Diablo 3 or even both at once a la Minecraft, Journey strives to create a tightly focused world with its every last pixel that has been hand crafted for days on end toward a specific artistic goal. Unlike the relatively cold expanse of Bethesda’s opus or the chaotic, meaningless environments of Blizzard’s game or the do-it-yourself ethos of Mojang’s title, That Game Company set out to create an environment not with expanse, but with depth.

Experiencing the same landmarks again and again is not without precedent. We do it everyday in our lives. Everyday I walk a few miles in the park near my house in the same loop. I know the path. I know it well. I know every incline and steep hill, the broken trunks and the exercise stations set around the track. It doesn’t change, and yet, I go. I see the same dozen people there at the same times every day as well. Part of it is that as a species we like doing things that we have already done, but another part of it is the sense of existing in a place. Traveling through the same locations as one has already gone through can be about experiencing the imperceptible fabric of depth and the metaphysical realism of a location's existence. This is easier to experience in my park by virtue of it being real than it is for Journey. But like a real place can be so fake that it scrambles its own spatial fabric (consider Las Vegas, for example) so can a digital fictional location imbue itself with enough meaning to create some similar metaphysical spatial depth.

Journey derives this potential from the previously described attributes. First, are the spiritual themes conveyed through the narrative, both inside and outside of the cutscenes. Second, are the grand memorable environments. And finally, there are the other players. Together they create enough connecting strands for this place to feel real by design in the player’s mind more so than simply seeing a digital avatar sand dancing between the polygons.

Now other games have achieved effects like this before Journey, and the titles that have done so will always differ depending on the player's tastes. Players can always imbue enough meaning into a work to make it seem that much more meaningful and personal than the text can reasonably support to an outside observer. That doesn’t make it any less real for them, but it does make the experience non-transferable. Journey feels like the first game to do this on purpose and relate it to the game’s own meaning. It improves the game as well. There’s something about a game that simulates the concept of traveling for spiritual enlightenment through its play, just as the game convinces you of its own tangibility.

I feel like that is why at the end of each journey, after the nomad shoots into the sky and lands back in the desert to begin anew, that players are willing to pick up their controllers and travel across the familiar landscapes again. They get a sense that there is more there than they found on their first trip. There are of course secrets and hidden symbols peppered around the different areas to help make an avatar's scarf longer and to allow the player to eventually earn the white cloak for that avatar -- and yet some still journey up the mountain. It is a game about self-enrichment, a story of trial, death, and rebirth. It never does end. In a cyclical pattern, the need to travel again saturates the fabric of the play space, causing it to feel more real and driving the need for enlightenment. The story bolsters the design, just as the design reinforces the story.

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