The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Pilgrim: revisiting Journey

In 2012, a game called Journey was published on the PlayStation 3. It was pretty much the consummate indie art game: there were no puzzles, no boss encounters. Heck, you couldn’t even shoot anyone. What you could do is control your avatar, a figure in a red robe, to walk around the desert dunes. You could jump and even fly, in very limited ways. And you could sing. And as you crossed the desert, you could bump into other robed figures and communicate with them – by moving around, jumping, flying and singing. Whoever you were, and whatever you were hoping to achieve in this desolate yet beautiful landscape: you were not alone.

Above all, Journey was elliptic: there was no text or speech in-game, other than the minimalist menu. There were murals you could find illustrating the journey you were on, but they were half-abstract, much like hieroglyphs found in an archaeological dig. It would be easy enough to read the entire game as one big metaphor for life, or the hero’s journey, or something, but the less overt the game’s themes are, the better it works. Talk about it too much and it becomes facile and shallow, but while you’re playing it, Journey‘s aesthetic, its look, sound and feel, and the way it plays, all come together to create an evocative experience. It should come as no surprise that Journey was heavily featured in the exhibition Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt on the design and culture of contemporary videogames, which ran at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2018/19.

One of Journey‘s most fascinating aspects was definitely its multiplayer element. Where most videogames define multiplayer as competition – who kills who first? – Journey took a very different approach. Anyone playing the game could come across another person who was playing at the same time and who was currently in the same section of the game world. You’d never encounter more than one person at the same time. Every avatar looked pretty much the same: small figure in a red robe, trailing a red scarf with some white writing on it. If you sang, the other player would hear it and see the symbol emanating from you. There were only small touches of obvious individuality: the symbol representing your song visually might be subtly different from that your companion could sing, and your scarf might be longer than that of the other person, or vice versa, depending on whether you had found any of the runes left here and there throughout the desolate landscape. Other than that, you were left to express yourself and your individuality through your limited range of behaviours: you might try to lead the other person to a mural you had found, or to the place where you’d discovered one of the glowing white runes. Or you might just engage in play, jumping, floating and singing to one another. Enjoying the company in a place that was otherwise solitary.

Sooner or later, the other person would usually vanish and you would continue your pilgrimage on your own. Your journey towards your destination, the glowing mountain in the distance, was always one you would begin and end alone – but these encounters mattered. They were as cryptic and implicit as the rest of the game.*

*With one exception: At the end of the game, you would see a list of the usernames of everyone who’d joined you on your journey, so the poignant moment might be undermined by you learning that the figure who had been with you on your trip through the desert? That was booteelover69. There’s a different kind of poetry in this, I guess.

A week or two ago, I felt like playing a game that wasn’t long and involved and verbose. I wanted to play something without aggression, something calm and meditative, something that wouldn’t expect too much from me in the way of interaction or challenge. So I started up Journey – this time on my PC, in the bedroom, on my own, where before I’d mostly played the game on PS3 or PS4, in the living room, while my wife was doing something only a few metres away. Journey‘s multiplayer component, the other figures that would share some of your pilgrimage to the mountain, is of course dependent on others playing the game at the same time as you, and on the same platform (e.g. PS4 or PC). By now the game has been out for years. And when I played it over the last week or so, it seems that I was the only one playing, which meant that my journey was solitary from beginning to end. I never encountered anyone else. No one ever sang to me, nor did I have anyone to sing to, in the rudimentary way the game offers.

At this point, I had played Journey from beginning to end, from the desert to the mountain, two or three times. The first time especially, I had someone there to keep me company for most of the game. The second and third time, it was more of an occasional thing: I might cross the desert on my own but come across another pilgrim while traversing the murky depths and hiding from the gargantuan wildlife. My solitariness on my most recent playthrough was amplified by my memory of coming across others in a previous videogame life. I knew that there could be others out there, I even expected to meet one or two of them – but they remained elsewhere, or really, elsewhen. No one was taking this particular journey with me, or even just at the same time as me.

Nine years after Journey first came out, it is still a beautiful game to look at and listen to, and it is still a highly evocative experience. It is still a highly atmospheric experience: sliding down its dunes, leaving a trail in the sand, or awakening the slumbering creatures by singing a high, clear note. And, who knows, perhaps I was simply unlucky and an hour earlier or later, there would have been players elsewhere in the world launching Journey and thinking, “I wonder if there’ll be anyone to encounter this time round.” But as I was playing the game, one year into a situation that has left many of us longing for some form of social contact, Journey felt almost overbearingly solitary this time round. Even its ending, which pulls off the unusual combination of melancholy and joy, finally felt wrong to the experience I had just had.

Perhaps a pandemic is the wrong time to play Journey. Perhaps these times are much better suited to the plasticky, neon, noisy and, above all, crowded chaos of Fall Guys. You’re never alone when you play Fall Guys. Perhaps that’s the gamified metaphor for life, death and rebirth that we need these days.

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