How can you understand a game like Journey?

The third in a series of downloadable PlayStation Network videogames by thatgamecompany, Journey is about as expressive and aesthetic experience as you’ll find in the mainstream videogames of 2012. It is breezy and effortless to play, and one of those emerging genres of videogames that is just as interesting to watch (for those outside of videogames) as it is to play.

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The author—or the artist, as Ian Bogost would have it—is very much present in Journey, but it is also a game with no words. This journey must be undertaken without the crutch of the spoken or written word, but that does not mean that there is no language in the game. Equally, it does not mean that Journey is a ‘difficult’ videogame (that dreaded thing) that needs a critical reflexivity to enjoy. Interpretation in Journey is both shaped by the text—in the formal systems set up by the game’s authors—and left open for players to fill with their own contexts and readings. This should not be the case of the videogame player left rudderless at sea via the removal of the well-worn crutches of dialogue and text; instead it is the opening up of the space of the videogame, the removal of the sometimes requisite blunt structures of videogame meaning-making.

The act of reading is necessary in every videogame, but for Journey it is placed up front and centre—not the heart of the game but set at its face. Interpretation is not an optional extra for the critically aware, but a fundamental process of engagement for any player.

So, here are some ways in which we might start to read Journey:

1. The general fictional cues of the world. We play as faceless (or at least hidden-faced) nomads that travel through a sequence of set environments, liberating and playing with carpet-like creatures. We are threatened by large, confronting creatures who can damage us greatly if we are seen by them. These are fairly certain realities about the fiction of the game world. Can we piece together a narrative from these units?

Certainly, if (like for Dear Esther) we are willing to leave aside the ludicrous idea of discovering an interpretive key that will unlock the secrets of a text placed there by an all-knowing creator. For Journey, subjective questions are left open to interpretation, possibly along the easy-to-hand lines of narrative tropes. Why are these creatures imprisoned, and why can we free them? Why do we free them? Why do they seem to be able to aid us in our movements? It seems too simple a situation to read allegories of oppression and liberation into, but there we are. Perhaps our player character, our nomad, is a figure of trouble and division. It is difficult to tell one way or another, though most any argument could be made.

2. The signs within the world. Throughout the game, we are confronted with a series of what seem to be semi-conceptual maps. I say semi-conceptual because they are both directly referent to the spaces of Journey (in the way that Google Maps is directly referent of cities and streets), but they are also conceptual, depicting struggles and victories through symbols.

Some of these maps are within the landscape of the game, others are shown to us in non-interactive cutscenes. On these maps, we can see stylised representations of the landscapes we have passed through, the landmarks we encountered, and the path ahead. It is, in many senses, a clear representation of Journey itself, though its discreet signs are not always immediately comprehensible.

For example, at first blush I did not recognise the totems I was encountering in the world, and that were represented on the Journey maps, were in fact stylised depictions of my character’s race. Perhaps it was silly of me, but I thought they were simply iconic triangle type objects used to landmark achievements. It was not until the end of the game that all of these characters became colourised, and I recognised them as myself. It is this kind of context-lead tension that makes Journey so interesting.

3. The communication with fellow travellers. This is perhaps Journey’s most commonly remarked on facet, and for good reason. It is this that transforms Journey from an excellent videogame into something altogether more intriguing.

Throughout Journey, the player will encounter other human players from around the globe who happen to be in the same area of the game as you. You will not learn, until the end of the game, what the names of these players are, and you cannot communicate with them in the usual ways that we have become accustomed to in the space of online gaming. There is no headset communication, no preset emoticon-like language, and no text-based communication. There is only one button, which sends out a call, perhaps a song, or perhaps a wail. It varies in length depending on how long the button is held down for, but its limited affordances breeds perhaps the most rewarding online communication I’ve ever seen in a videogame. Players chirp in rhythms to each other, calling and answering, ignoring, pleading for attention. Maybe this cry is ‘hello’, maybe it is ‘go away’, or ‘look here’, or ‘do this’. It is easy to read into these bursts of inarticulate communication whatever you like, and that is its brilliance.

Humans have always had fantasies about universal languages. The central conceit of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, for example, is not that aliens exist, or that they would chose to communicate with us at all, but that aliens would chose to communicate with us in some kind of musical form. At the end of the film, the alien mothership starts playing the most complex, joyful series of musical phrases. ‘What are we saying to each other?’ asks an on-hand scientist. ‘It seems they’re trying to teach us a basic tonal vocabulary,’ says another. ‘It’s the first day of school, fellas.’

The Close Encounters five-note greeting still says ‘Hello’ as clearly as it did in 1977. Maybe we read into our Journey hails as much as we would like to with other forms of uncomplicated, decontextualised communication. We love our fellow Journey players because we can see in them what we would like to see.

4. The critical reaction to Journey. For these reasons, then, it is unsurprising that the critical reaction to Journey has been limited at best. Just as the protagonists of Journey are inarticulate of language, so is a lot of the world of videogames criticism. We cannot do much more, seemingly, at this point except point towards Journey and say, ‘This is pretty good.’ We are left wondering what it is exactly that makes the game so good, and our brief experiences with the game so memorable. We are left in want of reading.

How can you understand a game like Journey?


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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