Life is not about the destination. It’s about the journey. I’m sure these are words that have been echoed throughout history, especially on the meaning of life. While death may be the ultimate destination that everyone will venture towards, it’s the construct of life and living itself that drives us through that journey with immovable determination. No other video game comes as close to visually representing this meaning of life quite like Thatgamecompany’s Journey, an experience perfectly balanced on the spectrum of art, metaphorical storytelling and gaming. If we peel back the layers of Journey, what can we reveal about our own nature and outlook on the journey of life? Let’s take a critical look at 2012’s poetic adventure about red-cloaked desert-dwelling figures on their extraordinary ascent into the unknown.
Warning: spoilers ahead.
A JOURNEY OF ONE AND MANY
Journey primarily takes place in an unknown location in a desert. A red-robed figure watches the skies as a shooting star emerges from a beam of light at the top of a massive mountain in the land. With his/her curiosity piqued, the figure immediately starts venturing towards the light on the mountain in hopes of discovering the shooting stars’ origins. That’s the just of the narrative in the game, at least for the time being. Players hop into the role of one of these red-robed figures and begin a quest to scale the mountain, entering various terrains, areas and forts scattered across the land on the ascent.
Players are immediately presented with plenty of questions. Who are these robed figures? What is the light at the top of the mountain? Where are we? Let’s start with the first: the robed figures.
The red-robed figures, without a sense of sexuality or identity, act as the perspective of the player. In the context of the game, they’re never given a clear introduction or explanation, but rather we’re lead to assume the role ourselves as if this was our journey; a mere desert-dweller on a harrowing adventure to discover the unknown. Along the way, thanks to the online multiplayer aspect of the game, players will come across other red-robed figures on the same path to the top. Without any social features like chatting or typing, each player must familiarize with each other through actions – a bare method of communication that hits with a more profound impact. With your partner, the journey becomes less about you and more about the bigger picture. Others are experiencing the same journey you are.
So what does this exactly mean in a metaphorical sense? Journey could easily be relative to the ambitions of life itself. With any profession or passion comes the necessary competition. However, Journey teaches us not to compete, but rather aid each other to the destination. After all, the penultimate goal isn’t to get their first, but simply get there at all. This can also be interpreted in a figurative way that makes more sense to the ending of the game. The light atop the mountain represents the light to the other side – the realization that all of us are the same and are heading towards the same inevitable end.
THE QUIET WORLD
Journey’s vast desert land takes on an identity of its own. Broken into varied areas leading up to the mountain, the world is a vibrant, lively wonderland of fantasy, peril, and unhinged imagination. Players are able to explore the lands at their own pace, each presenting something new to understand about the game’s world. For example, players come across flying centipede-like stone creatures that scan the desert with a massive eye for intruders. These creatures ultimately represent the blockades, trials and tribulations of life that often hold people back from achieving necessary goals. In the case of the game, it takes on the visual manifestation of the world’s primary enemies that deter you from climbing the precipice.
Journey’s world is a quiet, meditative one that is scattered with intrigue and mystery. The large-scaled structures, cold forts and open dunes all paint a sombre picture, periodically bursting with exciting, often breathtaking moments such as gliding on the flowing sands or soaring above the clouds. More interestingly, the world in Journey refrains from typical video game tropes. There are no power-ups, collectibles (outside of logic and reason within the games setting), or levelling up. It’s a mostly accurate representation of a dream-like desert fantasy that lends itself to much interpretation through the eyes of the player. Each person who plays Journey may take their own ideas with them from the experience, and that’s the compelling beauty of a game so intricately crafted, it expands beyond simply being a video game with a story.
INTO THE LIGHT
There’s no way to discuss the true power of Journey’s ending without spoiling the fine details. Once players have made their way through the rough terrains and areas, they’ll find themselves on a slow climb up the snowy precipice of the mountain, within a few yards of the light. In a surprising turn, the red-robed figure collapses and dies before the journey is completed, leading them to the company of several taller white-robed figures in a dreamy lit afterlife.
These tall white-robed figures appear throughout the game as points of guidance and reassurance. One could merely interpret them as guiding angels, seeing as how they carry your soul after your untimely death. However, what follows is an euphoric climax that continues to blow my mind regardless of how many times I play it. The red-robed figure miraculously ascends to the highest peak of the mountain and takes flight towards the light, all the while Austin Wintory’s absolutely masterful score leads the emotional charge. Players slowly enter and embrace the warm light, when suddenly they are shot into the sky as a ball of light, gliding across the clouds for another curious desert-dweller to see.
The game comes full circle at this point. What it details is the light being a representation of crossing over to the other side, entering a new realm of the afterlife in peace. Along the way, players would’ve most likely come across hundreds of totem-like objects scattered across the landscape, appearing to be tombstones. These tombstones represent the hundreds of red-robed figures who have undertaken the journey and died, as a brief scene of a tombstone near the peak of the mountain indicates your own place of death. What the light at the top of the mountain really is doesn’t matter. Much like death being the final destination, it doesn’t matter the circumstances of ones death, but rather the life (or journey) that was lived before it.
SO IT BEGINS AGAIN
Journey completes its cycle, and it seems like the player is forever doomed to repeat the journey for eternity. This is a stunning metaphor for the meaning of life itself; there is no meaning, but it’s what you make of it that gives life meaning. All of us, like the red-robed figures, are simply one and the same, heading towards an inevitability we don’t fully understand yet making the most out of the company of others and the journey that we undertake together. Thatgamecompany went through great lengths to illustrate this point in the most visually and aesthetically amazing way possible – so it begins again, from the birth of life to the time of death, what comes in between is the real apotheosis.