It Isn’t the Destination, It’s the Journey
After my first playthrough of Journey, I knew it was special. Not because it challenged me as a gamer, or because it required years of well honed gamer instincts under my belt to navigate a series of mind-bending puzzles. Journey doesn’t reward twitch reflexes honed over hours of online multiplayer FPS play, or try to subvert your expectations with a surprise ending that sheds light on the nature of control, psychology, or play. Journey does none of these things and is an elegant examples of masterful game design.
In most games, there is a meta-game being played, against the player, by the designer. It is an atypical game, and not one that most people would find fun, but then most people aren’t game designers. When you design, one of the first things you take into account is how others are going to interpret your work. You ask yourself what emotions and responses you expect from your audience and you adjust your work accordingly. This process also forms the basis of play-making and often sets up game designers as an opposing force to the player. From table top dungeon masters to social media game designers, the person managing the interactions is, in a sense, competing against you to achieve a specific result. In most cases the role of the designer is to act as a steward or shepherd and guide the player to an outcome but in terms of adjusting the game’s difficulty, the designer often acts as the opposition, adjusting factors in the game to benefit the game’s AI over the player. While the designers at ThatGameCompany are certainly looking for a specific set of actions, they don’t act in opposition to the player through the design choices they make.
ThatGameCompany has always been very open about the influence of Team Ico’s work on their games and in Journey it definitely shows. Aside from being a visually beautiful game, the set up is thematically similar to Shadow of the Colossus, but much simpler. The opening tilt up to the illuminated mountain is the only direction or instruction you receive in the game as to Journey’s overall purpose. With that one camera tilt you are sent on your way with no explanation or exposition. In that simple act, the beauty of Journey’s design shines, though you won’t know it until you complete your journey. I’m not going to spoil the game for anyone by going into the details, but I will say that everything you need to know about the game you’ve already been told.
Almost every review I’ve read of Journey refers to it as “an experience.” I understand what people are trying to say, but I don’t think that gets to the point of what Journey is. It is more than just an experience, it’s the manifestation of an idea in its purest form. Definitions are hard to write because they require succinctness and elegance, yet I would not call Journey a definition. Definition is just that, a description of a thing at hand, yet not the thing itself. Plato’s theory of Forms is a much more valuable tool to try to convey what Journey actually is. Plato argued that there must exist somewhere a true version of every material or immaterial thing. Forms were said to capture the essence of the object, with the object itself a mere copy of the original. In this sense Journey the game is closest to Journey the Form. Trying to describe it through definition or description removes us one more step from the ideal.
It is not a destination or an origin, it is a Journey.