You’ll be on your way up!
You’ll be seeing great sights!
You’ll join the high fliers
Who soar to high heights.
The best games are travelogues. Returning home, we regale our friends with tales of the things we did and places we saw. We battled five rows of eleven aliens for thirty minutes on one quarter! We joined the IRIS network. We commanded the Normandy. We fought. We puzzled. We explored. We ascended.
Was there ever a game more aptly named than Journey? Two years ago at IndieCade, I heard thatgamecompany’s Robin Hunicke share the studio’s aspirations for its new game: “A sense of wonder about the unknown. A sense of awe about an environment. Somewhere you feel very small.”
Journey delivers on those aspirations, but other creators (Fumito Ueda, in particular) have charted similar territory. What makes Journey special?
Journey goes to a transcendent place. It trusts the player to mine meaning from a set of experiences facilitated, but not determined by the game. Journey revels in purposeful ambiguity, but the game is far from a blank slate. It would be wrong to suggest, as Ian Bogost does in his must-read analysis of Journey, that Jenova Chen and company have built an arid, see-what-you-will space. Bogost puts it this way:
On the one hand…Journey gives no ground: the player must bring something to the table. On the other hand, the careful player may find the result as barren as it is receptive… [Journey’s story] could be a coming of age, or a metaphor for life, or an allegory of love or friendship or work or overcoming sickness or sloughing off madness. It could mean anything at all.
While I certainly agree that Journey refuses to communicate a facile moral lesson or adhere to a pat narrative structure - this game is not an interactive retelling of the “Hero’s Journey” - the game does embrace and communicate values that align with philosophical and ethical systems. Perhaps Bogost is right when he contends "surely every sect and creed will be able to read their favorite meaning onto the game.”
A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. We find that after years of struggle we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. –John Steinbeck
Thematic ambiguity invites interpretation, but when I play Journey, I see specificity. From where I sit, Journey is the most vivid and succinct expression of dharma and its underlying philosophy of liberation that I’ve encountered in popular culture. More specifically, Journey elegantly conveys sapta bodhyanga, or the Seven Factors of Enlightenment in Buddhist philosophy:
- Joy or rapture
- Relaxation or tranquility
- Equanimity (the ability to face life’s challenges with a tranquil and dispassionate mind)
These align with, and are expressed within, Journey’s seven main chapters (I’m purposely omitting the opening “tutorial-ish” chapter). I don’t mean to suggest these alignments are hard-wired, and multiple factors function simultaneously in certain chapters. But my experience playing Journey maps the sapta bodhyanga this way:
- The Bridge - Relaxation/Tranquility
- The Desert - Mindfulness
- The Descent - Energy
- The Tunnels - Investigation
- The Temple - Concentration
- The Mountain - Equanimity
- The Summit - Joy/Rapture
Does the road wind up-hill all the way? Yes, to the very end. Will the day’s journey take the whole long day? From morn to night, my friend. –Grantland Rice
Journey is about ascending. Journey is about seeking Enlightenment. At nearly every turn, the game establishes a beacon-like light, visible in the distance, glowing atop a mountain or seeping through a crevice. The player spends nearly every moment of Journey trying to reach that light.
Each trial tests one's resolve, but Herculean effort or force don’t work here. In this game you proceed mostly by letting go; sliding, gliding, floating, drifting - your movements reflect the values of this world. You will not be spared saṃsāra (suffering, decay, death), but you will also experience transcendent joy. Both are equally valuable, each adding meaning to the other. Both must be embraced.
Throughout the journey, we’re reminded of the interdependence of all things. The wind, the sand, the rocks, the water, the snow. Each hinders and facilitates. The environment itself is your awe-inspiring collaborator and your soul-crushing enemy. Working together with another player empowers both and can bring joyful communion, but in the end you make this journey alone.
The truth is of course is that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time. –David Bowie
Games fire our imaginations in ways we’ve yet to fully understand, but gifted designers see a palette of colorful experiences richer than the ones we know. With Journey, Jenova Chen and his collaborators have given us a magic carpet ride that resonates deep in the consciousness of players willing to let go and take that ride.
In my next post, I’ll leave spiritual philosophy behind to consider Chen’s design philosophy, the architecture of FLOW, and “optimal experience.” As always, your comments are most welcome.