What follows may be considered an overly dramatic dramatization of what happened when I played Journey after it came out.
Journey came out some time ago, and I purchased it right away, knowing next to nothing about it. I had no reason to doubt that Thatgamecompany would give me another incredible piece of well-made and carefully considered artistry. I think my initial Journey had an atypical effect on me, thanks to one thing: I was totally unaware the game involved a multi-player aspect. And so I present a dramatized narrative of my Journey, interspersed with my reasoning at the time.
I started my journey the morning after it came out, ready to be taken on a wordless emotional roller-coaster. I started out and spent some time wandering through warmly lit ruins, exploring the environs and the mechanics. There was a sedate sense of wonder to it all, and the silent narrative, given in silent pictographs, led a sense of profoundness to the scattered ruins. I was alone in a vast world, off to learn something momentous. My words and my voice were my power, and as I moved through the world, I learned that words empowered each other. Through chance, as I was releasing swarms of symbol-bearing swatches into the sky, another traveler appeared at the mouth of the derelict cage. I thought, in a moment of meta-game mentality, “Oh, an AI companion.” I moved closer and gave a hearty chirp, which my companion answered. Delightfully, another layer of depth opened to me in the mechanics. After a few moments in which I playfully bounced with my partner and tested out this new information, I took a moment to absorb the scenery. My partner wandered to various sights along the stony escarpment, calling to me, patiently waiting for me to approach before we would activate whatever feature was housed within. With both our voices, we built a cloth bridge, and learned more about the history of the beautiful world we were journeying through. We released small flocks of fluttering wonders, and we soared through wind-whipped ravines.
As we approached a a dark tower, I felt the intended sense of menace. I understood the narrative of this lost civilization vaguely, and as my partner and I scaled scaled the foreboding tower, the sense of menace became visceral. Watching the way assumed war machines were still being methodically manufacted raised more questions and my hackles. Then my partner and I dove into the belly of the beast. Down in the tower, warm plentiful light was replaced with cool muted ambiance. I looked around for my partner, called out, but nothing. I was suddenly alone in this dark, threatening place with only forward to go. Nervously moving forward, I processed my changed situation in meta-game terms. “If the creators had intended the fear to be the mood for this area, leaving me suddenly alone to traverse this nest of living weapons would enhance that.” Mentally nodding to myself and satisfied with that reasoning, I pushed forward. After some startling encounters, I started to anxiously skitter from shelter to shelter, and eventually relaxed as the immediate danger passed.
Emboldened, I explored the seemingly undersea ruins and made my way forward. As I curiously looked into what appeared to be broken duct-work, I heard the familiar cry of my once-lost partner. I answered in what I imagined was a relieved shout and jumped from the broken ducts to find him. We ran towards each other, chirping back and forth until we met. As our reunion died down, it occurred to me that my partner projected a different symbol when he spoke. “Perhaps,” my meta-gaming logic said, “he's trying to convey a different emotion to me. After all, this place is much different than the previous areas.” As my partner began marching down the hallway before me, I called out. My symbol was the same. “Perhaps I'm the steady, stoic traveler. Some kind of contrast to the changing feelings of my companion.” I felt unsure about my logic as I trudged after my partner.
He seemed impatient to leave the darkened hallways; he hadn't waited for me, and seemed unwilling to explore any possible side routes. I pushed ahead as quickly as I could, trying to keep up, puzzled by this change in what I thought was AI programming. “I can understand the designers wanting to impart a sense of urgency, or a desire to leave this frightening and dangerous place behind.. but this feels heavy-handed. It doesn't feel like what I experienced before.” Rushing to keep up, I barely managed to reach the small monolith at the end of the area with my partner. As I sat next to him to receive insight into the purpose of my journey, I wondered if something had happened to my companion when we had been separated. “He's an AI,” I chided myself, “think of what message the developers want you to understand.” As the sage white-robed being gave me more context to understand what had come before, I felt confused by what was happening now.
The trend in my companion's behavior continued as we moved along, trying to travel through the complex and up the mountain. I remained baffled by the sudden impatience of this AI. I quickly became frustrated with him, as he rushed ahead of me, leaving me to trail after him. I became irked as I reached panel after panel of activated pictographs; I wished I could've been more a part of discovering that. I grew more and more upset and confused as my companion rushed ahead. I asked myself, “Why would the developers have programmed this behavior?” between bouts of swearing under my breath as I tried to keep up and kept finding more things my partner had rushed through without me. Finally, after what felt like a mad dash, I reached the tower's top level in time to see my partner sitting before the monolith. With consternation, I moved over to sit next to the baffling AI and and receive the monolith's knowledge. As I saw all this knowledge at once, I felt I understood the nature of my journey. Seeing the pictograph of the two red figures collapsed atop the mountain, I knew the true drama of my adventure was about to begin. Would my partner, the AI, keep pushing relentlessly forward? Could I keep up if he did? As the portcullis creaked open and I saw snow drifting through the wind, I decided that no matter what my partner did, I would make it up that mountain.
Stepping out into the snow, we faced the bitter wind and gripping cold. I had consigned the mystery of my companion's speech symbol to the back of my mind, and so payed no real notice to its shape as we continued up the icy cliffs. I did notice his behavior, though still brash and rushed, was more subdued by the cold. As the cold sapped my strength, I realized that we would need to stay close to make our trip bearable. Soon though, treacherous cliffs and stormy winds separated us. I kept to my previous decision and pressed on. “It's not like they'd make it impassible without the AI.” I reasoned to myself as I worked my way steadily across wind-cut drifts. Spotting broken-down shelters ahead, I rushed forward, only to falter a moment as I heard the panic-inducing cry of war machines. Shuffling from shelter to shelter, I made my way forward, avoiding their gazes. From below me on the slope, I heard the AI partner below calling out. I imagined he was making a long, searching call. I answered from the mouth of the shelter. He came closer, called again, and turned to move another direction up the mountain. He wanted me to follow him. He seemed to be walking towards some shelter I had missed in the driving snow. I followed after and we chirped back and forth to each other steadily, keeping our strength up. We came upon what I imagined was the last warm place on earth. We recuperated and for a short time, I thought that perhaps my partner's AI had finally calmed down.
Things didn't remain happy for long. As we ventured from our cave, we shuffled towards more of those familiar broken down hiding spots, and as I guessed, the flying war machines. My partner seemed impatient again, and I panicked slightly as he narrowly avoided detection from the huge thing. He seemed to falter on his hurried course, moving back towards me before chirping and turning back to move on up the slope. Again I wondered, “What the hell is going on with this AI?” Further up, my partner's impatience proved disastrous. Rushing ahead of our shelter, he was caught in the baleful eye of a winged machine. In a seeming panic, he floundered, then bolted back towards our shelter as quickly as his numbed body could manage. As it bore down on us, I could only hope our shelter would hold. As the construct smashed into our shelter and sent us flying from the wreckage, I let out a litany of curses. “This makes no sense! Why would they make the AI so STUPID!?” I yelled to no one in particular.
In the savagery of the assault my scarf had torn. For some vain reason, that infuriated me more than anything. I had made efforts to obtain that scarf, and it was all lost now, thanks to what I assumed was a horrendous lapse in AI programming. At that point, I decided that my AI friend would just have to keep up with me if he could. I would no longer wait for him. And so I picked myself up from the snow and pushed up the hill. Behind me, struggling to keep up and calling out, my partner once again attracted the attention of a flying sentinel. I never looked back as he gave out a series of panicked cries that rose into what I imagined was a pained scream as the machine bore down on him. I kept walking as I thought, “Good, that moron can keep it busy while I move ahead.” I pushed ahead, ignoring the calls from behind me. As the biting wind slowed me to a crawl my partner finally caught up to me. He called to me over the wind and I answered, trusting that out voices could help us overcome the gale. Back and forth we chattered, what I imagined were dramatic encouragements. But then I saw we weren't enough. Our voices were being taken by the savage wind. My cries became frantic even as they became weaker. Suddenly, in a brutal gust my partner lost his footing and slid down the snowy drifts. I could barely see him below me through the driving snow I couldn't go back for him, I felt so close now. I gave a barely audible goodbye and made my last few steps. As I collapsed, I wondered, “Am I dying? Did I fail because I left my partner behind?”
Of Course, I did neither. As I flew through the sky, the exultant sweep of emotion and power made me forget about my partner completely. I soared towards the beckoning light, the goal I had journeyed so far for. As I touched down before the final, scintillating crevice I looked into its light and wondered what lie beyond. Drawn into the light, I passed into it until all became white.
I'll leave my personal musings on the ending aside, but rest assured I was taken by the beauty of what I saw: a world that, though I had not explored it fully, I felt intimately tied to, and of which I felt a part. I reached my summary screen and saw the list of people I had journeyed with. I looked it over and for a few moments I was puzzled until things clicked. I had been playing with other players. The inexplicable changes and poor choices in what I assumed to be AI behavior now made far more sense to me. I was happy to learn that my mystery had finally been solved, along with the changes in symbols my partners displayed. Something about that bugged me, but I jumped back into the game and started my Journey anew, and spent a few minutes exploring the new features of the game. I saw other players from a distance and pointedly avoided them, hoping to stay off their radar and avoid turning them down if they wished to Journey onward. I spent a little more time wandering the desert and tripped on my face. A traveler happened upon me laying face-first in the sand and I imagined he laughed at me with the series of short chirps he gave me. Those chirps took on a sudden meaning to me, now that I understood there was intent behind them.
At once, several realizations came crashing in on me. The way I acted when I thought those people weren't real mortified me. My journey had been so intense, emotional, and personal.. how would I feel if someone had done those things to me? I felt ashamed and guilty for all the names I called what I supposed were AIs. I felt like I had abandoned people in need up on that mountaintop, when they were lost in the snow. Even the beautiful, wondrous ending I had seen felt like I had achieved it by simply using those people. I hadn't journeyed with them, I'd used them. and left them.
All of this came crushing in on me at once, and I looked at this other player standing expectantly in front of me, and suddenly felt like I was responsible for him, for his experience. I was tearing up. I stood up and gave the best reply I could at the moment, and followed after him. I stuck close to him, as if leading him through this level might relieve my guilt. I trundled through the level after him, feeling worse as I went until finally, at the end of the level, I sat at the gate and disappeared. I turned off the game, and for two weeks, every time I tried to start the game up again, my stomach turned into a knot. Just thinking about how I had behaved when I thought no one could see made me feel ill. I was terrified that I would feel like I needed to atone for that with every stranger I met.
My Journey had exposed parts of me that I wasn't comfortable with, and gave a telling example of how I internalized my interactions with people both familiar and strange. I attempted to discuss my reaction with friends and got mixed results. One friend seemed completely incredulous of my reaction, and began listing all of the ways that the game prevented "griefing" and began listing off the functions of the game that made It a more playable experience when accompanied by a partner. Seeing that my concerns about my reactions were being rebutted with mostly technical points, I decided not to press the issue. My reticence to play sprung not from the game or its mechanics but from a reaction to how I behaved during it. A few friends spoke with me on the issue at length and let me articulate further on the emotional nature of my reactions. Their suppositions into the meaning for my reaction were helpful in grasping what had happened. They all, however, suggested I play the game again. And so, after some waffling about it, I finally started another Journey.
To my great surprise, I met a white-robed traveler shortly after beginning my second Journey. He was an incredibly kind player who patiently guided me to the game's many hidden wonders. He was a patient guide, as I was still hesitant. The more he showed me, the more I watched how he guided me, the better I felt. And, somewhat surprisingly, the more I wanted to be like him. There was a moment, as we were soaring through the clouds at the ending, when we were separated. I was a little sad for a moment, thinking I had lost my partner, but as I neared the summit, I found him waiting there for me. As he and I crossed the threshold of light at the summit, I felt the same wonderment as before, but now with a wonderful sense of catharsis. My journey felt much grander than I could've hoped. I had made not only the Journey Thatgamecompany had laid out for me, I had made a Journey of my own design. Though it may be trite to say it by now, Journey was an intense and personal experience for me, and I plan to be doing a lot of traveling in the near future.