Posted April 16th 2012 by Jordan Mammo.
The last thing I expected to do in the Philippines was jump off a cliff. Yet there I was, peering over the wooden plank before me and gazing down 50 feet at the deeply blue ocean below. It took 15 minutes to push myself this close to the edge, and I could hear the gentle but unbearable words of a Canadian man and his Chinese girlfriend telling me it looks worse than it really is. That I should "just do it."
Who the hell are these people? More importantly, how on earth did they convince me to sail out to this distant island and do this?!
We barely knew each other, after all. Conversation was often awkward. The Canadian guy didn't miss an opportunity to mention how much sex he'd had. The Chinese lady would get annoyed at seemingly inoffensive comments and enter periods of stone cold silence. It didn't seem to matter, though. The day before, we met on the sandy white beaches of Boracay, and without even realizing it we had hooked on to one another. Helmet diving. Cliff jumping. Drinking. I spent the better part of three days with these two: always trying to figure them out, always falling a little short, always grateful to have someone to share time with on the island.
The third night was when the Canadian guy told me how refreshing it was to meet people who didn't want to fuck either him or his girlfriend. At this point I started really questioning what it was that drew me to these two. How narcissistic was this guy? Or was he really just that insecure? Little did I know, the time to ask such questions had already passed. We were at a party, and the two started arguing. They went outside to escape the blaring music.
I never saw them again.
If videogames have romanticized anything for me it is the idea of the lone explorer. The single adventurer who steps out into a world full of possibility and freely navigates it at his leisure.
The sad truth is that traveling can be lonely. What at first seems like unlimited potential eventually gives way to the realization that the world you've entered is actually quite difficult to penetrate in any meaningful way. You more than likely don't know the language. Large swathes of culture are out of your reach, and local customs may bewilder far more than enlighten.
Titles like Dark Souls give some valuable pushback to the notion that the world is ours for the taking. On the contrary, it's presented as a mysterious, indifferent place with people and machinations that are completely over our heads. We bend and we break in an attempt to conquer it, to reach some solid understanding of our place, but the truth is that we will likely never be able to do so. The world will devour you. Tread carefully.
While Journey also concerns itself with how we move through the world, its atmosphere isn't nearly as bleak. It isn't interested in breaking your spirit or hardening your soul. It is far more curious about how we are affected by those brief, compelling moments when strangers cross each other's paths unexpectedly and alleviate each other's solitude.
When the game opens, I'm placed into the role of a meditative character clothed in red. Surrounded on all sides by vast sand dunes, the impression is one of freedom and mobility. But I can't move. Implored to adjust the camera, I circle around my character until a dune marked with three signposts comes into view. At this I stand, and I start walking.
Off in the distance is a huge mountain, light beaming out of it into the sky. And so I walk some more. With the help of a mystical scarf, I'm able to jump and fly for short bursts of time. Past the field of signposts (graves, perhaps?), over the golden sand exposed to the hot sun. I reach some mysterious pieces of cloth jutting out from the sands, and with a single, unrecognizable chirp I bring them to life, building bridges and unleashing bits of fabric that charge my scarf for flight. The flowing cloth, the shifting sands and my own airborne antics are hypnotic to watch in a way, but I also can't help but notice I'm completely alone in this deserted landscape. Limited as my voice is in this world, it does exist, but you wouldn't be able to tell from the silence.
Suddenly I hear something off in the distance. I stop, look closely, and discover that what I originally thought was a small ribbon dancing in the sandy background is actually another person! He (She?) is jumping towards me, chirping constantly. How long had they been there? Who are they? Why am I so excited to see them? We jump around for a few minutes and chirp cheerfully at each other.
Over at Kill Screen, Jamin Warren wrote that the most troubling aspect of Journey is that it "presents... a singular vision of its protagonist and its world." That "there is no moral ambiguity," and that it doesn't challenge you to question whether you're on the right side of justice. The truth is that when a stranger appears in your game, the world is alight with questions. There is only ambiguity. Despite its rigidity, the world is unknown to us, and so are those we coexist with in it. What Journey puts into focus are the meaningful interactions we can have within a confined, regulated environment. It speaks to a very real and human problem, and one with which most of us are concerned. The landscape Journey walks us through is fertile territory for videogames to explore.
This is the paradox of friendship during travel: for the brief amount of time that is available, we're able to meet mysterious, endearing people with whom we're able to form quick and substantial bonds, even though we may never understand each other's details. Journey facilitates this experience. Verbal communication is limited, and anything we can't get across by jumping or walking remains a mystery.
Sometimes your companions act in ways you may consider erratic or selfish. They pay no heed to your playful chirps; they wander around aimlessly or rush ahead to fulfill objectives. Sometimes they seem selfless and kind, like when they lead you towards hidden items you didn't know about. When they get lost or leave your game you may think they didn't like you. Yet, with so little to really base your judgments on, how can you know? Do you really care? As any traveler surely knows, their time with the people they encounter is unrelentingly limited. We may not actually know much about them, but we do end up caring about these strangers. They surprise and delight. They reinvigorate, and push us to do things we would have never done before.
At some point during Journey my partner and I discover our chirps recharge each other's scarves once their energy depletes. What's more, if we chirp at the right time while airborne we could continue flying and ascend even higher into the landscape. Once the timing is down, we barely touch the earth anymore. We soar through the skies together, reach up as high as we could go, and take in the view from the world's topmost heights.
We make it to the cool, blue ruins of an ancient building when, before entering a tunnel, I catch something shining from the corner of my eye. I turn to see a glowing glyph off on the other side of the room. I call out to my partner and decide to go after it. Leaping over, I greedily grab the loot, lengthening my scarf and thus my ability to fly. Chirping happily, I turn around to look for my partner.
He's gone. Did he not hear me? Maybe he's waiting around the corner ahead. I make my way over as fast as I can, leap around the tunnel's corner, and stop in my tracks. Nothing. I search frantically but to no avail. Just like that I'm alone again, a stark reminder that my companion was but a grain of sand carried away by the ever-flowing winds.
Journey is available on the PlayStation 3. This review is based on a retail copy of the game purchased through the PlayStation Network.
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