Let’s delve into the expansive and emerging world of Indie gaming , with its unique art and graphics, dynamic story telling, and style dripping from every pixel. Dan Price brings us on a journey of all things Indie: from insights on the industry and its developers to game reviews- he’s got all angles covered. Even if you’ve never picked up a controller in your life, this influential industry is something that’ll keep you on the edge of your seat.
Journey is an acclaimed third-person indie-adventure game, co-developed by ThatGameCompany and Santa Monica Studio in 2012. ThatGameCompany are a small but highly regarded developer who made a name for themselves by creating cerebral artistic experiences, such as Journey’s predecessors Flow and Flower. Journey was created as an antidote to the gaming industry’s obsession with violence, and as a statement that games can achieve more for players than instant gratification. Creative director and co-founder Jenova Chen stated in a VentureBeat interview in 2011 “The mission statement of Thatgamecompany, after all these years, is that we want to create timeless interactive entertainment that makes positive changes to the human psyche.” Revisiting Journey almost a decade later, I believe Chen and the rest of the team were able to accomplish exactly that.
Journey begins with a view of scorching heat waves rolling over shimmering golden sands. A sand dune in the distance is illuminated by the rising sun, and a score of deep cello chords vibrate through the arid landscape, giving the scene a mystical, archaic and otherworldly feel. Our protagonist emerges, cloaked and hooded with glowing white eyes. It’s seated, as if meditating, waiting for the player to begin. The player directs it toward the dune, footsteps leaving trails in the sand. As it ascends, a mountain in the distance is revealed. Starlight shines from its peak, guiding you to your destination. This gentle and entrancing introduction tells the player exactly what to expect from the journey that follows, inspiring exploration and intrigue.
The story is pieced together by exploring ancient ruins and architecture which have been swallowed by sands and time. Upon entering old tombs, the player discovers engraved hieroglyphics which allude to the journey ahead. Through these engravings you also piece together your ancestry; a tale of migration to the mountain, overcoming obstacles, terrain, and a mysterious opposing life force. Throughout the world, there are broken fabric pieces and large ancient tapestries which direct you to the next location. There is no dialogue, no narration, no written descriptions, nothing but these engravings and the occasional abstract cutscene to spell out to the player who they are and what they are doing. Journey utilises the environment and the players imagination to tell its story, and chooses to leave most of its lore up to interpretation. The story is deliberately obfuscated in this way to create a blank canvas in which players can imprint their own ideas onto.
As the name suggests, Journey is a game about pilgrimage. It takes inspiration from a variety of religious beliefs to create a unique spiritual journey for the player to unravel. It balances these themes carefully to make the experience feel universal, not bound to a single belief system. Throughout the game, inspiration is taken from Abrahamic religions such as Judiasm, Christianity and Islam. Each of these religions have a rich history of pilgrims journeying to the holy lands to complete a spiritual awakening, or witness a physical manifestation of their faith. For example, the starlight at the mountain’s peak is clearly reminiscent of the North Star that guides the three wise men to Bethlehem in the nativity of Jesus. At various stages in the game, the mountain appears to eject shooting stars which you later learn are other players like yourself, who upon completion are shot back to the beginning to face the journey again in an endless cycle of reincarnation and migration. These ideas are borrowed from eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Loosely, the game can also be interpreted as an exploration of free will. Perhaps the meditating protagonist, waiting for guidance implies waiting for a divine force (the player) to lead them to sanctuary and enlightenment.
The gameplay is simple, but well executed. The player can walk, jump and even glide, so long as their scarf is glowing. The light of the scarf replenishes when the character is in contact with the earth and the scarf expands by collecting white symbols which are scattered throughout the world. The length of the scarf determines how long the player can glide, while also acting as the character’s health bar. By the end of the game the fabric flows absurdly behind you, allowing for near infinite flight.
However, the simplicity of Journey’s gameplay is deceptive. Through the intelligent implementation of one unassuming mechanic, Journey cements itself as original and thought-provoking. The player can press a button to emit a birdlike call, which can be used to interact with objects in the environment. Holding the same button creates a louder, more elegant note. While charming at first glance, most games also implement interactivity with the world in some capacity. The music based interaction in Journey begins to shine when the player is introduced to another robed figure in the sand. There is something in the sporadic and unpredictable movements of this second robed figure which feels lifelike. You discover that this must be a real world player who has joined you on your pilgrimage. Once united, the players continue the rest of the game together, however they are restricted to communicating using only musical notes to express what they can. Intuitively, players create a symphony together, and at its most basic level form a new kind of language. What is wonderful about this mechanic is it acts as a way to see the beauty in other players, and prevents any of the negative interactions which have become synonymous with online gaming. Creating music with another person is emotionally gratifying, and encourages players to assist and guide one another. There is a feeling of companionship which grows as you harmonise on your travels, only imagining what the other person is trying to convey. It also increases the layer of difficulty to an otherwise effortless game, solving puzzles and traversing through obstacles without the benefit of words. To celebrate your union and connection, each of the players that accompany you on the journey are listed as the credits roll, to remind you of the help you had along the way.
The animations of the characters and environments are exceptionally fluid. Gliding through the air, sliding gracefully through sand dunes and swimming through spirit waters. The experience is always achieving elegance at every step. And it needs to be, for a game about travelling from point A to point B. The art style is minimalistic, which is unsurprising for a low budget title. The colour palette is soft but striking. As you progress through golden deserts, the sand slowly changes through gradients of pink, turquoise, bronze and white. Despite Journey’s relatively short length, there are a variety of environments to explore and keep the player interested. The music of Journey almost feels embedded into the very fabric of the game. It is closely programmed to the animations and the environments, meaning the orchestral score adapts naturally as the player navigates through the world. Wintory, the composer, describes the score as “a big cello concerto where you are the soloist and all the rest of the instruments represent the world around you”.
The culmination of the animation, art style, music and game design create a holistic experience in which connectivity permeates throughout the entire game. Everything within the game has this central concept in mind. Journey has undeniably been created with love and consideration, and it shows. Its short length and explorative nature lend well to its replayability. During my subsequent playthroughs, I felt a transition as my experience grew, and found myself helping new players through their first pilgrimage, as if adopting the role of a guide. With each playthrough the player is awarded a new pattern on their robe, and eventually the option to dye their robe white, as if to display wisdom and experience.
As anyone with experience in online gaming can attest to, it feels as if the industry is ubiquitous with high octane, adrenaline fueled action over all else. The cultural landscape of the gaming industry doesn’t always cater for introspective games. As the western world and younger generations have increasingly lost faith in religious institutions and practices, it is rare for developers to create games about spirituality and faith, and perhaps financially risky for them to do so. For this reason, Journey is a breath of fresh air. It bravely attempts to engage players with spirituality, and the power of connectivity. I am shamelessly hyperbolic about my excitement and passion for Journey. It is hands down one of the most beautiful games I have laid my hands on. Even now, nearly ten years later, Journey remains one of the most profound and emotional experiences I have had staring into a screen.
Dan Price is a first year Linguistics student here at QMUL, and he hopes that his reflections on the industry and reviews of some particularly narrative-driven games will resonante with the student body.
Images captured on Playstation 4, Journey PS4 edition, and belong to ThatGameCompany.