The Universal Journey: A Look at the Techniques Used to Make Journey a Universal Experience

Video games are a budding art form in need of games like Journey. Where other games rely on a male-dominated market and sell millions of copies based on their sex appeal and use of new technologies, Journey sells itself on its modesty, simplicity and universal relatability. What Journey does exceptionally well is that is pushes the medium of video games forward, not as simple entertainment, but as a human experience. Journey creator Jenova Chen often speaks of “innovating based on emotion.” This means that instead of focusing on the latest tech or trends, Journey focuses instead on the deepest emotional portions of ourselves and tells a tale which, for the most part, we all know and understand. The way Journey does this is by stripping away all the clutter and presenting a story which attempts to speak to all people across every culture.

In the 1949 book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, author Joseph Campbell outlines the characteristics of the hero’s journey and points to countless examples throughout history where this archetype is presented. Drawing poignantly on everything from Greek tragedies to cave paintings, Campbell makes it clear that this “Mono-myth” is persistent in every culture, be they large, small, isolated or well traveled. Since then, Campbell’s “Mono-myth” has been used as a template for countless mediums attempting to capture that universal essence. From blockbuster hits like Star Wars, to the Harry Potter series the hero’s journey is present in countless contemporary works. In the game Journey the developers at Thatgamecompany use the hero’s journey along with other tricks to create an experience that is an almost flawless attempt at capturing the spirit of the hero’s journey and creating something infinitely relatable.

Released spring of 2012 for the PlayStation 3, Journey centers around the players journey from the heart of a desert to the top of a mountain. Through the journey the player will traverse ruins of a broken civilization, encounter divine beings which will aid them in their quest, and even interact with other players to complete the short but rewarding quest. Journey shines in its simplicity, it is a relatively short game with a relatively simple story, but through that simplicity a concise and well woven narrative can be told.

The character the player assumes control over is tailored by the designers to be ambiguous enough to, theoretically, remain relatable to everyone. The shape of the character is discernibly human-like with human-like movements, but by covering the character in its iconic red and gold cloak the developers create a symbol of a human for the player to project upon. This aids in the games ability to be relatable on a level which is deeper than that of the standard archetypes seen in popular culture today. The ambiguous protagonist is not new concept though, it has been a corner stone of game development since its inception. Characters like Link from the Legend of Zelda series are purposefully silent, so the players actions are individualized by each players experience. By alluding to the specifics the developers allow their audience to fill in the rest, making the experience unique to each player.

Other characteristics which lend to the games ambiguity are the methods of communication the character uses and the setting in which Journey takes place. Firstly, instead of words the character uses a succession of chirps to communicate with other players and helpful cloth creatures. Secondly, the whole of the game is based in the ruins of a destroyed and sand-covered civilization which is mostly indiscernible, yet holds similarities to real world ruins such as the ones in Karnak, Egypt and Babylon, Iraq. By creating a setting and language which is at the same time alien and familiar the designers remove cultural clutter which may otherwise fog a purposefully simple narrative and allows room for the players to interpret the game the way they see it.

Studios such as Disney, Studio Ghibli, and Pixar often rely on universal desires to make their works speak on a deeper level. Movies like Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away speaks to the desire to be strong, but the fear of change, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast tells a tale of acceptance and blind-love. In Journey, the universal desires used are the need for meaningful companionship and the ability to fly.

The desire for companionship, though slightly obvious, is important for fully experiencing moments in our lives. The game creates an anonymous, social gaming experience, which allows the players to live and share what Studio Manager of Thatgamecompany, Sunni Pavlovic, describes as “a life’s journey.” In an interview with Fragzone, Pavlovic describes the beauty and intricacies of the cooperative experience of Journey stating that “the experiences [with other players] in Journey are so subtle that they can be interpreted however you want them to be, a player can be angry and be jumping up and down and chirping, but you would never know, you may just think they are excited” She describes also the importance of sharing our experiences by stating that “we can just rush through and accomplish as much as we can on our own because we have nothing to hinder us, but to me the meaningful part of life is the relationships we make and the impact we have on each other. I could achieve such great things in my life but if I had no one to share it with… and when my time here is over I will have made no impact on anyone else… and that’s what we are trying to do with our games, is leave some lasting positive impact.”

The desire for weightlessness and flight is ubiquitous in every culture, it speaks to us so deeply that is is almost an independent emotion. In art, weight is often used thematically as a concept of good and evil. A person with a back that is crooked and bent, as if they* are carrying a heavy weight, is instinctively seen as evil. Whereas weightlessness is a sign of innocence and purity. Journey helps to convey to the player a refreshing feeling of innocence, which is so often lost in the violent world of video games. The way Thatgamecompany uses movement and weightlessness lends to a whimsical-innocence in the game. The player floats down sand dunes as if they were on a snowboard and brushes through snow with ease as if they were almost weightless. The moment the player receives the scarf, which allows them to fly, is reminiscent to the moment in J.M. Barrie’s, Peter Pan where the children learn to fly by ‘thinking happy thoughts.’ The player, by singing to the helpful cloth creatures, is pulled into the sky and floats gently back to the ground only to be edged on by the cloth creatures to take flight again. This mechanic is used to traverse the ruins of the desert with grace and beauty. The use of flight as a reward for kindness and gentleness expresses a desire for innocence in us all.

Walt Disney once said “Over at our place, we’re sure of just one thing: everybody in the world was once a child. So in planning a new picture, we don’t think of grown-ups, and we don’t think of children, but just of that fine, clean, unspoiled spot down deep in every one of us that maybe the world has made us forget and that maybe our pictures can help recall.” Video games as a medium stand out from other mediums due to their inherently immersible characteristics. This trait allows developers to go beyond simple entertainment and create actual human experiences where the lives of the players can be enriched. Journey is a step in the right direction for an industry which is plagued with claims of marginalization and immaturity. It shows that games are capable of bridging the gaps between fun, thoughtful and inclusive play and be able to tell a compelling narrative along the way.


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