This post contains spoilers for Journey. If you haven’t played Journey yet you are encouraged to close this window, download Journey, enjoy and push forward.
The message is simple and so is the action. Art games are frequently accused of sacrificing challenge for statement or sentiment and not everyone considers that a worthy trade-off. If you consider difficulty an essential part of your gaming experience then art games like Sleep is Death, The Unfinished Swan or Limbo may leave you impressed, but ultimately unsatisfied. Then of course there are the games that use difficulty itself as an artistic statement such as the work of indie collective molleindustria. We live in a time when games are being spoken about seriously and consciously making powerful artistic statements in ways that no other medium can. But art is only as good as the culture that surrounds it and even the greatest technical achievements will only serve as tools to do what all art ultimately sets out to accomplish; to make us feel.
Journey is the story of a scarf. As a lone robed figure you wander the desert towards a mountain in the distance. You know not what awaits you there, just that it’s where you need to be. You have no idea what wonders and woes you’ll face along the way and you don’t care. The desert needs crossing, and you’re the only one here to do it.
‘Difficult’ is not a word that has been commonly used in relation to Journey. It’s quite literally a game in which you just have to push the analog stick forward. Traverse through the various locales, solve some puzzles and push forward. As I began my journey, I could hear the elitist cries already: ‘there’s no challenge here’, ‘this isn’t a game, it’s a sight-seeing tour’ etc. What was worse was they were right. Even I felt unchallenged. Sure it was fun watching my scarf cascade back to earth at the crest of each triumphant leap, taking in the idyllic beauty of the world around me and running into an occasional fellow traveller, but I did find myself wondering what it all meant. With so little in terms of actual purpose and direction, how was I supposed to make it to that mountain?
The longer I played, the more my scarf grew and the more decorative and hypnotic it’s movements became. It moved in sync with my actions. More than just an accessory, it became an extension of myself, a badge of honour, a record of how far I’d come and a source of inspiration to continue onward. But it wasn’t just cosmetic, the more I played the better I got. My abilities improved as did my understanding of the world around me. The more I learned to appreciate the game for what it was the more enjoyable it became. With every step my scarf grew a little longer, my avatar a little stronger and that elusive goal, a little closer.
Suddenly, the boundless wonder of Journeys desert landscape became cold and dark as I entered what appeared to be an undersea cavern of some kind. The world had completely changed around me without warning and I found myself afraid. It was at this point the strange, serpentine antagonists showed up. They swam violently through the caves, their monolithic shadows towering over me while their metallic bodies clanked ominously against the cavern walls. I suddenly realized that I had no known method of combat. If this thing was to see me, I believed with all my heart that it would kill me. The cave contained very little to hide behind and I could never move fast enough to escape. I was alone, vulnerable and exposed. Suddenly this world seemed infinitely difficult.
With no other option, I did what I’d been doing all along. I pushed forward. I was terrified. I was physically shaking. The monstrous creature bellowed and suddenly I was being pursued. The next few moments are still a blur to me, but I was able to escape. I was able to come out of those caves, if not unscathed than at least alive, and I did it by pushing forward.
Without wishing to give any plot specific spoilers away, soon I came to another realization. I suddenly noticed that my scarf had begun to fall apart. The symbol of my journey had been torn and weathered along the way and I hadn’t even noticed. Before I knew it, I barely had a scarf at all. My movements had become slow and arduous, the terrain of the world around me had become too much for me to take. I’d gotten old. The memories of my jubilant youth were just that; memories. They seemed as far away from me now as the aged figure before me had seemed then. Now, at the foot of the very mountain I’d been journeying towards, I wished with all my heart I could go back to the beginning. I wasn’t lost back then, I was free. I wasn’t without direction, I was curious and unafraid. As I drew closer to what I believed to be my final steps, as the last withered fabric of my scarf tore away on the jagged rocks around me, I realized that the mountain was never the point of this whole thing. This journey wasn’t about the goal; it was about the journey.
Journey is the story of everyones story. I’m touching 25 this year, and find myself at times struggling to keep up with things that used to come naturally to me. I hate todays slang, I cringe every time someone uses ‘ship’ as a verb and I don’t believe there’s been a better pop punk band than The Starting Line. In other words, I’m getting older. I hadn’t even noticed that I’d lost touch with the youth of today until I realized that I wasn’t one of them anymore, that my scarf had started to fall apart. When I’m in my forties, I’ll probably look back on my twenties and wonder why I spent so much time looking for purpose or direction when I could have just been experiencing the world, taking in it’s beauty and living not for the goal, but for the journey.
Journey may not present difficulty in its purest form, but it is not without its challenges. The difference is Journeys challenges can be solved with simple determination. In Journey, as in life, you can overcome your hardships by simply pushing forward.