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Analysis / Journey

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**SPOILER WARNING** Please play the game before reading...

Journey: The Cyclical Nature of Life and Existence

Examining Journey's deeper themes and subject manner is also a good way to understand its success. The title itself alludes to the experiential side of gaming, more-so than the completion of goal-oriented tasks. The entire game becomes an enormous metaphor for life and the human condition.

Beginning in an open desert, barren and alone, the player is given a wide range of exploration but with an implied end point. This mimics a young person's entry into the wider world, prior to receiving guidance or influence of pre-destined courses of action.


Assumed isolation in an inhabited world

Without a wealth of user-interface data present in the game, each player has some limited intuition along with occasional instruction as to how to interact and move about the world. Any item or shape distinct in the landscape could lead to further discovery or nothing. One of the first true discoveries in the game is that the player exists along with miraculous flying creatures, interactive and even helpful to the player. The various ruins also lay hints that a pre-existing world has been consumed by the current one, painting a much larger universe than the player might readily see or interact with.

Here is where the natural world and mankind's developed world begin to affect and shape the person experiencing it. There is a motivating influence that the more discovered and experienced, the more that should be discovered and experienced. Experimentation reveals new abilities, and practice creates skills and opens further ways to interact with the surroundings.

Avenues of connection, and mutual experience/sharing

As the player continues, jumping, gliding, finding new sigils and expanding their abilities, a chance encounter may occur, and the player meets an Other that mirrors their own image but is a distinct individual. Now the player is introduced to two-way communication and cooperation, and another level of difficulty may be added to the gameplay. Additionally, the Other may even help a struggling player and make the game more enjoyable or at least easier.

A great deal of importance is placed on mankind's socializing functions, and its development over other social animals; indeed, how our own dominance of each biome we inhabit is largely thanks to our greater ability to cooperate and compound our strengths than other creatures. As well, the enjoyment of life and its pleasures has been said to greatly increase when shared.


The impression of shared events and history

As the player and the Other experience more of the game, a rich history is revealed behind these seemingly isolated remnants of a pre-existing race. Through the illuminated histories and challenges level-by-level, there is growth in ability and understanding. The player is painted as a hopeful descendant, responsible for fulfilling some ancestral goal, or finding redemption for a race fallen by self-destruction. Strife and war caused a civilization's downfall, but one individual (or a collaborative two...) can overcome evils left from the past to reach a new goal.

Previous players affecting the whole

Even outside a two player game, each individual helps another complete their journey. Gameplay features sigils that empower each player with greater power for jumping and gliding, but certain scenes reveal these sigils as falling from the sky, mirroring a moment from the beginning and ending of the game. As each player is individualized by a randomly generated sigil, entire games full of different sigils are assembled from various potential players, each lifeforce spent at the end of one game returned to aid in another. The singular story arc the individual experiences, brought down from the sky by the ancients, is repeated again and again by Others. Eventually, the player will reach the end of their journey and repeat this process again for another. But to them, this Other is a repeated instance of themselves, and any idea of differentiation is a mere illusion.

Immortality, inter-connectedness, impermanence

Through the game's ending of life after seemingly dying, and a recursive gameplay element allowing replay of a subjectively identical game, there are implications of an overall never-ending life and interaction with Others far beyond the scope of one journey. The gameplay is confined in a linear fashion, but there is wide room for individual play, exploration and amusement/appreciation wherever it can be found. The game begins with a defined end point, but how long this will take and what will happen during is a mystery. Even with foreknowledge of the game's events, questions may arise as who will the player meet now, and how will they choose to play with these new Others?

The visuals of the game create vast landscapes barren save for numerous ruins. Even the great civilization that was built eventually became empty and swallowed by the surrounding world. The magic and freedom of the player's abilities slowly dwindles and vanishes while used. Even a new friend can be quickly lost if separated too long. This resolves into a universal truth of valuing things for their mortal fragility. Even the player's struggle to stave off death becomes a lesson in futility. The loss will happen, but the player's acceptance of this depends on them.

Final thoughts

Journey begins as a quest of curiosity on foot through vivid and picturesque locales, but ends with a great deal of ambiguity. Why did the player even need to journey? Why did the player never turn back and regress? why did the players not communicate more or less? If the player can help their next self, was the goal to reach the top of the mountain or aid the next generation that comes after?

The ambiguity and individual interpretation of these topics obviously mirrors many real life issues, if scaled down in complexity. A game that has a metaphor to life need not be realistically detailed or carry the same emotional stakes; it need only ask the same questions and allow the same broad answers. You play because you can, and you finish because you want to. What occurs between and what it meant is largely a matter of personal perception. But the game experience can be shared, and parallels can always be found. A journey is not solitary, even when it seems we are walking alone.


Journey as The Hero's Journey

A quick look at how the events and areas of Journey correspond to the stages of monomyth:

  • The Beginning: Encompasses the initial normality stage (meditating in the desert), Call to Adventure (scaling the very first hill that leads to the title screen), and Supernatural Aid (receiving the first piece of the scarf).
  • The Bridge: The First Threshold, obviously. This is also where you meet the Helper (Companion).
  • The Desert & the Descent: The Land of Adventure.
  • The Tunnels: The Road of Trials.
  • The Temple: A Breather Level.
  • The Mountain: "Abyss"/Belly of the Whale (the Traveler and the Companion have a Near-Death Experience).
  • The Summit: Encompasses Rebirth, Transformation, and Apotheosis (being revivified by the Ancients, overcharged into an Energy Being, and finally reaching the Shambhala-like summit).

Finally, the ending cutscene depicts the Return, in form of a glyph, which ends back in the normality stage again.

See also an alternate interpretation by Extra Credits.


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