Life, death, companionship, what was the point, and what comes next? Sara Clemens ends our Belief issue with a fantastic look at Journey. (Contains spoilers.)
“No, no, no,” I whisper as I watch the cloaked figures struggle through knee-deep snow.
Ice stiffens their clothing. They both move with pronounced limps. One of them is me. The other: a companion, newly met yet intimately known.
In a moment of panic, I twitch my thumb to move my avatar closer to my friend. It’s the only time since beginning this final climb I’ve moved any direction but forward.
We fall, unmoving.
I’ve played through Journey a dozen or so times, but the scene in the snow never gets any easier. It never gets any less scary, or sad. That’s death, I suppose.
I’ve fallen alone. I’ve fallen with others. Some fall at a distance, choosing to press forward up the slope without regard for me. Some press in close during the trek, so we fall as one bundle of frozen cloth. We always fall.
In the days after my first journey, I scoured my favorite gaming sites for anything and everything relating to the game. I read many reviews, and wrote one of my own. I devoured think pieces; fell down rabbit holes of message board interpretation. I found a site that existed solely for player submissions of their Journey stories. No two journeys are ever alike, yet here was a place where we could search for common threads.
I still return there to this day. I can’t help wondering if any these travelers have traveled with me. Was the person who left me just before the underground trials here? I didn’t know what was about to happen. Did they? How about the traveler that I left? Were they here too, sharing their story? I want to tell them I’m sorry I wasn’t with them for the moment in the snow. I tried to teach them as much as I could before I had to go.
What about those who fell with me? Did it matter to them that I was there?
Hardly anyone reveals their PSN IDs when sharing their stories, so even though the game provides a list of players met at the end of each journey, I’ve never been sure of a match. I keep reading, searching for the familiar.
I’ve come to find that many see the moment of collapse in the snow as a brief, temporary pause along the avatar’s path, with the subsequent stage being the very physical reward for a hard-won struggle.
How do they not recognize their own deaths, I think. Is it too hard to believe they never get to the summit they’ve been trying to reach? Is it too hard to believe they don’t “win?”
I know we don’t win. We can’t.
I’ve seen people die young from suicide and old from living too long. We like to pretend one is more tragic than the other, like we aren’t just using the idea of a life well- and long-lived to suppress the terrifying awareness of our own mortality.
We can take our time in the desert. We can seek out every glyph and grow our scarf, a source of power and health, to its maximum length. We can discover flowers and free ancient creatures. We can hide from war machines and avoid unnecessary pain. We can take care of our partners so they stay with us. We can play a perfect game, but still we collapse in the snow.
In real life, death is no less inevitable, and more horrifying — it’s solitary. Even surrounded by others, a dying person’s body is the one finally shutting down, running out of time, doing the thing it’s born to do.
Sometimes I think I like playing Journey because it occasionally lets me die next to someone else. Sometimes I think I like playing it for what comes after.
As the screen fades to white, my frozen body becomes indistinguishable from the rest of the landscape. A line of white-robed figures appears. Gods? Ancestors? They raise me up, restore my scarf, and send me hurtling through the sky. I am surrounded by light, or maybe even become the light itself, as I streak through a vortex of dark clouds. Two war machines swirl around me. They come perilously close until suddenly I am thrust into a bright sky. Notably, it’s the only sky in the game that is a clear, brilliant blue. Even more notably, another traveler is there.
In all of my playthroughs, even when I fell in the snow a solitary heap, a companion was waiting once I arrived on the sunny mountainside.
Though I take greater comfort dying with someone else, it doesn’t matter too much if I’ve met the other traveler or not. We’re too joyful. We can see the peak of the mountain again, and we can fly almost without limit. Suddenly everything that came before is worth it. We finally move forward into the light that’s served as our beacon, though a part of me wants to stay in the sun, flying among the many cloth creatures and chirping musical notes to my friend.
This is why I like playing Journey.
The journey isn’t about summiting the mountain. It’s about moving toward the mountain. It’s about those I meet and those I lose while moving toward the mountain. It’s about how we move toward the mountain together. It’s about moving toward the mountain alone. It’s about just moving toward the mountain.
And someone is always waiting for me in the blue-skied idyll, proof that struggling towards a better place, or even just a better sense of being, is worth the trouble.