I’ve wanted to write about Journey for a long time – I just never quite found a way. It’s one of my favourite games of all time, but the only one that I can’t quite articulate the reason why. However, one of the most impressive elements of Journey that has always captivated me is its non-traditional narrative; Journey is a completely wordless experience – no narration, no dialogue, no text. The way it effortlessly conveys plot and tone through its music and visuals is legendary. And while the game can be interpreted in a million different ways (metaphorically, that is) there is a more formal story being told throughout. Pieces of this story can be found throughout the world of Journey, in images scrawled on stone tablets. You’ll also gain some insight upon completing each of its ‘levels,’ whereupon a mysterious, white-clad figure (it looks similar to your character, but not quite) appears to share snippets of this history. So what is this story, and why is it important?
I should also preface this by saying that of course, this is just my interpretation of the story.
The stone tablets you find throughout the world, as well as the visions imparted to you by the figure in white, tell of the world that existed before. Now, I’ve always interpreted the white light atop the mountain as a representation of an energy source – akin to the spark of life. In the first “flashback” we see the energy pouring out of the mountain, and that same energy depicted in the core of everything – the plants, the birds, and most importantly, the red, cloth-type creatures.
We’ve already seen this world’s version of the “humans” (I’m calling them humans even though they’re not quite depicted as such) – a precursor race to the character we play – and we know they’re all dead. The first stone tablet depicts them lying in graves, though we don’t know exactly why just yet.
The story continues, and it’s a familiar one: these humans discover this energy source in the red-cloth creatures, and are able to utilize it. We see their civilization take off, and it’s impressive; by co-opting this energy, they’re able to build and power what seems to be an entire city. However, the inevitable dawns – their power source fails them, and fighting breaks out. We see this precursor race begin to battle over the remains of the red-cloth, before taking to the machines they’ve constructed – perhaps nonviolent once, they’re now used for war. These flying machines are your only source of antagonism while playing Journey (if they catch you in their sights, they’ll attack, and you’ll lose a small piece of your scarf). Based on this, we can assume they were also used as collectors, seeking those scraps of energy needed to power them. The story ends with the “humans” dead, and their civilization buried in the desert sand. Time passes.
This is where we begin. The only thing we know upon starting our journey is that we need to make it to the mountain. The game makes that quite clear. Why are we going to the mountain? While I can’t say for sure, my interpretation of this narrative has always been one of repentance – of righting past wrongs. I’ll explain this later. As we traverse this empty world, we’re able to free a lot of these red-cloth creatures along the way. Many are trapped within the ruined frames of the metal flying machines, or otherwise kept locked away (presumably as they were once siphoned for energy) as we see in some of the towers.
Freeing them is easily one of my favourite parts of this game, for a pure and simple reason – its just nice to see them flying free, twittering happily. Sometimes, they even circle you in thanks, or help you fly for a ways before they veer off. I refuse to leave the desert area until I’ve freed every single one of them. I love them. I will die on this hill.
As we move through Journey, we’re collecting glowing sigils, which have the very practical gameplay feature of allowing us to fly farther and longer (by growing our scarf) but also have a more literal purpose – that being, our character collecting energy. The energy which seems to originate at the top of the mountain; the same energy that exists in every living creature. So we’re travelling to the mountain, yes, but we’re also returning this energy we’ve found along the way to its source – returning what was once lost. But wait – don’t we… die at the end? Maybe, but not in the same way that we understand “death.” I do think we reach the summit, where a utopia of the cloth creatures, and an abundance of energy with which to fly awaits. Whether through divine intervention, or the ability to harness this mysterious energy, we reach the mountain’s peak. And I think we return the energy we’ve gathered – along with ourselves. We become the energy, so to speak. In the final scene, one of the small “graves” seems to glow, and another shooting star leaves the mountain. And then, of course, the journey begins again.
So, what does it all mean? What’s the point? Nothing exists in infinity, as this precursor race in Journey discovered – the energy they were utilizing failed, and it cost them everything. Perhaps they became too greedy, too reliant on convenience, and took too much of this power source that was never theirs to begin with. Their civilization collapsed, but it’s not all bad. As time passes, a new age begins, and along with it, a new life form – and they can help to heal the world from the mistakes of the past. Do you see where I’m going with this? It’s a pretty neat parallel to our own lives, isn’t it?
We take, and we take, and we strip, and we destroy, but we never give back. Eventually, this is going to catch up to us, and when it does, it will probably be too late. But as we see in Journey, this isn’t necessarily the end; it’s the nature of cyclical patterns. Just like we see in this title, it’s possible to give back, to return, to heal. Though things may die or collapse, it isn’t without the promise that life begins again. This is, at least in part, why I love Journey so much. It’s incredible that such a nuanced, dense reality of the human experience can be captured in such a short, quiet game. I love sitting in the unspoken-ness of Journey’s story, and thinking about the shape of the world (both in-game and ours). It feels sad, but at the same time, it lends a lightness to my heart every time I walk into that light at the top of the mountain.
I’m going to wrap this up before I spiral off into existential dread, however. If you’ve made it this far into my waffling, thank you for reading, and I hope maybe I’ve given you a new perspective of Journey. If you didn’t enjoy the game, that’s cool too – but you’re wrong, and we can’t be friends. Okay bye!