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Garbed in an elegant robe and trailing scarf, my delicate legs danced nimbly over the dunes. Sunlight pierced through the scarred peak of the distant mountain and blazed onto the desert sand so the expanse turned into a sea of golden embers. There, in the midst of a crumbling ruin, I saw it—another creature like myself. I froze in curiosity, watching this newcomer pirouette with a human-like intelligence that belied any possibility of an NPC. Excitement spurred me forward, and we finally came face-to-face, sunlight framing our identical silhouettes against the sky. Then, wordlessly, we continued our pilgrimage to the mountain, side-by-side.
I dubbed my steadfast companion “Long Scarf.” I knew that this was not their first trek through Journey’s deserts. But that’s all I knew, and all I’d ever know.
Journey doesn’t redefine online co-op play so much as it re-focuses it. Apart from the wordless chirping between cloth-covered avatars, no communication is permitted. The default avatar is genderless and species-less, as ambiguous as my companion’s true identity. There’s no customization in Journey—no way to pick my gender, height, voice, colour, or even who I partner with. However, special designs on the robes of second-and-third-time pilgrims are reserved for guides who have survived the quest and willingly return to assist new players.
Long Scarf was my guide. We were instantly inseparable, chirping, flying, and dashing through the sands together like lifelong friends. Perhaps the two of us could not be more unalike in the real world, but within the virtual world of Journey we shared the adversity of the great quest ahead of us. We were like Frodo and Sam, wrapped up in something much bigger than ourselves, and all the more dedicated to one another for it.
Despite appearances, Journey is not exclusively a co-op game. One can trek to the mountain as easily as two. Functionally, co-op is pointless. Simplistic puzzles don’t require any complex combinations of lever-pulling or button-pushing between teammates. The only real gameplay advantage afforded is that players can boost each other’s scarf powers a bit by chirping or making contact—not game-changers by any means.
Unsurprisingly, Journey’s focus on themes, emotions, and beauty makes it less concerned with traditional gameplay elements. In revolutionizing the manner in which players see one another, Journey refocuses co-op on its original intent—support. Specifically, the emotional support between pilgrims makes Journey feel less like a video game and more like an experience.
At first glance, Journey appears to be an escapist game built on pure sentimentality, but it encapsulates more feelings than joy, wonder, and peace; there’s a significant portion of the trek that’s darkened by despair, fear, pain, loneliness, and even death.
Long Scarf and I bonded as we sand-surfed, probed ancient ruins for power-ups, and bantered in gibberish. But we bonded most during darker times. In the midst of a punishing blizzard, hardly able to make headway against the tormenting winds, we huddled together as our scarves were ripped to shreds and chirped weak words of assurance and encouragement to each other. Within a minute, we both froze to death—I collapsing just seconds behind Long Scarf—as scripted by the game.
Scripted or not, I believe Long Scarf would have willingly frozen alongside me. I’d already watched my companion dive into the searchlight of a hungry monster, taking serious damage in a vain effort to save me. Despite knowing each other for only two hours, we were already prepared to virtually die for one another.
Why? The word tumbled around my mind.
I’m reminded of the three criteria necessary for the universal appeal of art laid out by Echoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature, and the Arts. The book suggests that there should be a portrayal of (1) Eden in its original glory, (2) Eden that is lost to us, and (3) the promise that Eden will be restored. The journey taken through life mimics this criteria as well. We repeatedly fall and seek restoration, intuitively knowing that we were once “whole” and are meant to be whole again; and we share this journey with a world’s worth of strangers and acquaintances alike.
Journey encapsulates this evolution of Eden through its wordless storytelling, which is something of a spiritual experience in itself, as well as empowering the player to symbolically reflect on their own journey through life. As I play, I see the spirits of sages guiding me, showing me the wonders of a world before its fall.
Then I see darkness, as fear and envy lead to mutating cloth-creatures into monsters of war. I come to recognize the many markers in the desert as the graves of casualties, and see the numerous ruins as the skeletons of factories once powered by greed.
But more than anything, I see the mountain—towering in the distance, its peak filled with the sun, inviting me to partake in the Eden the world once knew.
After my frigid body is resurrected from the dead earth and sent skyward, I lose sight of Long Scarf. There before me is the glowing peak—the pathway to Eden, the place I have journeyed so far to reach. And yet I turn away. I stand on Eden’s edge, chirping out in hopes that perhaps Long Scarf will answer.
In a flash of light, Long Scarf arrives alongside me. We circle and sing in relief, drawing hearts in the sand via the trails of our feet. And then we step forward, slowly and sacredly, toward the engulfing light. The sounds of our footsteps reverently fade into silence.
Long Scarf notices I am a few steps behind and stops, allowing me to catch up. For once, we don’t chirp to each other. We simply stare, taking in the emotional journey we’ve shared together, understanding we’ll probably never truly know the other’s real identity or meet again. And then we step past the threshold into Eden.
In my eighteen years of gaming, I’ve never experienced anything like Journey. There’s something almost sacred about it. Taking the journey solo, I focus almost exclusively on the mountain’s beauty. I sigh with relief when I take the final step into the light.
Journeying with a companion, I still see the beauty of the mountain, but it’s no longer the mountain that gives me pause. It’s my companion, who I cannot imagine taking another step without. In Journey’s co-op mode, “Eden” evolves from a sanctuary into a society, where eternal souls commune with each other like old friends in the afterlife; though we never met in person, we shared a journey just the same.
“People will venture out to the height of the mountain to seek for wonder,” Jenova Chen, creator of Journey, once said. “But they will pass one another in the street and feel nothing. Yet every individual is a miracle. How strange that nobody sees the wonder in one another.”
I saw the wonder of another person in Journey—someone whom I’ll probably never meet in real life, never knowing if they were male or female, old or young, casual or hardcore. And they showed me the beauty of Eden.
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