By John Robertson
When it first released in 2012, Journey instantly achieved the kind of mythical status typically reserved for the books of Paulo Coelho or the films of Terrence Malick. It was the game everyone ‘in the know’ had to play, word-of-mouth recommendation rising with critical acclaim to create a powerful wave of peer pressure. How does this 90 minute experience create such mystique?
In both celebration and remembrance of Journey's fifth anniversary I've played through the game a number of times recently, the exposure leading to two conclusions. Firstly, it’s an outing that is as impactful today as it was half a decade ago. Secondly, the strictly-limited set of interactions form the foundation of its beauty and quality.
Unlike Gangnam Style, then, Journey is a product of 2012 that stood the test of time.
Interaction is the key to understanding Journey. It has no text and dialogue, with the designers at thatgamecompany (TGC) confident in their ability to communicate intent and questions to the player through interactions. Some think that a greater number of possible interactions must result in a superior artefact, but Journey proves that this doesn’t have to be the case.
In order to create a language of interaction that is instantly-understood by every player, TGC severely restricts the number of actions or verbs that the player can use. You can jump, glide, sing and that’s it – the singing having a dual use as both a way to call out to any companions sharing your playing space, and as what essentially amounts to a button press to activate objects in the world. Through these three interactions you must interpret the environment around you and draw meaning from it.
Far from being an open experience, Journey is a tightly-directed adventure and one that doesn’t take kindly to you trying to move away from the intended course. It may forego obvious signposting such as mission objectives and map markers, you’re still being controlled by the game at every moment in less visible ways. The genius is in the way TGC manages to manipulate you, through level design and limited interaction, into believe that you’re exploring a vast world full of opportunity.
Just as a trainer teaches a dog how to roll over or, more controversially, a lion to jump through a hoop, Journey uses positive reinforcement to make sure players stay on track and behave as intended. You are rewarded for performing actions the game wants you to make, and you are ignored for doing things it doesn’t want you to do.
Trying to jump up the wrong ledge or ‘sing’ to the wrong object in the world results in nothing, an experiential void. There’s not even the pleasure of feeling the game react negatively, there’s simply no attention paid to you at all – which is the worst kind of response a social animal like humans could hope for. When the game responds you feel valued, when it doesn’t you feel rejected. It’s natural, then, to seek the feeling of value and in this way we’re gently manipulated into following the right path.
Most games employ a similar technique, but few do so in such an overtly pleasant way. Coupling rewards (progress and ambiguous cut-scenes in this case) with the execution of a specific set of limited interactions creates space for meaning to be drawn into your adventure. Without any sort of limitations there would be no context for your interactions and, therefore, you’d feel a reduction in moment-to-moment satisfaction.
Essentially, you and the game form a working partnership. The game creates a space from which meaning can be extracted and you possess the small toolset required to mine that meaning. Only through this symbiotic relationship can Journey come to life.
You’re not trying to ‘beat’ the game, so much as consenting to be bound such that it can tell this unusual story - and try to elicit an emotional reaction. A lack of interaction options makes this partnership easier to build for, as the game itself can better predict what you’re going to do and better pace itself for maximum effect as a result.
A lack of such direction is precisely why so many open-world games are beset by extended periods of time in which they feel lifeless and barren: the game is waiting for you to engage in a way that it understands, and can react to. Because there are so many ways of interacting, finding the 'correct' one at any given place and time can frustrate and make a world feel featureless. Journey overcomes this downtime by making your possible actions few, and your choices clear and obvious.
The safe and constantly-engaging space created by Journey’s lack of interaction options also allows the player to focus on other things, and TGC to undertake some philosophical probing.
Very quickly the positive behaviour reinforcement causes you to stop experimenting with how far you can push the jump mechanic, and instead focus on what this journey means to you. It is a game that quickly makes you forget about concerns relating to game mechanics or player skill, completely foregoing the masculinity-based power fantasies where players demonstrate domination over games.
This limitation of interactions, then, is a 'limitation' in only the most literal sense. Such a small toolset removes some of the abstraction generated by placing a control pad between player and game, enticing you to think more deeply about, and take more meaning from, the events themselves. Journey ultimately feels empowering because it’s designed to engage your mind over your hands, to consider your emotional response to an experience rather than focusing on proving your prowess as a ‘gamer’.
This creates something of a paradox: TGC's design approach does away with player agency in some regards, preferring instead to dictate their movements down a narrow path, but it does so in order to generate a different kind of agency - and involvement.
Player agency is one of those ideas widely-accepted as something that games simply must have in order to be considered valuable. Journey has plenty of agency, only of another sort. It’s a beautiful example of how setting boundaries leads to a greater level of creative response and interpretation than simply giving players a blank slate and a hundred ways to mark it. The ease of interaction also incidentally makes it a game open to everyone, one of relatively few examples the medium has (although even TGC couldn't quite leave the controller behind). It is devoid of the expectations many games have that new players will be expert with gaming 'norms'.
Five years ago I didn’t interpret the trek to the top of Journey’s mountain in the same way I did this time. My experiences over the past half decade framed the questions in a new way, and led to different internal responses.
That’s the power of Journey: to have people react to its narrative on a personal level. To engage minds, rather than hands. Whether you’ve played it or not, five years later it's still a game worth your time. Sometimes, being manipulated just feels good.