Journey and the Reinterpretation of the Game Space

In the vast majority of video games, both contemporary and historic, the player’s relation to the game space has been one of conflict. Even the terms “level” and “quest” imply this relationship. The conventional means of progression has always been one of entering a space, whether a simply rendered 2D plane or a complex and intricate 3D environment, inhabited either by obstacles or opponents, and defeating either or both in order to reach the next space. This pattern is apparent in games ranging from Space Invaders to Portal. Almost always, these virtual environments are out to kill us, or rather our digital avatars. As Edvin Babic remarks in his essay, “most computer games can be described as… ‘man against his environment’ approaches, and the history of computer games reinterpreted as the mastery of virtual space.” Whether or not the player must actually kill virtual beings to progress to a new level, as in the Call of Duty series, or figure out complicated puzzles in order to complete a painting, as in Braid, the game space almost always presents us with hostile obstacles standing between us and the teleological path to victory. Even in strategy games like Civilization, the virtual environment is the site of contestation with AI opponents, the in-game resources mere means to an end, and the goal domination, however achieved, of the game space. The hostility of the game environment is so prevalent in video games that it’s almost taken for granted. It is because of the prevalence of this representation that the environment of Journey and its relationship to the player is so striking. Journey presents a barren landscape with sparse encounters with other beings, encounters based on cooperation, mimesis, and symbiosis rather than conflict, and in doing so creates a moving and conceptually significant gaming experience.

Video games have always been about defeating threats presented by the game space.

Video games have always been about defeating threats presented by the game space.

The treatment of the virtual environment as a privileged site of the player, where the game space must been controlled and used for personal benefit, finds resonances with the theories of Adorno and Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment. To very briefly outline the opening chapter of this work, Adorno and Horkheimer posit that human society, based on technical and economic progress, has developed with the aid of the Enlightenment paradigm. This paradigm seeks “to dispel myths, to overthrow fantasy with knowledge” (1), a process which leads to “the disenchantment of the world” and “the extirpation of animism” (2). Enlightenment thought requires a distancing of the subject from the object in order to understand and make use of that object, whether that “object” be the environment or the human body, leading to a conceptual division between human and nature, mind and body, master and worker. The object is then significant only for its use-value to the subject: “Enlightenment stands in the same relationship to things as the dictator to human beings. He knows them only to the extent that he can manipulate them…. Their ‘in-itself’ becomes ‘for him’” (6). This stands in contrast to a magical, animistic paradigm, which endorses a relationship with the environment which is “not one of intention but of kinship” (7), and a view of the supernatural as “the complex concatenation of nature in contrast to its individual link” (10). These two paradigms form divergent conceptualizations of humanity’s relationship with objects and the environment: the magical deals with the natural world through mimesis, reflecting the overall view of the world as animistic and interrelated, while in the enlightened paradigm “the control of internal and external nature has been made the absolute purpose of life” (24). Of course, this is an oversimplification of the arguments in the book, as the authors argue that the magical paradigm and that of the Enlightenment contain aspects of each other. But what is important in regards to the treatment of the game space is that it has overwhelmingly been portrayed along Enlightenment lines: virtual environments have always been treated as realms distanced from the player, which the player must dominate, one way or another, and turn to their advantage.

Rather than presenting an environment hostile to your avatar, one which must be conquered, dominated, and turned to your advantage, Journey radically reinterprets the game space and forces the player to form a mimetic, symbiotic relationship with their environment, an interpretation much more in-line with the magical paradigm. The player begins the game on a barren, seemingly lifeless desert. The avatar eventually encounters a rune-shaped, illuminated object, which upon touching forms into a scarf. This scarf, functionally and symbolically, is the energy bar for the player. Equipped only with this scarf, an ability to sing, and her own life-force, the player is able to share energy with other fabric beings around her, be it small shards, long strands, flying-carpet-esque pieces, floating jellyfish, or giant whales. Sharing contact or song with these other beings empowers the avatar and the shards themselves, illuminating both and allowing the player to fly for short stretches.

The player's avatar and the shards of fabric share energy, empowering each other.

The player’s avatar and the shards of fabric share energy, empowering each other.

However, while the game space is dealt with in an innovative way in Journey, many of the game mechanics are quite conventional. Several stages of the game involve the process of activating certain objects to unlock a passage in stages, and jumping between areas to progress. Thematically, however, the game and its mechanics are addressed in a very different way. Gerrard Winter, in his review of the game, struggles to locate Journey in a conventional genre: “If I really had to categorise this thing, I’d say it was a platformer, but only in that progress tends to involve jumping between stuff a lot.” These typical categorizations falter and fail in Journey because, thematically, interactions with the game space entail a symbiotic relationship rarely expressed in video games. Rather than using other beings in the environment, the player and these beings are really helping one another by sharing energy, as opposed to drawing energy from one another. Furthermore, the minimalism of the game mechanics, limited to flying, singing, and moving, and the simplicity of the challenges faced by the player drives them to appreciate the aesthetics and the emotive qualities of the game space rather than its typical game play qualities (the level of difficulty, complexity of obstacles, the quality of A.I., etc.). The result, reflected in the vast majority of reactions to the game, is that players value Journey’s game space just for existing, for being there to explore, and for the beauty of the virtual environment.

An early section of the game illustrates the relationship the player forms with the virtual environment. In the midst of the desert, the player encounters a ruined bridge, which he must reform to progress. To do so, the player must release shards of fabric from imprisonment by approaching long strands and singing, a process which generates energy for both the strands and the avatar, allowing the release of the flying shards. Upon their release, the small shards, in what seems to be a voluntary act, join together to reform the bridge and help the player on their way. One cannot really say that the shards have been manipulated to the player’s advantage; there has rather been an exchange, a mutual benefit shared, where the player uses his power to free the shards, and the shards use their own power to help the player progress. The player has not conquered these elements of the environment, nor has the puzzle, if it can really be called that, provided any significant challenge. Instead, the player has simply interacted with, shared with, and helped creatures in the virtual space. In return he is allowed to carry on to the next part of the game world. This pattern is repeated throughout the game: the player uses the internal power of his avatar to help, liberate, or just commune with other beings, who in turn help and empower the player. Whether it is riding the back of a recently freed whale to ascend a tower or surfing the sand dunes with singing flying-carpets, these symbiotic moments break the conventional presentation of the game space as one where the privileged and dominating player uses the environment for his own ends. And this is a deeply affective innovation, one which leads us to reflect on, in the words of the Brainy Gamer Michael Abbott, “the interdependence of all things.”

The newly freed shards of fabric reform the ruined bridge, allowing the player to continue.

The newly freed shards of fabric rebuild the ruined bridge, allowing the player to continue.

Strengthening this feeling of interconnectedness and, to quote Abbott again, “joyful communion,” is the overwhelming presence of mimesis in the game world created by thatgamecompany. Every animate object, except for the menacing shark-like things (I’ll get to those later), is cut, literally, from the same cloth: a red base with yellow detailing. The reason for this, revealed through a series of meditative flashbacks, is that all animate life comes from the same source in the game world. It is revealed, in the first meditation, that from the mountain top (which is the final destination of the journey), rune-shaped energy emanates, from which all life in the world is formed. The reason that animate beings are able to empower one another is that they share the same internal power, derived from the same source. The resonances with Dialectic of Enlightenment are clear: the relationship is “not one of intention but one of kinship”  (7). In Journey, the player is driven to appreciate the shards of fabric or the flying carpets just for being, for existing in the barrenness, for singing with the player, and for sharing their life-force. The player is not concerned with “the mastery of nature” (31), but is rather a creature linked through mimesis and communion to the things around her.

This relationship to the environment is reflected in the player’s relationship to other human players in Journey. Players are naturally drawn to this mimetic other, many of them commenting on how they are “identical to me, both in physical ability and appearance.” But what is so striking about this special relationship to an almost perfectly mimetic other is that, functionally and thematically, the relationship of the player to her partner is the same as that with her environment. Being close to her partner confers the same benefits to the player as being close to any other being in Journey, as it only serves to regenerate her scarf to enable her to fly farther. The only way to communicate with this other human player is by singing, the same exact way she communicates with the environment. Furthermore, just as with the other fabric-beings in the game, one’s relationship to the other player is not determined by use-value. As Ian Bogost says of the multiplayer aspect of the game, “you don’t really play with these other players” but “you’re comforted by there presence.” The other player is completely unnecessary for the completion of the game, only conferring small advantages and, most importantly, company. Just as with other beings in the environment, one is driven to value the other player just for existing, for sharing with them the experience of the game, rather than for any concrete advantage accrued through the partnership. Jim Sterling, in his review for Destructoid, describes this relationship as such: “No names are exchanged for the duration of the partnership. The characters look identical. There is no way to truly communicate with the other person, but that person—whoever it is—shall become your best friend for the next two hours.” The relationship between players in Journey is one based on symbiosis and mimesis, revelling in the mere presence of an other, which I believe is what gives it such emotional force.

But Journey isn’t just an uplifting experience. To borrow a phrase from the opening paragraph of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, in Journey there are times when one is “confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past.” These traces of destruction are visible everywhere, but are really explained in the meditations or hallucinations which occur at the thresholds between areas of the game. Surprisingly, very few critics have commented on these cutscenes. Rachel Helps is a notable exception, perceptively remarking that “the environment and gameplay only take on narrative significance after the player has interpreted the story behind the cutscenes.” When the player reaches the end of an area, she enters a vision by activating the surrounding pillars which reveals, piece by piece, the history of the game world. The narrative is one of destruction through environmental calamity. It is revealed through these visions that the ancient inhabitants of the world (hereafter Ancients), who are guiding the player to the top of the mountain, used the life-force of the other fabric creatures to power their civilization. By channeling, containing, imprisoning, and generally manipulating these sources of power, they were able to create great structures. They develop a relationship to the environment reflecting the Enlightenment paradigm, where “nature is no longer to be influenced by likeness but mastered through work” (13). There is a cost to this, as the Ancients “purchase the increase in their power with the estrangement from that over which it is exerted” (6). Inevitably, the animistic link connecting the Ancients to each other and to their environment is severed, shown as a break in the fabric connecting two Ancients in the fourth meditation of the game. A calamitous ruining of the civilization results, and the once fertile land becomes a desert.

Detail from the game’s fourth meditation, showing the link between the Ancients breaking.

This desert is the world the player enters: barren, covered in ruins. Throughout the player’s progression through the game, he develops a new relation to the environment, releasing the fabric beings from their age-old prisons. The difference between the past of the Ancients and the present of the player (who, unlike the Ancients, looks like the other inhabitants of the world) is a conceptual difference: valuing the environment for its usefulness, and valuing it for simply being. The divergent attitudes are clearly represented in the ruined bridge section of the game. It is revealed in the second meditation that the Ancients channelled the shards of fabric through structures in order to generate power, as they did through the now-destroyed bridge. The shards they had used are still trapped in the ruins. The player frees these shards, who then, as said before, willingly reform the bridge in order to help the player. The difference is clear: the Ancients manipulated and imprisoned these shards for their own purposes, while the player aids these shards, and in return receives their aid. Symbiosis replaces domination, and everyone benefits from the change. It is for this reason that the past is revealed to the player by the Ancients: he is shown the old mistakes, and encouraged to relate differently to the world. And the world is different in the hands of the player. All animate life struggles, in the barrenness, to liberate itself from the wrongs of the past, and it does so together, in a symbiotic manner. In opposition to this are the sharks. These mechanical, hostile beings are remnants of the past, fuelled by the life force they consume, and are the most blatant representations of a dark history. The only really threat to the player, these machines, like the past paradigm they represent, must be overcome in order to reach the mountain’s peak. And of course, the player is driven to think of the ways our own society shares the value system of the Ancients. As Adorno and Horkheimer argue, we too view ourselves as privileged in relation to our environment, and value it for its usefulness to us, to generate power for our needs. In a time when the calamitous environmental devastation recounted in Journey seems to be a realistic possibility, the game presents an important conceptual alternative to the conventional understanding of space, whether virtual or real.

The concept of symbiosis in our relationship with the environment presented in Journey is an important one, and one which is expressed wonderfully by the video game medium. In its ability to create inhabitable spaces, video games present unique means of exploring this paradigm, as by changing how the player relates to the virtual environment, it may be possible to drive them to see the real environment differently. And yet, for all the good Journey does in this regard, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable with the lack of self-reflection in the game. As an artistic production in a medium which is inherently dependent on the manipulation of the environment, the message of Journey, while important, suffers from more than a touch of hypocrisy. E-waste is a growing issue, with millions of tons of obsolete electronic devices being discarded each year, and the production of new devices further straining the environment (a more complete discussion of this issue can be found in Amanda Hardy’s essay in the forthcoming edition of the University of British Columbia’s UJAH, where she examines Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky’s portrayal of e-waste). These facts do not negate the power of Journey’s message, but this message could be made all the stronger by addressing the ways in which both developer and player are complicit with the problem. Journey is still a great experience, and its reinterpretation of the game space is one of the most important developments in the video game medium to date. But without self-reflection it is inevitable that we, like the Ancients, will carry on in our current paradigm, perhaps facing a calamity of our own.

Edward Burtynsky’s photograph, titled China Recycling #9, showing circuit board e-waste in Guiyu, China.

7 thoughts on “Journey and the Reinterpretation of the Game Space

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