There is an oft-recited phrase that “it’s not about the destination, it's about the journey.” While this has been attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, no one knows who created this phrase. Instead, it just seems to be a universal belief that life is not lived to reach some nebulous endpoint but rather to enjoy the moments that make up every second, minute, and day we exist.
2012’s Journey, from developer Thatgamecompany, is a not-so-subtle game about this idea. What makes it so special is the innovative use and subversion of the mechanics of video games as a medium. 11 years later, it remains one of the most important games ever made.
The lasting image that comes to mind when thinking about Journey is that of a red-robed figure standing on a sand dune, one of many in a vast desert, with a towering mountain in the distance calling the nameless figure forward. It is an accurate representation of what Journey is. Over the course of a brisk two hours, the player controls the red figure on a trek across different landscapes to reach the peak of the mountain. If reaching the mountain was the most important part of the game, then it would indeed seem boring. But of course, it isn’t.
Journey’s most important mechanic is its multiplayer functionality. At any point in the game, you may find yourself crossing paths with another red-robed figure. A hint that someone else inhabits this space comes when you hear a distinct trill, the only sound you can produce in the game. At first, it seems that the trill may be a trick of the ear, just another piece of the gorgeous soundtrack that plays as you move through the world. But it will light up your screen in the direction of the noise and guide you to another traveler. There are no usernames displayed and no in-game chat. Communication can only be accomplished through trilling and guiding one another through the world. When it first happens, you can hardly believe it is another person and not a computer.
Playing Journey, you find yourself attached to these companions that may come in and out of your own trek towards the mountain. While you don’t have to stay with another robed figure, most players will help you along and even wait for you. I have experienced many players sitting patiently when I had to go take care of a quick chore. They had no way of knowing how long I would take or even that I was coming back, but they trusted and waited. These are the moments that make Journey special.
Released on the PlayStation 3, Journey arrived at the peak of online multiplayer on consoles that had been ushered in with Xbox Live on the Xbox 360. With that came an aggressive and harmful culture. Online play was known as a place where you would probably get harassed. In this environment, Journey offered something radical. Journey’s implementation of multiplayer showed that players wanted to help each other, and valued having companionship. In short, it showed that we had the desire to be good to each other.
Today online games are more prevalent than ever. Though the majority of them maintain the status quo of battle royales and other competitive shooters. I don’t mean to disparage an entire genre wholesale, but they are effectively the same type of game that has remained the king of multiplayer experiences in the past decade. Importantly they focus on the antagonistic relationship between players. Journey’s influence feels minimal, except in Thatgamecompany’s follow-up title Sky and indie games like Book of Travels. Journey is similar to Japan Studio’s Ico and The Last Guardian in this way — they both demonstrate the unique potential of the medium but remain untapped by other creators in the space.
Journey’s use of multiplayer to enforce its message of companionship and mutual support was so affecting to me when I first played it that I replayed it multiple times over. I got every trophy for the game and unlocked the ability to wear a white robe instead of the usual red, marking me as a mentor in the game. I would play it several times a week just to guide others through the world. Being patient with them when they needed it and leading them to beautiful secrets someone had shown me in a past run.
I kept wanting to make that journey to the mountain, where my companion and I would exchange our last trills with each other and draw hearts in the snow as a sign of appreciation. To this day, gaming could use more experiences like Journey.