Friendship, Fear, and the Great Unknown

Posted by in Video Games, Writing

I could hear the hollow bellow from above. Even over the unrelenting, roaring wind, I could hear it.

I could see the white-hot gaze just ahead. Even through the snowy, sideways haze, I could see it.

Against it all, I prayed I was safe. I prayed we were safe. “Oh god oh god,” I heard myself mutter over and over again, waiting for the terror to pass, huddled in the shadows of this rocky remnant. I turned to my companion.

But he was gone.

Tracks laid were he once stood. Following with my eye the path he now foolishly plowed, I could see him out in the distance. Darting back and forth between him and the skyward beast, my eyes could only attempt to communicate what my voice could not.

“Hey! Come back! Come back!”

It was pointless. The howling winter gusts swallowed my fevered pleas. But suddenly, the empty stare from above turns aggressive, rutilant. My words disappear. My stomach drops.

I begin to step out into the biting air. “Oh god oh god.” The feral creature begins to screech, leering back, preparing to strike. “Move faster! Faster!” I begin to run, dragging my feet through the knee-high powder. “If I can just reach him…” Unfinished thoughts rattle through my mind, unfinished because the ending unfathomable. Inevitable.

My scarf trails in the pale storm, flapping and twisting in the wind. It marks the path of a fool, a sap. Then, the fiend lurches forward, cutting through the frozen air with a searing, unknowable hate.

He collapses. I reach out.

Closer it comes.

He gives up. I refuse.

Screaming in, faster and faster.

He waits for his end. I touch his arm.

And to think, I didn’t even know his name.

Meeting strangers is like playing pachinko. Each time you meet a new one, you are dropping them into your own game of interpersonal fortune. You watch them, sometimes subconsciously, trickle down the ornate and noisy pegboard, bounding around, clinking and clanking from side to side until they come to a sudden and resolved stop.

Will they fall into your good graces and become a friend? What if they fall off the board completely and a stranger is all they will ever be? Tumbling and turning, they are as curious as you.

It’s awe-inspiring, then, when you come across an occasion where those transients you meet during your endeavors take a straight, unwavering path to a reserved and guarded place within you. They cut through the swath of pins and quickly arrive at somewhere much more intimate.

Such as it is with Journey, the latest release from artsy developers Thatgamecompany, and it is a grand experiment in pure, uncut game design. There are no spoken words, no exposition with which to tell you how to interpret the world around you. The title itself is all the instruction you need.

Everything is designed to move you forward. From the way you ski down the sandy dunes of the desert slopes to how the game has removed any possibility for negative progression, this game is about the journey. Even with the multiplayer, they have eliminated any opportunity to grief.

And I truly believe this game was made for multiplayer. Every conceit and every design minutia is put in place to foster a bond between two strangers. Communicating bolsters your flight; being in close proximity provides a warming heat of golden light; and your meditative transitions are positioned to show you are only one half of this experience.

The choice to prohibit voice and text chat while online is a bold and powerful one. You may not realize it, but just hearing how someone sounds or seeing the words they choose informs you with an immediate and everlasting impression.

Journey, however, lets you fill in the gaps for yourself. With no voice—just a melodic chirp to convey intent—you are free to turn that warble into whatever you desire. Every little peep told me a tale of joy in cooperatively conquering a puzzle or filled me with great despair as we both realize our journey has taken a turn for the worse. There is a gravitas you can create yourself that you could not do so otherwise with text and dialogue.

An intimate and familiar relationship is formed. An unqualified kinship develops universally and immediately. I had become frustrated with my companions, even hated them at points, but never did I want to leave them. Their inability to keep up was endearing, and their need to constantly move ahead before I was ready was misguided (or perhaps misinterpreted) concern for making sure the way was safe for us. The struggles we faced were our own and we would overcome them together.

Journey is altogether and simultaneously the most exhilarating, most terrifying, and most bewildering experience I’ve had in such a long time, and it is a triumph in every sense of the word. There are moments of pure, abject fear that froze me in my seat. There are moments where I felt as free and flowing as a bird on the wind.

There are moments where I knew I was playing something special.