Nearly 10 years later, Jenova Chen’s masterpiece still speaks to the soul.
In 2012, the video game industry was in a much different place than it is today. Log on to Steam or PSN today and you’ll be met with countless choices all vying for your independent game dollars. Fall Guys, Hades, Carto – you name it. Today there are experiences for almost everyone, but it’s a stark contrast to the video game landscape toward the end of the Xbox 360 generation. First-person shooters and high action games were all too popular and, outside of PC, there wasn’t much of a market for an artsy walking simulator where you drudge through a desert. Enter Jenova Chen and thatgamecompany.
Thatgamecompany, who had previously developed Flow in 2006 and Flower in 2009, released Journey in March of 2012 on the PlayStation 3. Players take on the role of a robed figure seemingly stuck in the middle of a desert. With only a shining beam emitting skyward from a nearby mountaintop as a guide, the player sets forth one step at a time toward the light. Playing online will open the possibility of encountering a second robed figure. The only way for tangible communication with your partner is by “chirping” with the press of the circle button. A quick press will give you a quiet chirp while holding and then releasing the button will result in a much louder chirp. This also serves to gather any nearby strips of cloth for your ever growing scarf.
On the surface the player will explore vast open dunes, solve simple puzzles, and essentially just survive as they make their way ever closer to the final destination. First, the player will explore. Journey invites you to come to grips with the controls and establish a good foundation as you’re getting used to the game. Next, the game cuts loose and let’s you enjoy your surroundings all through a lens that captivates and enchants you with whimsy. Before you know it, your character goes from sliding through majestic sands to slowly falling down into a deep underground abyss. The tone clearly changes at this point in the game. The next hour is spent navigating the darkness and avoiding enormous guardians. One bad move and the stone creatures will shave your scarf length in half – a devastating blow considering how long you’ve invested in it’s growth up to this point in the game. After finally emerging from the darkness, the player will find themselves at the base of the snowy mountain. The last leg is upon them, but the hardest moments are still to come.
Trekking up the stormy mountain is a disheartening task. The snow perpetually pulls at your scarf energy which slows every step. Though having a partner nearby helps recharge the energy, the cold is an ever-present and constant drain on the one thing that made you feel powerful up to this point. Eventually, either from the guardians or from the wear and tear of the snow storm, your character will have nothing. Your scarf is completely gone, your partner is of no help, and with only a matter of steps before you reach the peek, your character will fall over and succumb to the mountain cold.
Let me interject here and say that I believe that Journey is a clear metaphor for the journey of life. The opening moments of the game mirror the wonder and curiosity we all have as toddlers. The whimsical and carefree nature of the sliding stages represent us in our youth, primed and ready to take on the world, but ultimately just having fun. The dark abyss represents the challenges we’ll inevitably hit once we grow up. The optimism has vanished and you’re left alone in the darkness with not much direction. You simply have to figure it out and it’s often times hard and painful. The final snow covered hills represent us in our elderly years. We have a lot of experience (scarf length), but each step is extremely difficult. The snow is unrelenting and even our potential life mate is mostly unable to help us as we finally succumb to the snow and slip into the afterlife.
For the Christian, we know our final destination and our lives are to be a reflection of Christ’s. Suffering in this life is expected, but we also know that we have been given a new heart and will one day be given a new body. A perfect body, free from sin and death, meant for all eternity. In it’s own way, the final moments of Journey offers players a glimpse into just how majestic and wonderful meeting our God face to face will be. Lifted up by the same powers that gave us life throughout the game, the red scarves unroll like a red carpet welcoming us to the mountain peek. Austin Wintory’s grammy-nominated soundtrack crescendos as the player soars to the highest peek and gently lands in a soft puff of snow. The shining light at the top of the mountain, your original North Star, now engulfs you. It calls to you and it welcomes you home.
Experiencing this game for the first time was an emotional experience for me. Indeed, it’s the first game I can recall that made me cry. It perfectly captures the peeks and valleys of life all while showing you that there can be more to the journey of life than simply living in each moment. There is purpose – a calling to life. And for those of us who know the grace of God, there is an assurance that He who started a good work in us will bring us safely home. To me, it’s what that final scene in Journey represents! Having run the good race, God joyfully welcomes us into His courts saying “Well done my good and faithful servant.”
About once a year I’ll go back and replay Journey. I don’t play it for it’s art, though it’s unmistakable and enchanting. I don’t play it for it’s soundtrack, though it creeps into my head and elevates everything on screen. I don’t play it for the fun gameplay, though sliding down sand dunes is undeniably contagious. I boot up Journey over and over again so that I can get to that last scene. So I can feel the weight of what’s come before and then experience the refreshing embrace of a power that is beyond myself. Other interpretations of Journey certainly exist, but for me, having a video game paint a picture of Hebrews 12:1-2 holds incredible value. “…let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfector of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the thrown of God.”