This post is filled with spoilers for Journey, so if you care about that sort of thing, finish the game before you read it.
It’s perhaps a testament to thatgamecompany‘s minimalistic and purposefully artistic design that a player can read Journey in different ways. Journey succeeds admirably as both a fun game and and as a deeper, thought-provoking experience. It both remains accessible to those who simply want to play a fun game and to those who enjoy games that provide meaningful experiences. It’s short, sweet, and worth playing.
Play and Design
Taken literally, Journey is a third person action-adventure game for the PlayStation 3 (available on the PlayStation Network) in which one controls a humanoid through various platforming stages. Along the way, if online mode is enabled, one might meet up to a single anonymous (until the end credits) player who is also there on their own journey. Perhaps they may lend a hand or they may simply go about their business. Either way, it doesn’t matter as Journey doesn’t force cooperation or competition.
In minimalist fashion, thatgamecompany removed everything from Journey until only the essential remained. There is no user interface, no health bars—your character doesn’t even have arms nor discernable sex or gender. You wear a scarf that is literally an energy meter for your jump-glide ability. If you get knocked about during your journey, your scarf shortens and your abilities are diminished. You can increase the length of your scarf by collecting glowing glyphs. Without the trappings of quest logs, scores, or online chat, there’s little to get in the way between you the player and experiencing the game.
You can’t talk to other players you may meet online, you can only emote a sound and a unique random symbol that acts as an identifier and a visual speech bubble—but without actual words. It seems impossible to grief other players. Almost every aspect of Journey‘s design excludes features which could be used as tools for abuse, such as chat, the display of PlayStation IDs (harassment based upon username), customizable avatars (harassment based upon avatar sex/gender), player ranks or scores, and collision (‘physical’ in-game griefing).
A second reading of Journey describes a narrative. Your burgundy-cloaked character wakes up in the desert. Right after your awakening in the desert, you wander around without purpose, gravitating towards points of interest in the environment. When you discover the first pictogram, its that point you are given purpose—to reach the tall mountain in the distance, to follow the path of those that came before. What is on the mountain from which a pillar of light shines? You don’t know. All you know is that those like you took the same journey. As you discover more pictograms, the story unfolds and the journey before you becomes clearer. When you reach the top of the temple, before ascending the mountain, all of the pictograms are presented to you by a white-cloaked being. The images show the journey you took and it shows you your final challenge.
Symbolism and Themes
Another reading of Journey peels away the narrative and describes the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth. Each of the different stages could symbolize stages or experiences in the life of an individual and/or concepts and values that we learn in life.
The game starts with your character sitting in the desert. When you get up, the game starts. This is birth. Crossing the broken bridge could symbolize the commitment to a purpose, learning, and being smart and working hard to solve problems. Exploring the desert and helping the flying creatures escape their prisons could symbolize attempts to forge our path and could be a value statement encouraging benevolence towards others we encounter our lives. Sand surfing in the sunken city could represent the joy of adventure. Traversing the dangerous underground passage represents the trials and hardships in life, which can be overcome by cunning and luck. Traveling upward through the vertical temple could represent growing self-realization and self-knowledge.
The final stage, which begins at the foot of the bitterly cold mountain, and ends with joining the shining light at the top of the mountain, could represent dying, death, and the process of reincarnation. As you progress through the howling winds and blinding snow to the summit, your scarf—the sum of all your powers and abilities—is blown away to nothing. You can barely croak an emote. When once your voice was strong and booming, it is weak. This could symbolize the process of dying, when everyone is equalized, when everyone is fighting for survival. You soldier on to the top of the mountain, collapse, then everything goes blank-white. Death?
You reawaken near the summit, your abilities have returned in full. The sun is shining. The sky is blue. You’re filled with joy because you’re alive. It’s glorious. Are you alive, though? Everything went blank earlier. How did you regain all your strength and abilities? You realize that you have yet to reach the zenith, and so you fly upward towards the light at the top of the mountain. I interpreted this portion as a liminal state-between-states. Between death and rebirth. Before reincarnation. You become one with the light at the top of the mountain. Everything goes blank-white once again.
Soon after that, a glowing light bursts out from the pillar of light at the top of the mountain. It shoots out, traveling back through familiar territory–past the snowy peak, down shaft of the great temple, through the dark undeground, past the sunken city, past the great bridge–to land in the desert.