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The Internet has the unique ability to polarise humanity. Even a cursory visit to its virtual shores will turn up endearing stories of human sacrifice and love right alongside an underbelly of darkness and pain.
Playing a console game online bucks this trend, somehow skipping the good stuff and cutting straight to teenage smack-talk and juvenile postulating. It only took me a few visits to online matches in Xbox Live or PlayStation Network to realise this wasn't a place for me, not yet anyway.
Journey, on the PlayStation 3, changed all this. Reducing player's communication to their Bedouin character's movement and simple bird-like chirrups transforms the rules of online play and creates a revealing study in otherness.
In the game, which is best played from start to finish in a single three hour session, you find yourself in a wind-swept desert as meteors rain down from a distant volcano. Like Flower, the developer's previous game, travelling through the environment imbues the videogame interactions with mythical qualities.
The game progresses through different landscapes, in which there are floating fabric elements to collect and discover. Each new piece of fabric is added to your clothing and grants the ability to jump higher and reach new areas. Over the course of the game proficient players can transform their jumps into a beautiful soaring ballet around the different environments.
While each element of Journey is well delivered, the real surprise is its overarching Direction. Whether desert or polar or tundra each landscape knits together with the last to create a real sense of voyage, of travel, of journey.
It's reminiscent of epic biblical desert traversal or the pass of Caradhras from Lord of the Rings. But to make these comparisons too strongly is to undermine how different it feels to take responsibility for the journey oneself. Leave the experience intact and it moves beyond entertainment and addresses itself instead to meaning.
It's this that makes the arrival of another solitary player in the game such a compelling moment.
Journey not only offers a new narrative with intriguing suggestions about human relationships, but it does so without words. Interaction with the game, walking, jumping and sliding create a grammar that is entirely new yet talk as clearly about its subject matter as any book or film. If video-games are to find a voice for themselves, and offer new ways to understand being human, it is on these terms that they will do it.
Each element presses the player for a particular answer, a way forward, a next step, a direction. Over the course of the three hours you unwittingly become responsible for the hope of reaching a destination, the journey becomes your own.
Perhaps it's this that makes the arrival of another solitary player in the game such a compelling moment. Having travelled alone, the presence of a stranger on the horizon is anything but strange. Instinctively you find yourself wanting to stay near to these uninvited, but welcome, guests and travel together for a time -- jumping in exclamation, chirping in response, and communicating wordlessly in a surprisingly deep fashion.
During one play through I faced a windswept mountain with my companion, being blown back down the slope and unable to progress. Seeing my trouble they quickly ran to a pillar halfway up and began chirping furiously, calling me over to share some safety from the wind. It was a wordless moment of collaboration and support. There was no incentive for this in the game, it came purely from two people taking responsibility for what was occurring.
A place where humanity somehow manages to better itself.
In line with monastic wisdom, it is Journey's enforced abstinence from complexity and unfettered communication that creates a place where humanity somehow manages to better itself. Without narrative, without speaking, without words, it turns movement and simple bird calls into meaning and emotion. It finds hope in the quiet stories of the desert and questions the wisdom of excess and autonomy in service of progress.
First published on Thirdway in 2012.
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