The sun glows across the golden mountains. My red scarf sways in the breeze. The only mark of humanity on the landscape - besides my own footprints - is two flags standing atop the nearest hill.
Nothing forces me to approach the rippling fabric, but the vastness of my surroundings makes me long for someone who resembles me; I wonder who thrust those flags into the sand. The slow notes of a violin swell as I climb the hill.
The graphical landscape of Journey is beautiful, and the soundtrack swirls through the scenery like a glittering snowstorm. But while the graphics and music are exceptional, these aren’t the game’s most revolutionary features.
The narrative trajectory of Journey starts similarly for everyone who plays it - and I’m not convinced ‘played’ is the right word here - but with each expedition, the game’s unspoken story evolves into a new and utterly unique experience. This player-created narrative is said to cross the boundaries created by differences in gender, class, and culture because the people you meet remain unidentifiable until the end.
When I first entered the sand and snow in 2012, I sought this boundary-defying companionship. And that’s why I was heartbreakingly disappointed.
I enjoyed wandering through the desert ruins, exploring the intricate details. The scenery was so magnificent that, at first, I didn’t mind discovering it alone; however, soon, my solitude made the expansive landscape feel unbearable.
When, in the distance, I saw a glimmer of red against the brown and orange - a scarf blowing in the breeze - I knew I had found my first travelling companion. They stood on a platform, completely still.
I lingered beside them, waiting for a sign of movement. I leapt and danced, seeking the statuesque person’s attention. Tentatively, I sang a note. Then, I sang louder.
I moved on.
I completed that journey alone.
Discouraged, but staunchly undeterred, I embarked on a second adventure through the familiar settings, but encountered only scarlet dragons as I crossed the desert and climbed through the temple. When the sky became clouded by mist and snowflakes I finally saw somebody else attempting to resist the buffeting wind.
I was certain that this was my chance to experience the boundary-crossing connection that I had been promised, but as we neared the peak of the snowy temple, a gust of wind pushed me backwards down a staircase. When I finally fought my way to the top, they were gone.
I doubted if they had even tried to wait for me.
I felt betrayed and abandoned. Fears from my own personal reality had crept into my player-created narrative, reminding me of lost friendships and revealing vulnerabilities that I prefer to keep hidden. I continued my climb alone, but it felt empty. I had been warned of the grief that comes with accidentally losing one’s companion, but I felt certain that this person - whoever they were - deliberately preferred to travel without me. This brought with it a different, unexpected sort of sadness.
Just as my companion left me in the snow, I abandoned Journey.
Until the game was re-released on PS4, that is.
I was surprised by how much my two expeditions through the sand and snow still affected me. Years had passed, and yet suddenly the re-release made images of the landscape inescapable and they took me back to the temples where I was left to walk alone.
I ignored the game’s return for several days, watching others marvel at its beauty and compare new journeys to remembered adventures. I was urged to reconsider my fear and to have faith. Slowly, like the violin melody swelling to crescendo, I was coaxed back to the golden mountains and the rippling flag.
During my travels, I met four companions. The first, with a long scarf and red robes, started a series of events that skipped me ahead of the desert canyons I remembered, but disappeared shortly after. The second, dressed in white, stayed with me as we leapt up the platforms through a temple, but I lost them before I reached the snow. The third never saw me, always too many steps ahead as the strong winds pushed me backwards.
I met my fourth companion near a snowy statue. I sang to them, and they sang to me, and we climbed together. I recognised the stairs where I had been abandoned and I was terrified that I would climb too slowly, but I successfully reached their summit before the next gust of wind. My companion was not so lucky, pushed by the snowstorm down the many steps and out of sight.
I waited for them.
We struggled through the snow together, and burst out into the light. We danced with the ribbon dragons and through the ribbon flowers near the mountain’s peak, celebrating our shared success. We sang loudly, happily. And then we lost each other.
I stood by the waterfall, singing, hoping to hear a reply. I looked around frantically, an aching grief already filling my stomach.
And then I saw it above me: the white sphere of their song.
When, after everything, I walked into the glowing light side-by-side with my companion, I cried.
I am fascinated by how intensely Journey’s narrative has affected me - both negatively and positively - particularly since so much of the deeply emotional story was created by me and my travelling companions. The game is a patchwork of stunning landscapes, each filled with struggles and relief, where humanity’s best and worst qualities thrive; players are free to exist within these landscapes and to become whoever they want to be.
Perhaps it says something about the person I am now, compared to the person I was in 2012, that my player-created narrative evolved from one marked by sadness to one filled with optimism. I don’t know if I have forgiven those who left me alone in the sand and snow three years ago, but I certainly see Journey differently now.
Journey continues to be one of the most exceptional games that has attempted to experiment with player-created narrative and, while all three of my experiences have been emotional and haunting, I’m overjoyed to have finally felt the elation that counters the sorrow.