Journey: Engineering relationships


It was an odd sensation to find myself inside the real of writing once more. For the past month or so I have devoted my life to endless revision, endless tweaking of my learning and endless devouring of poor-grade food in the twilight hours. I’ve been sick, I’ve yearned for sleep so much it made me cry, I’ve had nightmares and tremors and it’s safe to say that it was a month of hell. It’s relieving then to say that I am back. I am back, scratching the burning itch that riddled me for so long. So we kick off my new Summer gaming essay series with the most recent title to grace the ‘artgame’ genre. With the likes of Fez and others peppering 2012, it’s nice to see indie gaming is still being recognized as a functional and profitable slice of the gaming colony. It’s even nicer to see games that are a direct juxtaposition to an industry which has now portrayed endless violence ad nauseum to the extent of which it has become insipidly boring.

Journey then isn’t a surprise. Except, that’s probably what you expected of me right? To rave on about its artistic merits, its fresh spirit against a colossal sandstorm mainstream collective thought? Journey, in many ways, can be interpreted as a critique of the industry as a whole, an allegory of the linear video-game among many other tricky fancypantsy lines of reading. Unfortunately, I’m not one inclined to critique and read and gush about how amazing video-games are. That’s reserved only for Portal 2 or any other Valve ilk, to which I have a brutally explicit bias towards. And by ‘bias’ I mean ‘borderline erotic obsession’.

Journey is the most beautiful game I have ever had the pleasure of partaking in. The art style is unparalleled; a half-blend between photorealism and cutesy cel-shaded bits. Some of the moments in Journey gave me more emotion than my entire experience with art as a whole. Art as in paintings, portraits and all those basic visual pleasantries. The artistic experience really does come home in Journey and when these sweeping, wonderful views all collide and align with the interaction then something truly unique is pieced together. A rare emotion, perhaps an aesthetic epicentre. What left me even more entangled with the game, however, was its technological set-piece. The online system.

It’s really rare that I find myself unable to truly articulate something. Not because I’m a writer by trade but because… everyone knows words. Everyone can vaguely describe the most complex of emotions. Bittersweet almost has a texture in its description, like biting down on a grape in the sun. Love is arguably the most complex emotion of all, because it has multiple levels. Heartbreak, entanglement, the fall, the rise, the companionship, the throbbing feel of an evolving tie among others. That’s only speaking from personal experience as well, I imagine the mature folks would have a myriad of descriptions. Journey explores the punctual basic of Love, the capital letter if you will. It creeps its way around the ‘L’ itself; the relationship.

What Journey does is probably one of the scariest, worrisome and yet all the more wonderfully beautiful things in the history of video-games. It introduces relationships with anonymity beyond pseudonyms, beyond the basics of communication and almost bypasses all forms of ‘human interaction’ altogether to create a sweet pile of mathematical, technological dilutions of a relationship. It engineers one. One without chaos or order or blissful humour or discourse. It heavily, heavily tips into the overarching artistic themes of communication, relationships and technology.

What Journey does is introduce a computer into the most purest of human experiences. The incredible irony is that the word ‘connection’ now has two connotations. I think Journey is about this connection, about engineering the relationship.

It’s an almost volatile combination. I wouldn’t be particularly surprised if there were some sceptics in the webbing of ThatGameCompany’s team. I don’t blame them, because I’d be on their side. To introduce technology into the human relationship, even one built around anonymity, is unethical. It’s perverse to centuries of linguistic explorations, language formations and the very evolution of communication itself. Journey‘s core communication device is diluted into a single button press and the movement of your character. Think about that, buttons and movement. The faceless protagonist is a template for all players. It, in short, removes individuality. This is the very first video-game to pride itself in collective communication.

Except the technology’s influence does not end there. In engineering a relationship, it removes formal emotion. Except, it introduces probably the scariest piece of the puzzle. New emotion. I found myself waiting, once for a whole hour, for someone I had just spend five minutes with. I’ve read up on other experiences of the game, particularly the bits involving enemies and the ending. Everyone seems to have a unique, individual experience to the ‘connection’ and suddenly I’m wondering if that’s the greatest irony of all. That our unique, individual experiences can be shared so rapidly over the internet that (in short) it’s a mirror image of Journey‘s collectivist communication. Matched button presses, flowing of movements and symmetry of characters. Journey is the first of its kind.

So what does that mean? Video-games have long managed to create relationships out of nothing. They’ve had cut-scenes, scripts, characters, dialogue, plots to glue characters together, diaries, text information, private messaging, chats, inner-blogs and so on and so forth. The gaming community itself has message boards, messaging, emails, discussion bits, image sharing and all kinds of social media interaction. What Journey is about then is something none of us have ever experienced, and I honestly believe this to be the case. Journey is a world where we cannot speak, where we can only move and sway. Journey is both devoid and full of communication. It’s one giant oxymoron of an interactive experience.

In short, we are able to experience our caveman days.

A long, long, long time ago mankind didn’t have scribbles or typography or even language. Just stepping out of its primate soup, covered in the primitive goo, we started to grunt and wave our arms. We formed tribes, hunted, raped and destroyed our way into surviving the harshness of nature. Our civilisations, our technology, our very evolution all comes down to the building (and continuity) of communication. The brain named itself. Words, meanings… even this very piece is in thanks to the evolution of communication. English itself hasn’t been around for that long, especially not this sophisticated, and suddenly a lot of us are losing faith in this natural impulse. Literacy rates are falling, reading ages are plummeting and it seems the volcanic darkness is clouding its face of mankind’s communication landscape. This has a drastic effect on our relationships. As they become more digitized, as they become more template. When memes replace jokes, when LOL replaces laughter… well… that’s already happened hasn’t it?

As a linguistics student, among many other subjects, I should care. But I don’t. The effect on relationships (in my opinion) has been drastically… iffy. In some senses, it’s incredibly positive for the anxious, the indifferent, the awkward and the introverted. In other senses, it’s destroyed the extrovert and in a massive amount of cases it’s amplified their power. Now they can Facebook snap all their parties and women, clip together their collection of C-grade photography on Flickr and even send en-masse invites through a wealth of social media services. The human relationship has already been parodied, surgically diluted, investigated, destroyed, rebuilt, webbed out, mapped out, plunged and bathed and burnt and cooled. This is the very evolution of language, the very next step, and Journey is about the evolution of communication and (in particular) the explicit manipulation of technology upon the human relationship. When servers and networks decide the fate of a friendship, then something has changed.

And it’s already happened. In fact, I’m probably late the party. This very article is a form of superspeed, bandwidth chugging communication. The beautiful irony of is that I’m, at the end of the day, simply writing about writing. Writing used to conjure images of pens, typewriters, quills and books and frustration. Now I can say I’m a writer and be only in the league of the keyboard. Technology’s influence on words themselves has been around since the beginnings of complex civilisation. I don’t think Journey is about strictly anything, it’s made by ThatGameCompany and could mean practically anything, but if it addresses one theme or explores one idea then it is this. Technology. And whether or not it does it positively or negatively is up to you.

I personally don’t see it as a critique of new communication. If anything, I think it creates a beautiful, touching landscape of relationships. The PSN names at the end are simply a formality, and it feels almost like a devolution if that makes sense? Grunts, names, movements and signals are the basics of human communication, and to have writing and images and modern communication removed outright just amplifies the experience in my opinion. The engineering of a relationship, no matter how artificial it may feel at first, is probably among the most surreal experiences of my entire life. To know that there’s another human being flying around, donning similar scarves to you, without a name or a face or any form of recognition. With the very basic caveman recognition… it’s utterly surreal.

How do I know this is intentional? It doesn’t have to be. I believe all artistic studies; literature, film theory, art studies and all kinds of artistic explorations are all simply study of the sub-conscious. The author’s sub-conscious itself is more interesting anyway than the intentions they present. As a writer myself, it’s quite scary to revise past works and see how much of the ‘self’ bleeds in just without you even noticing. I’ve since just being outright blatant with it, and my work has improved as a result. Journey isn’t exempt from my philosophy on art, but there are some signs that point towards its exploration of communication.

The mysterious language that you come across is almost like cave painting scribbles, the pictures themselves all piece together an ancient and dead civilisation, the ‘gravestones’ (seen above in the picture) all seem to unidentified, the creatures are all made of fabrics and are usually faceless and the iconography of the ‘ending screen’ (seen below). The only communication is through movement and button-presses. While the game is heavily linear, and that’s one of the slight critiques I have of it, it  feels like a wider portrait. Journey‘s world is simply a synecdoche of the entire civilisation, and there’s some pieces which are seriously interesting to me.

The gravestones in particular, with the holes at the top, reminds me of needles. It reminds me of the fabrics, the patchworks and the clothing… the aesthetics of the game all create an image of ‘fashion’, not in the strictly modern/cultural sense, and I think the game addresses language as ‘patchwork’, or an evolved quilt. Pieced and knitted together, the fabric of communication. Communication is the very basic building blocks, the minerals of the world of relationships.

Journey is a brave, brave game. I’ve read up on all kinds of interpretations. I’ve read Freudian analysis, interpretations about the ‘journey’ too. I’ve read that the title may actually be a pun, that the game’s ‘journey’ is linear and while full of wonder, is ultimately fulfilling in the ending itself. I’ve also read the opposite, that it’s instead a celebration of the ‘journey’ of any interactive experience.

It’s not getting there that counts, it’s how you get there. The very journey of life. Crawling out of the womb, learning how the spit words, readings words and books, getting your way through school and your packed lunches, chewing down your packaged dinners and being a little consumer, tying up education, falling in love, becoming heartbroken, meeting friends and strangers, finding yourself on the edge of depression, finding your emotional epicentre, working and toiling towards something, meeting people, finding yourself, finding everyone else, building and mentoring the next generation, meeting people, looking at places, looking at faces, jumping and diving and swimming and sporting, achieving, celebrating, partying, crying, meeting people, marrying or not marrying, losing and winning, meeting people and then finally dying with people by your side. The ultimate end to the human relationship.

Journey‘s ending to your relationships is… much more different:

Final image from ‘s YouTube Playthrough:

One thought on “Journey: Engineering relationships

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