Journey: An Analysis

Dev. thatgamecompany

Pub. Sony Computer Entertainment

The beauty of Journey is its use of primal imagery, which is receptive to virtually any metaphor the player wishes to apply; it seems like there are as many interpretations of the game’s meaning as there are people who played it, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It means that Journey can speak to each individual personally and profoundly. One could just as easily argue that the universality of the game’s imagery provides it with an emotional shortcut, forcing the player to fill in a narrative that appeals to them—they come out satisfied, but Journey cheated its way out of constructing an engaging story by shuffling that obligation over to its audience.

There’s merit to both of these perspectives, although I am inclined to lean towards the former (Abzu, Journey’s obvious spiritual successor, is much less effective because it slips into the latter) because of the specificity of one particular image: the snake. Serpents are so iconic as a part of Christian mythology—the temptation in the Garden of Eden, Satan’s incarnation as a dragon in the Book of Revelation—that I find it difficult not to read the game as a metaphor for mankind’s fall from the grace of God before ultimately achieving redemption in His eyes. Let’s explore this interpretation by taking a journey (eh?) and walking through the game’s imagery as it is presented.

Journey opens with a desert, the sun blazing overhead. We immediately get a sense of desolation and loneliness. Markers, obvious evocations of gravestones, rise from the sand. A light shoots across the sky, and a close-up of the player-character pulls back to reveal the scope of the empty landscape. The player knows, even before they interact with the game, that they are lost and abandoned and separated from…something. We are drawn to the markers on the top of a nearby dune, and approaching them reveals the mountain in the distance—instinct tells us that this is our goal. The clarity of knowing exactly where you as a character want (need?) to go provides Journey with a structural focus that speaks to strong storytelling.

The player-character (PC from here on out) runs through a field of markers and acquires a meager scarf. Upon entering a derelict building, an image is revealed on the wall: humanoid figures, dressed in the PC’s distinctive cloak, lying down next to the markers we have already seen in what clearly indicates a graveyard. This creates a sudden sense of danger, a sense that something is at stake because it is possible to fail and so many already have. Although we don’t know why the PC wants to get to the mountain, we know that there is a communal desire to do so and that success is not a guarantee. Journey challenges you to accomplish what others could not (this is complicated by the fact that you cannot actually die in the game, a deliberate choice which feeds into the central metaphor).

The first time the PC sits down to meditate, they see a shadowy figure and a series of images plays across the screen: a white light shoots from the mountain peak, and from the light descend glyphs which in turn transform into birds and plants and humanoid lifeforms. The lifeforms obsessively watch the light and the glyphs, which also distill themselves into a strip of cloth—the scarf. This reads to me as Genesis, the creation myth, God (incarnate in the mountain) creating life and the length of the scarf symbolizing the strength of mankind’s relationship with God. Thus, when the PC’s relationship with God is strong, the scarf is long and they become capable of greater feats (hence the higher/longer jumps). The PC strengthens their relationship with God by both listening to God (finding the glyphs) and sharing God’s message (chirping, which briefly illuminates a glyph on the screen).

The next cutscene features a bright figure who continues the story. The camera moves laterally, left to right (indicating cause-and-effect), from a humanoid figure to a series of pillars which rise into the sky; a strip of cloth is drawn down from above and is fed into vertical structures, illuminating them. This is a clear evocation of the Tower of Babel—mankind builds to heaven, then (in this case) harnesses the power of God to provide energy for human technology. Buildings are constructed over plants in the cutscene that follows, reaching higher and higher into the sky as God’s creations are replaced by artifice and mankind challenges His authority. The next cutscene shows the cloth vanishing, and a scarf tears in two when a couple of humanoid figures fight over it. This seems to be an allegory for religious warfare and the splitting of the church as people begin to disagree concerning the definition of God and His message.

This transitions us into the “dark” portion of the game, both visually and tonally. The PC reaches the literal and metaphorical low-point of their journey (eh?) and is pursued by flying snake-like creatures, which will tear off a portion of your scarf if they catch you. This almost seems to function as a one-to-one allegory with the serpent from the Garden of Eden, with the snakes representing temptation, and thus giving in to temptation (being caught by a serpent) results in your relationship with God becoming weakened—hence, the shortening of the scarf. The next cutscene, for the first time, features both the bright figure and the PC facing in the same direction, looking upon the mountain together; this is about tragedy and redemption not just for you, but for God as well. You see the ground littered with the dead, and the desert from the first half of the game buries them. Glyphs from the sky create your character, and the images you see now begin to tell your story.

The next cutscene foreshadows the future: after making your way through the desert, across the bridge, and past the flying serpents, you bow, collapse, in the face of the wind blowing off the mountain. But in the game’s final ascent, you are able to hide behind gravemarkers that block the wind, allowing you to progress incrementally—the failures of those who came before you provide stepping stones, a subtle but grand assertion that no life is worthless and that we all, collectively, move humanity forward, even if it is only to make the paths of our successors a shade easier. The PC eventually makes it past the serpents on the mountain’s frozen lower slopes, and you fly gloriously up to the peak before walking into the overwhelming and all-consuming light. Birth? Death? Reincarnation? Redemption? It means whatever you want it to mean.

Looking back, it becomes clear that the game is split quite cleanly into three acts. The first act is largely expository, in which you make your way through the desert and orient yourself to the setting and mechanics of the game. There’s no inciting incident per se, but your character does have a concrete goal and there are stakes. The second act is the dark middle chapter, in which your thrilling slide through the desert sands brings you down into the realm of the serpents, where you give in to temptation and are further than ever from God. The mountain ascent constitutes the third act, and the moment in which the PC succumbs to the cold and collapses into the snow functions as the pinch (the point at which all hope is lost). The celebratory final ascent completes the tonal and emotional parabola that Journey uses in order to mirror a basic three-act storytelling structure.

The Christian reading of the game that I’ve laid out in this essay is obviously not a perfect metaphor (nor do I believe it was intended by the creators); the power of God as a literal source of energy doesn’t quite match with the real-world mythology, nor does the transformation of the serpents into the undulating cloth whales, which indicates that they were corruptions of God’s creations. The PC seems to evoke Jesus, given that, within the context of the game, they were explicitly created by God for the sole purpose of ascending the mountain and presumably redeeming the rest of mankind by becoming, whether literally or figuratively, one with God—note that the track of Austin Wintory’s score which plays during the ascension sequence is called “Apotheosis,” which can refer to a “culmination or climax” or to “the elevation of someone to divine status.” But equating the PC to Jesus doesn’t mesh with the game’s second act or much of the third, and it doesn’t explain the appearance of what seem to be multiple gods in the final cutscene (perhaps each of the storytellers who appeared previously were separate entities?). I’m not arguing that Journey was intended to be a retelling of Biblical stories, only that it draws directly upon Christian imagery to communicate its emotional and narrative movements. The power of the game lies in the universality of its metaphors, the scope of its symbolism.  

And what power that is.