The hit indie game Journey is about a quest to pass through a giant vagina.
This isn’t a spoiler. The game makes its intentions clear at the start, when the main character is plunked down in a desert, toils up a hill, and gazes toward his goal: a shining slit in the distance. We already know we’re going to emerge from this quest coated in a thick caul of symbolism.
Life, death … all the big themes are on display.
Well, actually, just those two themes. But what else do you need?
Journey is a great game. There are lots of those. What makes this one notable is that it achieves greatness almost entirely by virtue of its symbolism. Art, music, narrative, gameplay, all have been paired down here to something with the pristine compactness of a Hans Christian Andersen tale.
You don’t do much in Journey. In an era when every action, from finishing a TV show to running a 2-K, comes with two dozen blips of online approval, you certainly don’t win very much. But everything here glows with significance.
Note my gendered pronouns: toward his goal. That’s not only sexist, it’s deceptive. The hero of this game has no gender at all. In Journey, you play a sexless, impish figure cloaked in orange tights and a concealing burnoose. Two cattish eyes peep from a void of a face.
Forget about revealing characteristics. This hero doesn’t even have arms.
The controls boil down to three actions: looking, jumping, and slogging. Mostly slogging.
If all this sounds like the worst kind of washed-out minimalism, take heart. Between our cloaked hero and his/her vulval goal lie acres of shining sand. That’s a good thing. The sand in this game looks great. Game designers like to brag about how hard they work on the details. They sweat over the physics of dripping blood. They fuss like Pope’s Belinda to get a heroine’s hair just right.
In Journey, it shows.
There’s a scene early on where you traipse through a sandy valley. Strong winds make the earth flow and ripple like the sea. A big gust catches your cloak, sends you skiing the powdery waves.
It doesn’t just look good. It feels good, like watching a kite weave in the sky.
Later, you trek into a ruined city at sunset. Light bounces off the sand. The ground blazes like money, achingly bright.
We gamers are always being admonished to rest our eyes. There were times, playing Journey, when I felt like I ought to be wearing polarizing lenses.
There’s a story, but it’s been trimmed down to picture-book dimensions. Most of Journey has you stumping through desert ruins. You do eventually find out why all those buildings are abandoned, and it’s exactly the answer you’d expect.
This is proper and satisfying. The worst thing a game like this can do is start monkeying around with plot. Journey almost loses focus when it complicates its elemental quest with antagonists: hulking war machines, like flying centipedes with spotlights for eyes.
The trouble with games, from an aesthetic standpoint, is not that they’re “interactive,” thus debarred forever from the salons of elite culture. It’s that there are higher and lower modes of interaction. The painter Edwin Church used to have opera glasses handed out at exhibitions of his mammoth pictures. The idea was for viewers to discover a canvas piece by piece, searching through swaths of meticulously painted rocks and foliage for near-invisible details: an exotic bird on a branch, a distant steeple.
It sounds like a nineteenth-century version of Where’s Waldo? It was. But Church was giving vulgar expression to an important truth. Far from being passive observers, we interact with even static art, first by looking, then by looking closer.
Every gamer knows that the best games don’t just taunt you into taking on harder challenges. They challenge you to see in deeper ways. Save for a few clunky moments, Journey skips the frustrations of button jamming and puzzle solving and plays on the simpler pleasures of sightseeing. You scan a vista, pick a distant point of interest, and hike in for a closer look.
It’s amazing how compelling this simple activity can be. I found myself bemused in later stages, when the game has you limp up a mountain at a starving man’s pace, driven back by a blasting wind. This must be the only game that slows down for its denouement. How can such a tedious activity be tolerable, much less entertaining?
It works because the grueling pace forces you to recognize the mindlessness of your own obstinacy. “I will go on,” I said to myself, as I have during countless games, books, TV shows, exercise regimens, and God knows what else. “I’m going to finish this.”
The genius of Journey is that it never aspires to be about more than this basic, rather stupid urge: to keep going, keep crossing the ground ahead of you, even if it’s just a big pile of sand.
The game brings you steadily, at times rigorously, into a more intimate relationship with your own willpower. At the end, when you finally reach that shining vagina in the sky, something truly poignant has taken place.
We’ve all fantasized about stepping into a painting. In this game, you step into a gorgeous painting—and keep stepping, and stepping, and stepping. Who would have thought it? Slogging can be fun.