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This article might contain spoilers for Journey.
For better or worse, Journey is very much a game that allows you to interpret it in your own way. You’re not presented with an explicit story or characters, just a single goal. You see a light on a mountain in the distance, and you must get to it. What happens on the way there remains largely the same — except for your interaction with other players, which you are paired with randomly.
My first journey wasn't really with a random stranger. It was with my wife. We had both greatly enjoyed Flower and wanted to experience our first playthrough of Journey together, We avoided reading about the game to have the freshest possible experience. I played first, picking up the first scarf glyphs though it was she who really noticed how the flying mechanic worked. We played mostly silently, except to comment when something was particularly beautiful.
We had to switch the game off after entering the tunnels. Later in the day, we picked it back up with my wife playing through to the end. We occasionally encountered others but always lost track of them after a while. We weren't really paying that close of attention to the other characters, and we didn't notice they were actually controlled by other people. I thought of them as being like Tails from the Sonic games, mindlessly following you around but not really doing anything. When we learned at the end that they had been other players the entire time, it was a genuine surprise.
When we walked into the light at the end, even though we were playing the game together, our character was alone. We watched the ending and were satisfied, but it didn't feel like anything more than beating a good title.
On my second playthrough, I started playing by myself. At the beginning of the second level, I found another player meditating on the apex of a dune. I chirped at him. He chirped back, and we set off together. It was clear that neither of us really knew what we were doing since we were both rather new to the game. We didn't know the hidden glyphs strewn through the levels, where all the histories were, and where to find small, special things like the desert flower or the glyph serpent.
We explored together, finding some of the hidden places and chirping our excitement or unease to each other. When one of us was attacked by a dragon and knocked back out of sight, we'd shout to each other and come running to face it together. It was during this playthrough that I realized players could recharge each other's scarves and also when I started thinking of the characters as pilgrims.
One moment really touched me…. While trying to fight our way up some windy stairs, I was blown off a cliff and away from my friend. The sheerness of the cliff meant having to find another way back up, but rather than let me fend for myself, he threw himself off the cliff as well to stay with me, and we worked our way back up together. I wondered if he knew I'd be there for sure or if he jumped thinking he could maybe die.
Of course, we walked into the light together. It felt like we had been through something meaningful. I didn't know this person's name, face, or even their gender, but I felt very close to him or her nonetheless. I was actually very saddened to see that when I became a falling star, there wasn't another star there falling with me. I guess in the end, we all have to make the final leg of the journey alone.
My third journey was shared with a friend who isn't really a gamer. Her gaming mostly amounts to having played Final Fantasy X and SSX Tricky back in the day. I gave her the controller and told her I would do as little backseat-driver commentary as possible, only telling her what to do if asked. On the third level, she encountered a white-cloaked pilgrim who flitted and chirped around her, trying to guide her around the level.
My friend is not that coordinated with a game controller, and the level of patience this cloaked mentor showed her was extraordinary. Getting a little fatigued, my friend handed off the controller for the last few levels and just watched as the mentor guided me to all the little hidden things I hadn't previously noticed. My friend complained that I wasn't chirping enough to the white cloak and insisted I chatter away.
Over the course of our time together, I came to think of the mentor as female because she seemed so patient and nurturing. When I told my friend that this was a real person who had been guiding her through the game, she was floored. It had never occurred to her that people could play together online in a game like this. She didn't seriously believe it was a real person until we exchanged messages with her, thanking each other for a lovely time.
A small thing, but hugely important to the narrative, is the very last scene when your pilgrim is disappearing into the light. When walking with another person, the game makes sure to separate you out into two distinct silhouettes to emphasize that you aren't alone — that you did this together. It's a beautiful moment and one I found incredibly moving.
There are so many things about this game I could rave about: the wonderful music, visuals, design, the simplistic yet perfect communication system…. But the thing that really made me fall in love with Journey was the sense of friendship and support I found with faceless strangers.