Ruining Journey

Despite its absence from the canonical list, I maintain that Journey is the best video game ever made. Playing Journey was a highly emotional experience, and it has stuck with me in a way that no other game has. There is so much there to be appreciated, both as a person who plays video games and as a person who exists on the internet.

It was with this high regard that I decided I should try to get my dad to play it. I explained that I wanted to answer his questions about what I found so appealing about video games. I promised that this was a short, easy game that would succinctly demonstrate the best the medium had to offer.

So, one afternoon when we both had a couple of hours free, I booted the game up and handed him a controller.

Endless sand

I am going to spoil Journey. If you have not played it, please stop reading. Not having played it, this story will make little sense. If you don't own a PS3, borrow a friend's. You won't regret it. I promise.

After some dramatic shots of some featureless expanses of sand, my dad is introduced to a robed figure sitting in front of a dune capped with with a pair of stone pillars from which strips of fabric flap enticingly. The game asks him to tilt the controller. He instead rotates it. He is confused.

The game interprets his floundering as a demonstration of his understanding of the camera controls, and instructs him to move the left stick on the controller. He does so. The robed figure stands up and walks around. I am not sure if he was testing the boundaries or if he really didn't get the hint, but the figure was knocked to the ground by the wind three or four times before finally committing to climbing the dune.

Upon reaching the peak, the figure stops for a moment to consider a pillar of light emanating from the peak of the silhouette of a distant mountain. It is pretty, and my dad acknowledges this. He does not appear to consciously understand what the game has just told him, and will later prove this to be the case.

The figure encounters a line of pillars in a configuration that implies a long-since ruined broken bridge. Scattered around the sand surrounding the pillars lie weathered husks of what look like mechanical stone dragons with red fabric strips flapping above them. The figure stands before one of them. Another robed figure scurries around in the distance. My dad notices it but pays it no mind. Before long, he is alone again.

The figure slides swiftly down a steep hill among the ruins of large red buildings. Friendly flying carpet creatures frolic alongside the figure as it descends. Together, they zip into a short cave and emerge in a tunnel inset into the side of a hill with pillars holding up the open right side. The camera moves to the figure's left side to capture a breathtaking view in which the figure is framed by the silhouettes of a ruined city and sand that looks and moves like fire in the reflection of the sunset. My dad wants nothing more than to get the camera back behind the figure so he can see what obstacles may be in its path.

The figure stands at the base of a tower that fills the height of a tall, dark, cylindrical, underground hall. An area to the left of the tower lights up and the figure approaches it. Before long, an ethereal water-like substance fills the area around the base of the tower, and the figure is able to fly up to some platforms suspended between the tower and the walls of the hall. Lacking the finesse required to control the figure, my dad is unable to entice it to make any significant vertical progress. Occasionally, a metallic clanging is heard and the substance fills more of the hall. My dad takes this as the game dragging him to the next level, criticising him for being slow.

He guides the figure up a desolate mountain, alone and frustrated. Stone dragons taunt him and he resigns himself to their whims. The wind buffets the figure and he sees no pattern in its gusts. The minutes in the cyclone before the figure's collapse are a relief, because they are easy. There are no obstacles. Finally keeling over is freedom.

Believing he is free, my dad sets down his controller and sighs. The game still has one last insult, though. A minute later, it tasks him with not just walking but flying the figure that he can barely control up waterfalls and spirals of carpet creatures and glowing golden mist. It is a constant battle against confusing physics and a dwindling scarf. There is no joy in it.

Barriers

John Siracusa was right when he talked about how difficulty would ruin the experience (1:11:34). He was right when he talked about non-gamers being confounded by the basic mechanics of controlling a character (1:20:40). I had hoped my dad's experience playing N64 games with us as kids would have left him with the ability to direct a character around a 3D world, but having never played a game where your avatar has legs and completely free movement, especially alone, he was lost. The cues that to me are second nature were invisible to him. The things that make Journey special were made inaccessible by the things the game requires of its player that I was incapable of recognising.

He never interacted with the other players he met. He never saw them as anything other than decoration, never suspected they were anything but AI. None of them stuck with him for long.