My Journey: The Power of Strangers

Virtual worlds and real emotions collide in this personal tale of discovery.

I stand still as the golden sun beats down on my robed back. Vast tracks of sand stretch off in every direction until the land meets the sky. There are no trees to watch sway, no wildlife scurrying across the desolate dunes to give the world a sense of being a living, breathing entity. I am completely alone.

I had been excited about playing Journey for a long time, but in the back of my mind there had always been a gnawing concern about its ability to make players really feel. Games, like any medium, are inherently personal; but even now, I'm surprised at how profoundly moving the experience was for me. So much so that I feel compelled to rally against my own nature, and share my experience with you. Warning, the following contains Journey spoilers.

A little background. Over the past three years my family has slowly been whittled down. My mother; my lifelong friend, confidant and muse passed away after enduring a painful, extended battle with cancer. My uncle suffered a stroke, became paralysed and housebound, and eventually succumbed to medical complications. Two of my father's sisters have shuffled off this mortal coil, one as recently as this past week, and while it pales by comparison, my dog of 15 years also had his time run out. It has been a tough period for those of us left behind, but my dad, sister, and amazing girlfriend have all been rocks to cling to in time of need. I don't tell these stories seeking pity, or to alleviate any of my own emotional aching, but rather because I think it's important to acknowledge that loss is a natural, if agonising, part of attachment. Without it, we don't ever have the perspective to appreciate love's true value.

When playing games, I often find myself conflicted between escaping into the shoes of my character, and making decisions on their behalf using my own logic and morality. Would I be willing to chop off my own finger to save my missing son? Should a traitor be punished to death for the crime of treason? When I started playing Journey, I realised I couldn't use the same approach. While my nameless, voiceless, gender-neutral avatar was part of the game world, it was me. And as I stepped alone onto the blistering sand of this foreign place, it wasn't my character who felt the awe and shock of the surroundings; it was me confronting my own sense of isolation.

Far off in the distance, towers loom up out of the sandbanks, a sign of civilisation, and for a moment I feel like I've been thrown a life preserver in the middle of a desert. Provided I can make it there, I might meet others; people with similar objectives, views, and interests. But how do I, a lone individual, reach the summit? I take my first step of many; my pace is slow and measured.

Journey follows the rules. The tempo is deliberately sluggish, but I know no game worth its salt will force me to amble at this speed until I reach the goal perched on the horizon. As I pass the crest of the first ridge, I surf gracefully down the other side--great, I've just halved my work! As I trudge on, I learn to fly. Only briefly at first, but later, soaring effortlessly as I navigate platforms, complete tasks, and reach places I thought inaccessible. I'm alone, but I'm not tethered. I'm a kid in a candy store without the watchful gaze of the shopkeeper. We humans are inherently social creatures: we congregate, we chatter, we revel in sharing common experiences. I realise as I zip around alone, while I'm having a great time, joy comes from sharing that experience with someone else.

We humans are inherently social creatures: we congregate, we chatter, we revel in sharing common experiences.

Then, out of nowhere, a person runs past. I look again and they're gone. Is it a figment of my imagination? Or a mirage at the hands of the mischievous sun overhead? I trek on, growing my scarf with every puzzle piece collected. I free trapped creatures locked frozen in time, and march defiantly across bridges of ribbon to bask in the glowing white light of completion. There's a lot to be said for self-satisfaction with a job well done, but so much of what we appreciate as gaming accomplishment is tied to the yardstick of high scores and leaderboards. Having no clear indicators to track my advancement in Journey, and no one to tell my triumphs to, do they still matter? Is getting to the end enough? I ponder as I move on.

With the exception of a handful of those closest to me, I've never been one to share a lot of myself with others. I don't know where my guarded nature comes from, and it certainly wasn't a by-product of my upbringing. My parents encouraged me in everything I chose to pursue (and abandon), promises were cherished, and reciprocal trust an absolute. I suppose I've simply never wanted to put my own problems and celebrations above those I choose to surround me. I loathe the idea of being put on a pedestal, pointed at as a shining example of right or wrong. More importantly, I certainly don't want to be doted on by those looking for a place to invest their empathy.

Suddenly, another player appears. A real life, digital someone else! I'm simultaneously delighted by the reprieve from my own conflicted internal monologue, and finally understand why Tom Hanks went insane marooned on that island--and here I had only been playing solo for 10 minutes! Note to self: buy volleyball. I rushed over, chirping at the other player, who stopped and replied, before dashing off towards the next thing to do. Were they real? Were they artificial intelligence? Were they setting the ground rules for a relationship I wasn't sure I was part of? I followed with curiosity, we danced in the breeze, using our abilities to take turns gliding, drifting slowly back to the miles of gold stretched out before us. We waited for each other, my buddy and I, developing a completely organic rhythm to our teamwork. When one would get ahead of the other we stopped, lingering until they caught up. We uncovered a world lost, lead each other to the safety circle of light at the end of each zone, and cowered as one when danger loomed close. We didn't know a thing about each other, and it didn't matter. While we were never explicitly bound, and they were able to up and leave at any point, they didn't.

The biting cold of the snow slowed our progress to a crawl, and we stuck side-by-side to share our heat. There were no preconceived notions. It didn't matter where we were from, how we grew up, what we wanted to be. Here and now, we were all each other had, and I felt a genuine bond with a complete stranger. When my friend was attacked and knocked back by a monster, I ran to their aid. When I fell, they came to my support. We chirped occasionally, the sing-song non-language letting us know the other was doing fine.

During the last area of the game, we ascended out of the murky depths and into the brightness above. But as we swooped, we became separated. I hadn't expected us to remain side-by-side for the entirety of the trip; in fact, I had initially expected to take the ride alone. But when they didn't rejoin, I sat and waited, thinking up potential scenarios that may explain the circumstances. Maybe the phone had started to ring? Maybe they were late to an appointment in the real world? Five minutes went by, then 10. Would they ever come back?

I panicked and immediately turned around to backtrack, the camera darting left and right, furiously searching in case they had fallen and needed a helping hand. There was no sign to be found. I searched longer than I waited, chirping into the void, hopeful someone would reply. After enjoying companionship, I was alone, again.

I searched longer than I waited, chirping into the void, hopeful someone would reply. I was alone, again.

Determined to see this through, and with heavy heart, I reluctantly returned to the place where I thought we had been split up. After our shared experience, I didn't want to end this without my mate. Then there they sat, patiently waiting. Our paths must have crossed; we were in the same place and didn't know it! The sense of elation was overwhelming as we excitedly chirped at each other like long-lost twins, and while neither of us spoke a real word, we both knew exactly what we meant. We stepped into the circle of light together, the expedition was over.

Call it closure, put it down to my slightly OCD tendencies, but I always sit through the credits of a game. I treat it as my obligation to the development team who slaved away to make this thing for my enjoyment, and it's the least I can do to acknowledge their existence. Ten PSN IDs flash up. How could I have met so many different people and not realised? They all acted alike, communicated identically, and pulled together to complete the common objective at a time. Then I saw the trophies begin to pop up as they were awarded. Curious to find out more, I scrolled through to see what I had done. Surfing through gates, collecting items, sitting in quiet contemplation--all pretty standard stuff. But one stood out. The 'Crossing' trophy was for completing the game with a partner and returning to the beginning. Had my anonymous mate ever genuinely wanted to share my company? Had they waited out of duty for the ride we had taken together? Or had they noticed the trophy and hung around to reap an extra virtual nothing?

I sat and stewed. How could such a beautiful and evocative game have slipped up with something so simple? Why wasn't this achievement hidden from view? Did they leave this here, hoping I'd stumble across it and question the true altruism of the motivations of the other souls I had joined in my travels? Was the entire game pointing a brilliant spotlight on humanity's propensity for selfishness?

I've written this piece a dozen times or more over in my head since finishing Journey. Perhaps they were my friends. Maybe their only guiding voice was to get the same closure I sought from our voyage together. I'll never know, but I also don't care. I realise now that it was the time we spent together, not the way it all came to an end that matters. My experience would have been that much more different, and undoubtedly poorer, for not having shared those brief moments with someone else, left to wander the landscape by myself.

To me, the message has always been more important than the medium used to deliver it. That's certainly not to say that some conduits aren't more effective than others, but communication is a language of absorption and response. Unfortunately, at times, our eagerness to be heard makes us forget to stop and listen to what others are trying to say.

A day doesn't go by that I don't think about the people who have entered and exited my life. But, like Journey, rather than mourn their absence, or endlessly question motives, I feel privileged for them having allowed me the opportunity to soar through the clouds, bury my feet deep in the sand, and stay warm by their side, even just for a little while.

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