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How Journey Made Me Feel Truly Lonely

Journey, a game developed by thatgamecompany, proved to many that indie titles were something to take seriously. The game beautifully told a harrowing and cyclical tale using imagery and body language alone. Exploring the vast desert and shimmering sand dunes was a sensory delight, with just enough puzzles to keep the game interesting, but never hard enough to make it frustrating and take away from the overall joy of the experience.

Some people have a hard time with “experience” games – short titles that opt for a more delicate approach, ones that focus on making you feel rather than trying to hold your attention with combat or branching narrative. The thing that Journey made me feel more than anything else though, was loneliness.

Journey is incredibly simple to play, using only a jump button and another that allows your robed wanderer to send out a beautiful bird-like cry that attracts magical cloth beings. Once you make it through the first level, multiplayer opens up to you. Now, another curious explorer could join your side, ready to take on this adventure together. The only thing you can do to communicate with the other player is to call out to them. When you do, you may notice that the little symbol that appears above your head each time you cry out is different to theirs.

The first time I played Journey, I drifted down into a large sand bowel and saw several huge bridges, broken and unconnected. The bottom edge of my screen glowed white and I turned to see another red figure flying down towards me. We both chirped at each other a few times, the only way we knew how to say hello. We figured the puzzle out easily enough, just cry out by the bits of cloth to rebuild the bridge with vast swathes of fabric. Together we crossed, determined to face the journey together.

We ventured on through the desert, calling out to each other whenever we found something we thought the other may find interesting. At one point, my companion stopped moving and eventually sat down. I sat with them, confused, but certain they would not lead me astray. A minute or so later, a trophy popped up for meditating with another. I felt such a warmth spread through me. This complete stranger who I could never talk to, never thank, was helping me for no reason other than they wanted to.

We kept going, further into the desert, closer to the mountain. Then we got to a gorgeous sand slide, the camera swapped to the side so we could see our profiles as we danced down the dunes together, it was magical. It’s one of the prettiest moments in any video game I’ve ever played. The whole experience was amazing because I had this other person with me, experiencing it all together.

What’s so great about the online experience is the complete inability to communicate with anything other than the in-game chirps. You can’t harass anyone, you can’t be nice to them, the only way to communicate is to work together and figure out what the other person is trying to say.

It forces you to stop and really consider what they’re trying to get across, it forces you to try and empathise, which is what helped me create a bond with this helpful stranger. Sure, some games have great ping systems that enable you to convey complex information with just a few button clicks, but the mystery and intrigue of not fully understanding what your companion is saying make the moment you figure it out so much more gratifying.

We kept going, down into the depths, eventually plunging into a cold and icy world. The warm orange turned to a harsh blue, and the soft sand was bitter snow. The cave we had ended up in was a change, but I knew we could face whatever dangers may lie ahead – together. As I pressed on into the frozen underground, my teammate chirped a few times, so I pulled back to see what they were doing. They just stood still, chirping occasionally. I chirped back. Then, they sat down and slowly faded into nothingness. They were saying goodbye and waited for me to say it back. I remember just sitting with my controller in my hands, frozen by the crushing sense of loneliness and dread that had overcome me. It suddenly struck me just how empty the game was without them. I’m well aware they left right as the game’s tone shifted from happy to somber, so there was a good deal of serendipity in the moment, but that’s what made it even more special. Without the stunning soundtrack and the sounds of joyous cries, I was just alone, left to complete the Journey by myself. And that terrified me.

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Issy is an avid film lover, writer, and game-player based in the UK. He combines his love of film and games in his writing, trying to find as many connections between the two mediums as possible. When he’s not writing, playing, or watching, Issy loves to DJ and look after his growing collection of houseplants, as they make him feel more adult.

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