Very rarely in games do you have as clear an end goal as you do in thatgamecompany’s Journey, where the very first thing you see after walking out of your little valley is an iconic distant mountain with the beacon at the top. There’s no words, no dialogue, nothing spoken to tell us that that’s our goal: the design just wordlessly leads us to pursue it. In its simplicity, Journey tells a familiar story without feeling repetitive or overdone and without burdening the player with unnecessary set dressing. And it’s fun to boot!
When I say this game is wordless, I mean it. No spoken dialogue, no written language, no in-game chat, nothing. Instead, everything relating to the story is implied or suggested using a combination of environmental storytelling, visual cues, and musical motifs to give players a sense of direction and purpose in a game which otherwise leaves things up to interpretation. The music swells when you see the mountain for the first time, flying through the air or racing down sand dunes, immersing yourself in a moment of gameplay and letting the mechanics and visuals carry the weight. And it works: you can feel the change in tone of different areas of the game with a fast, joyful descent into the underground in stark contrast with the ominous subterranean tunnels prowled by these large, dangerous-looking snake creatures who are almost mechanical in nature. You don’t need to be told to hide from their gaze: everything in the environment screams danger more effectively than any in-game pop up could.
And yet, your character marches onward. This wordlessness isn’t necessarily silence- the musical score is nothing to sniff at. But the only real sound your in-game character can make are these soft, bell-like tones as you attempt to communicate with other players online. Communication may be limited to making soft boops and beeps, but the community has latched onto it nonetheless. Players are known to run circles around each other, sitting, jumping, and pausing to let their nameless companions catch up if they get too far ahead. For every toxic story of gamers you might read or hear about online, you can point to a wordless comradery developed in moments in this and other games, a moment of humanity across languages and space binding together people across the world.
The game rewards this kind of interaction and will actually record the usernames of everyone who shared the Journey with you, highlighting them in the credits to help remind you that behind the screens, behind the controllers, are real-world people who went with you across the sands and through the snow, helping to make your trip just a little bit easier. And that tends to be one of the takeaways from this game. Even if you can’t understand each other, even if you have no words at all, the mere act of being together, of crossing paths, can make all the difference.