Never did my girlfriend realize that her companion was another human player. In one situation the stranger repeatedly ran up a particularly large dune and surfed down its slope. My girlfriend watched in confusion: “Why is it doing that? Well whatever.”. Moments later both of them were surfing down the dune together, crisscrossing each others courses. Their scarves becoming entwined in each other, their clothes lighting up in bright colors when they touched each other.
I had invited my girlfriend to play Journey on my PS3. Consciously I had not told her anything about the game in advance. Especially not about its unusual multiplayer component. Thanks to my girlfriend not being a gamer she had not been spoiled by any previews or trailers. Actually there had been only one game in recent years that she had really played (Heavy Rain).
And so unsurprisingly she had some difficulties handling the camera, handling the basic movement mechanics and sometimes even recognizing the path that the game was laying out for her. I had forced myself not to help her and near the beginning of the game she struggled for ten minutes and managed to reach the level exit only by leaving behind the game play area, pushing against the wind barrier, walking over a narrow ledge in the building geometry and letting herself fall down in front of the exit portal, a solution which I’m sure had not been intended by the level designers.
So I was glad that after 20 minutes she finally found a companion. Another entity in this beautiful but forsaken world. They greeted each other meeting in the center of the play area, curiously running around each other and exchanging probing chimes. The two continued to venture on and it was the beginning of a fascinating companionship that developed between the two.
The companion guided my girlfriend through the journey and even though obviously much more skilled and acquainted with the game, it would display an incredible amount of patience. When my girlfriend would fall down from a platform once more, it would not abandon her, but follow her up and motivate her with some chimes to try once more. It guided her through the light areas and it guided her through the dark and dangerous territories, where surreal flying creatures would try to to tear them apart.
In full honesty, I took over the controls in the last half hour. For once because I had not played the game myself to this area, but even more importantly because I had grown so affectionate of our companion that I did not want to risk losing it by stumbling in the wrong moment. The closer we got to the mountain, the harder the travel became, to the point where every time our companion would sit down for a moment, we feared that it would not stand up again. When we were almost freezing to death, my girlfriend would urge me to get closer to my companion and warm it up by touching it. Our previously majestic and playful long scarves, had been reduced to mere colorless stubs, reflecting our inner desperate state.
When our journey ended after about 90 minutes it was in an immensely cathartic moment, in a way that no game has ever made me feel before. It is hard to explain how the game evokes emotions. How masterfully it plays with the feeling of connectedness. Is it the abstract characters that allow to relay so much into them? Is it the fact that they can mainly only communicate through action? Is it discovering the hidden wall images showing two companions on a predestined travel? Is it because of how lonely the world feels, you’re happy to share the burden of your dangerous travel with somebody?
While the credits were rolling, I finally told my girlfriend that our companion had been a human player all along. Every time you fell, it was a player that came to save you. Every time you chimed, it was a player that responded, replicating the pattern that you just had signaled. Every time you danced around each other, it had been another player that had moved in unison with you. It might seem crazy, but it was a truly magical moment that actually caused us to tear up. The game had played with our feelings too perfectly.
As a game developer myself I feel inclined to analyze how the game did this exactly. But as a player, I don’t care. All I need to know is that this game made us care and that it touched us and offered a more personal experience than anything that I have played in over 20 years. It makes me proud to be in game development and it reassures me of the power of this medium, and that some of us have bet their career on. For me it makes this game a pinnacle of video game history.
PS: This is what I received after sending a thank you note to our companion.