Contentment upon the completion of a game is an unfamiliar experience for me. Tension is familiar, especially the kind that starts between my shoulder blades and slowly twists out to the rest of my muscles. When a game hits a strong emotional trigger for me, anything from fear to aggression to happiness or amusement, I’m wires within skin, twisted up and ill at ease. Even when games serve their intended purposes and entertain me or encourage me to think, I still want to find a place where I can be alone, so I can try to forget about them.
The game I’ve completed most recently didn’t leave me in that state. I was content, relaxed, eager to talk. I didn’t want to be alone. I wanted to share the experience with someone, anyone, because I’ve never felt so calm after completing a game.
Peace never seems like an emotion video games want gamers to feel, and then, out of the blue, that’s what hits. It waits, patiently, waiting for the player to catch up, and when it reveals itself, it’s welcome. To reach it, you simply have to walk, to follow a path, maybe make a new friend along the way, and realize that sometimes a game is where your personal zen has been hiding all along.
On a Thursday night a few week’s back, I sat down in front of my Playstation 3, popped in the newly released collector’s edition of Journey, and settled in. My character appeared on screen, a small figure wearing dark red robes and a tattered scarf, a vast desert of gently sloping dunes and unfamiliar stone ruins stretched out before me. I started walking, exploring.
Climbing to the top of one dune, I slid down the opposite slope, outside of the game muttering “Wheee…” while my character remained silent. I discovered a musical note, a glowing glyph that I touched; my character learned to sing. I smiled, charmed by the simple wonder, and kept moving forward.
Some ten minutes in, I met another character, a fellow player. We sang a few notes to one another, introducing ourselves as it were, and started assembling pathways, singing to wake up small fluttering scarves along the way, using their presence to fly higher up into the world to reach platforms, to continue on the path to our goal. There was a mysterious light on a mountain, far away from our starting location, and we wanted to reach it.
We climbed along flowing bridges made of cloth, gently wavering in the desert wind. A simple shrine stood before us at the end of the bridge, and we sang, before kneeling to meditate. After standing, we both approached the doorway. I suspect we were thinking the same thing, wondering if we should say our goodbyes then and there.
Instead, we lingered a moment, and then went on together. The best journeys are taken with friends, after all, so why not make a new friend?
For the next two hours, we explored, discovering new song notes hidden in shining glyphs, awakening dozens of dark red cloth fragments that would carry us along the winds. We chased one another through the desert, playing tag on the dunes, sliding down into deep caverns hidden beneath the sands, illuminated by haunting lights.
The last time I truly explored a video game world was in Skyrim. There, I was on my own, hunting, walking long distances in silence, solitary in the blankets of snow. Another person at my side would have turned the experience into something unwanted; Skyrim is meant to be savored on one’s own. Playing it with another person would have robbed me of the experience.
I wouldn’t want to walk Journey alone. With my companion at my side, we hurried into the caverns. We started out playing, sliding through gates, singing notes to encourage the other – You can’t catch me! Oh yes I can! – absorbed in the playful simplicity of the caverns.
I don’t think either of us were ready for the monsters we found, the sentries hovering in the air, eager to attack us if we wandered into their sweeping lights. We barely survived the beasts in the lower depths of the caverns, pieces of our scarves lost to constructs intent on preventing us from reaching the mountain.
When we emerged, battered and bruised, but still alive, we shared song notes, healing one another, cheering the other on. We never left the other’s side. If we got separated, one of us waited, and once we were together again, we kept moving, onward and up to the snow-covered mountain.
Jarred out of the experience for a moment, I realized that it was going to be over soon. My initial reaction was sadness, but then I felt calmer than I had before playing the game, peaceful. I refocused my attention, eager to finish, ready to face it, because I had a friend waiting for me.
A video game is the last place I’d ever look for a peaceful, borderline spiritual experience, and yet I had one, a truly powerful, emotional adventure, and I never uttered a single word to that other player. Apart from a single, half-flat note on my part, and a sweeter tone on their part, we never spoke.
It’s the first time I’ve played a game with another person, a stranger, and felt like I was making a friend, instead of a temporary ally in a tense multiplayer match. There was no tension between us, no ‘hurry it up and let’s get on with it’ attitude. There was a new world to investigate and discover, and we decided to do it together.
Journey’s world is beautiful, with acres of desert begging to be explored, earth tones of red, orange, and a range of browns all leading into an eerie underground realm, filled with blues and the ghosts of pale lights. The underground holds dangers, monsters that can make short work of a solitary character, but two pilgrims can give one another strength to emerge from the dark onto the ruin-dotted mountain landscape.
Initially, the stark white landscape is daunting. It goes on for miles, and the rocks stand out as shadows, eerie and twisting in the fading light. Soon, the snow becomes a new place to play, even with the wind fighting us at every turn. The long walk’s just getting started, and even in this eerie white, it’s just one more place.
I wonder, taking a brief moment to stop and look ahead, What’s at the top? and then I take the next few steps. My companion is at my side. We’ll find out together.
It’s about peace, in the end. It’s about reaching a place where the simple act of looking at the world is enough to set you at ease, and assure you that, in the end, it’s all going to be okay.
Once in awhile an outcome can reassure the player; it can be peaceful. Sometimes I don’t need to keep fighting, or punishing enemies, or causing hurt simply to solve a problem. Sometimes, I just need a walk through the desert, to reach the highest mountaintop. On my way there, I know there will be a friend or two waiting for me, ready to play, eager to continue the walk together, and I’m content.
About the Author:
Alexandra Geraets is an fan of story-driven video games. She's an even more avid fan of exploring how and why they resonate with all of us. Her essays have been found on Village Voice Media.