Journey: The Life Cycle and Embedded Sexual Symbolism

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The progressive linear gameplay within thatgamecompany’s game Journey (2012) is representative of the human circle of life, beginning in a childlike state, proceeding through phases of early childhood, preadolescence, adolescence, adulthood, old age, culminating finally in death, transcendence and rebirth. Parallel to these stages of life, the presence and influence of sexual symbolism forms a major component of this narrative, connecting player, environment and story.

The game begins as the player is born into the world, sewn by a shooting star. Situated in a sprawling and seemingly limitless desert, Chen describes the start much like childhood, where the world seems open and unending (Ohannessian, 2012). As children, the potential for life is unhindered by life’s decisions, and as paths are chosen and others close, the path becomes more linear, as it occurs in Journey’s mountain pilgrimage. Once the player no longer requires guidance, they are introduced to basic puzzles and contact with another player. This stage in life is often when the first relationships outside of the family are established; as a result, meaningful decisions are made as to what kind of connection is formed (intimacy, equality, student/teacher, friendship). Playing Journey with another player enhances what Ryan (2008) describes as spacial immersion, in regards to how players enjoy exploring the environment. However, much like relationships in reality, the player can choose to travel alone, remaining isolated and completing Journey alone.

By the third chapter, the player has built up their scarf to fly significantly further, and meets a number of flying cloth creatures who take the role as guardians, subtly advising the player and directing them onwards, but leaving them to roam freely and explore a larger and more complex environment. The purpose of these creatures, akin to parents, is to offer infrequent direction and leadership (if the player loses their way) as they facilitate the impending shift into adulthood. At this point in the game, the player flies through a radiant sunken city at sunset, before submerging into a dark cavern; deserts are left behind and the mood of the game shifts, as the colours change from warm to cool, exploring mysterious architecture and cold, sinister hues. This signifies the beauty and excitement of growing up, before the discovery of a harsh and unforgiving world.

Finally, the player is tasked with climbing the prolific mountain against strong winds and a blizzard. As the ascent becomes more difficult, the player slows, and gradually loses their abilities, losing their scarf altogether and the ability to fly, falling face-down in the snow. Shortly thereafer, the player is raced towards a bright light, before emerging amid a heavenly mountaintop oasis, Journey’s afterlife, complete with scarf and unlimited flying powers, the summit finally within reach.

In the final cinematic of the game, where you and (presumably) your partner slowly walk into the white light at the mountain’s peak, the two cloth people side by side form the shape of two peaks, revealing the iconic cleft mountain to epitomise two cloth people leaning together. As player loses control of their character – the spirit (the player) is disconnected from the body – the two bodies slowly meld into one another as they walk out of sight, symbolising the merger of their spirit as companions as they transcend (TheDodge, 2012).

Journey is a literal story of rebirth – the cleft mountaintop is visually illustrative of a vulva, giving birth to the land and cloth people alike, which takes the form of a shooting star (both in the beginning and end), which is shown through hieroglyphical tapestry to have sewn the land, and later gives birth to the player anew upon the games conclusion, symbolising rebirth and generational inheritance. When travelling up the mountain, the environment is harsh and frigid, unwelcoming. However, once this is overcome, what lies beyond is a warm and gushing environment, indicative of breakthrough and the act of intercourse; the environment is lively and celebrational, scored with triumphant and optimistic music, concluding in the impregnation and conception of new life when the player(s) (in this instance representative of sperm, where their scarves denote flagella) enter the light (womb). This new life results in the offspring of the player, signified by the embroidered symbol of your player on your robe from the previous journey; the cycle then continues (TheDodge, 2012).

The underlying themes of sexuality embedded throughout the game complement its narrative structure and underline its importance both in relationships: intimacy (players are rewarded for huddling together by replenishing their flying powers) and reproduction (the final act of the last chapter, creating new life to complete its own journey) in particular. Designer Jenova Chen said Journey is supposed to be ambiguous and open to interpretation by design (Ray Corriea Mar, 2012), and though this is true, there is evident linear narrative structure that subscribes to the same progressions as the human circle of life, along with inherent sexual symbolism that supports it.

Game Segmentation

Journey is divided up into chapters, defined by a semi-triangular stone whereupon the player meditates and have spiritual visions, involving a larger white-robed figure. They are as follows:

[1] The Open Desert [Childhood]
Serving as a tutorial mission, the player is familiarised with their abilities and the controls. They appear to be in a sprawling open desert, though if they wander off track from the stone markers, strong winds knock them back into the playable area. They are given the first strands of their scarf, and the ability to fly.

[2] The Broken Bridge [Preadolescence]
Players are subject to random online matchmaking, where they are silently paired with another player they can choose to journey with. The landscape consists of large sand waterfalls, within a sheltered desert area. A large broken cloth bridge must be repaired to progress, by standing and singing on waypoints in the map.

[3] The Desert [Preadolescence / Adolescence]
Now venturing briefly back out into the open desert, the players surf down and climb sand dunes, freeing trapped serpentine cloth creatures who join them, guiding them onwards towards the distant mountain. Small sunken structures are littered through the desert terrain, remnants of a distant civilisation.

[4] The Sunset Sands [Adolescence]
The desert is left behind, now giving way to an impressive abandoned city, partially sunken in the sand. The sunset over the distant mountain causes the sand to sparkle a brilliant orange and yellow, and the player speeds rapidly downhill, navigating the environment and avoiding scattered obstacles.

[5] The Mysterious Underground [Young Adulthood]
The player finishes their downhill descent into a subterranean part of the city, contrasting the luminous yellow and orange sands above. The player(s) explore the cool, dark underground, navigating around the hostile stone serpentine creatures that roam the underground.

[6] The Temple Tower [Adulthood]
Tasked with climbing a large tower structure, the task is made easier by activating waypoints that cause ‘light’ to rise up like a water level, recharging your ability to fly. As you scale the structure further upwards, a giant majestical dragon-like creature begins to soar upwards with you, following you to the surface.

[7] The Mountain [Old Age / Death]
Finding themselves at the foot of the mountain they have been trekking towards, the player(s) begin their ascent through strong winds and a fierce snowstorm. As they start to climb higher, their progress becomes slower and slower, gradually losing their abilities before they fall into the snow, unable to continue.

[8] The Summit [Afterlife / Rebirth]
Several god-like figures in white robes stand above your body, and you are soon hurtled upwards into a bright light – leading into an idyllic mountain-top paradise, with blue skies and flowing water, multiple cloth creatures fly and dance around you as the path to the peak is finally visible and obtainable. Once you fly up there, your powers returned to you, the player(s) walk into the light, and disappear.

A final cinematic rolls, showing a shooting star emerge from the mountain, much like at the beginning of the game, and fly through the landscapes the player encountered throughout the game as credits roll, before coming to rest once more in the sand. An option to start a new journey is given.

Geoff King & Tanya Krzywinska. (2006). Tomb Raiders & Space Invaders. London: I.B. Tauris

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Ray Corriea Mar, A. (March 13th, 2012), “GDC 2012: Jenova Chen Unravels the Secrets Behind Journey”, Dual Shockers, Accessed July, 2012, Retrieved from: jenova-chen-unravels-the-secrets-behind-journey/

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This is an essay I wrote as part of my studies at Bond University. The original date of this publication was the 13th of July, 2012, written for the subject ‘Game Form, Narrative and Style’.