To borrow internet parlance for a moment, Journey is a video game designed to hit you right in the feels. You play as an androgynous character dressed in a sweeping red robe, dwarfed by stark landscapes of sand and snow. Pushing the PlayStation controller’s left analog stick, you move forward, slowly at first, and then, later in the game, with exuberant speed, as if you’re surfing. Most of the time you’re alone, but if you’re lucky, you’ll come across another figure, its silhouette fluttering in the distance. You might travel together for a few minutes and then part ways, or perhaps you’ll reach the end of the game in one another’s company. Regardless, this time will feel almost miraculous—a chance encounter at the very edge of the world.
The game’s setting gleams with flecks of Gustav Klimt gold while a single towering mountain dominates the horizon. The game is called Journey for a reason, and its deliberately allegorical story curves toward tragedy, as if this is the fate awaiting us all. Unlike most games, you die only once. Rather than a cheap metaphor for failure, it’s something heavier—a crescendo, an act of self-annihilation.
Now, it’s widely accepted that games can move us in ways similar to novels, movies, or music, but in March 2012, when Journey came out on PS3, this simply wasn’t the case. Sure, there were the works of Fumito Ueda, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus—stark, artful games of the aughts from Japan that tugged more on the heartstrings than the itchy trigger finger. So too had the rise of independent games from 2008 onward given birth to a slew of newly personal titles such as Braid. Journey, however, felt different—a video game with levels, an avatar, and enemies, but that, mechanically, eschewed almost all else to focus entirely on movement. The game had cutscenes, but these were reserved for establishing shots of glinting sand rather than moments of genuine dramatic thrust. What Journey achieved—which few, if any, video games had before—was giving you a lump in your throat while you actually interacted with it. This was a big deal.
In this way, Journey helped crystallize the idea that video games could and should be more. In 2007 and 2010, respectively, Bioshock and Red Dead Redemption, games with knotty philosophical questions at their violent cores, had pushed the blockbuster shooter and open-world adventure into newly grown-up territory. But these were also time-consuming experiences that asked you to sink tens of hours into them to get to their narrative payoffs. Journey, by comparison, could be finished in 90 minutes, the length of a film. Certain kids, myself included, grew up convinced of video games’ artistic merit but lacked a work to express this conviction succinctly. Journey was the perfect title to convert churlish nonbelievers—our parents, for example.
I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Gregorios Kythreotis, the lead designer of 2021 indie breakout hit Sable, remembers it like this, too.