Building on my last post about Journey, I found a post on The Guardian’s Games Blog about the relationship between Journey’s physical progression and the progression of it’s story. In the post, game designer Nick Harper discusses the many ways in which traditional movie plot formats are reproduced in video games. The aspect of his analysis that I found most compelling was the idea that the story arc of most films and compelling narratives can usually be simplified into five main parts: intro, turning point, development, low point, and climax. Harper then maps the stages of Journey to this arc:
Journey’s Emotional Arc (Nick Harper, The Guardian, 2012)
Having played through the game, it is incredible to see the different stages fit this model so well. The intro represents the first few minutes of the game, when you begin to understand the controls and are able to explore the world to some degree, though the world seems very desolate and is sparsely populated with the ruins of an ancient culture. At the turning point, the player discovers how to engage with the ribbon-creatures and progress through the world towards the mountain, which has since become their goal. The development comes as the player begins to sand surf down into the civilization, where they find the machines as the primary antagonists. Though this marks the physical low point of the game, Harper argues that the narrative low point comes as the player dies in a blizzard trying to reach the summit. Naturally, there is the rebirth and ascent, made possible by a group of god-like white figures that revive the player and allow them to finish their journey to the summit.
Compare Harper’s emotional or narrative curve to the physical map that the game displays in the form of murals:
In-game mural from Journey (thatgamecompany, 2012)
I found Harper’s argument very compelling, especially after seeing this mural from the game. Of course, the emotional curve is not the only way to talk about the story of Journey, since other methods like the hero’s journey also apply very well to Journey.
Source: Physical Story Arcs in Journey
Having played through Journey now, the experience was wonderful. Rarely has a game been so compelling, and with so little dialogue to build its narrative. One of the ways that Journey does this so well is through the use of dynamic lighting and music to influence your mood as you progress through the different stages of the game. When you start off, the land is bright, enjoying the pleasantly filtered (afternoon?) sunshine as you experience the game’s world for the first time. Later, as you explore the ancient ruins before you, the lighting changes to a beautiful sunset-like shade of gold and orange, lulling you and creating a sense of peace as you descend into the ruins. Deep inside the ruins, you find that the world is not as peaceful as it appears at the surface, with giant machines that seek to eliminate all of the scarf you’ve been working so hard to collect up to this point. The music takes a dramatic shift, and the atmosphere becomes much darker with eerie green and blue accents instead of the comforting gold and orange of the previous stage. These shifts occur to inform the player that there is danger, something that these changes seem to subconsciously alert us to. This method of moving forward a narrative creates an experience that feels less forced, although the game is still “on rails” in many ways.
One of the other aspects of the game that helps develop a sense of context are the murals hidden throughout the game. Upon arriving at a blank wall with a few gravestones framing it, you can activate your chime and trigger a reveal of a mural on the wall, which details some aspect of the story hidden behind the world of Journey. Without these murals in the game, I don’t think I could have begun to understand the series of events leading up to the present state of the world. What ThatGameCompany did with Journey is a masterpiece. They hid the story just within reach, but asked the player to decide whether they wanted to know more or not. This allows the player even more agency, and helps develop a sense of immersion with the world should they choose to seek out all of the murals and hidden items throughout the game.
Source: Storytelling in Journey