Symbiosis in Multiplayer: How Journey Offers a Novel Perspective on Online Cooperative Play

Members of the group:
Valerie Kobylski
Ruiting Ji
Tarik Abou-Saddik
Melisa Badea

Instructor:  Carolyn Jong

English 255B – Video Games and/as Literature

March 3rd, 2017


For decades, competition has always been a mainstay component of a large majority of video games. Within the innate simplicity of a game like Pong and the marked complexity of say, a Call of Duty, lies the unshakable desire for the person playing to overcome all odds and win. Whether it be against non-playable characters (NPCs) or actual human beings, most video games depend upon this desire to compete in order to create a lasting connection with their players. It can even be argued that competition within the medium has only been exacerbated further by the advent of the Internet and online play spaces. Although this has positively affected gaming culture, by creating communities that can span the globe, it has also led to the proliferation of online vitriol and abuse (if you’ve ever been yelled at by a person half your age playing a multiplayer shooter, you’ll understand). Although multiplayer is a feature that has been flaunted in games almost since their inception, that competitive spirit has never really been subdued and more weighty cooperative experiences have only been explored on a handful of occasions (e.g. Team Ico’s aptly titled Ico, released on the Playstation 2 in 2001, is a prime example of such an (offline) experience). Enter Journey, a game that, at face value,seems to be just another standard 3-dimensional platformer, when it is in fact more of a meditation on life and death. Released in 2012 on the Playstation 3 and developed by a small Los Angeles based studio called Thatgamecompany, Journey was lauded with praise from game critics for its emotional intelligence and atmospheric gameplay. Contrary to many other games released at the time, Journey’s focus was on player experience and on adding a different perspective to player interaction within the context of multiplayer. This essay focuses its efforts on illustrating this perspective and how Journey is a game that fosters a symbiotic relationship between players, as opposed to an adversarial one, by way of its constrained gameplay and layered spatial storytelling.

In order to promote cooperation between players and create a non-competitive space, Journey‘s design team uses constraints in the game’s environment and shifts the main focus to its seemingly expansive setting using design affordances. When first playing the game, a new player can be confused about whether the other human player (who may drop in at any moment past the introduction of the game) is an enemy or just a simple NPC. It can be a startling experience to realize that the other wanderer, who suspiciously looks just like your own avatar, is in fact another player connected from somewhere around the globe.

Figure 1Your avatar in Journey

Plopped down into your world without so much of a notification from the game, the only means of communication between you and the other player is limited to odd “chirps”, which are minute sounds emanating from the player that are activated with the press of a button. This restricted form of communication, compliments the game’s minimalist mantra of showing you little and telling you even less, which has the effect of eliminating any pre-conceptions of the second player keeping you on equal ground with them. As Alex Duncan writes in his article “Journey and the Reinterpretation of the Game Space”: “The relationship between players in Journey is one based on symbiosis and mimesis, revelling in the mere presence of another, which I believe is what gives it such emotional force.” (Duncan, par.7). In other words, the other player is there to share the experience of the game as a whole. The concept of mimesis brings up the fact that the other player is made to look like a relatable reflection, which gives room for a symbiotic relationship to be formed between the two players. By making both players so relatable (in regards to their physical appearance, especially) the game effectively eliminates trivialities between them and keeps players focused on following the path set before them.

Figure 2A player can “chirp” to interact with another player. 

To avoid competition, Journey redefines the idea of power by taking away obtainable resources from the environment, not giving players any ability to attack, and only allowing them to borrow the power of flight (instead of acquiring it) from the ribbons placed in the environment. As Jenova Chen, the Creative Director on Journey and the co-founder of Thatgamecompany, states, “In order to make a game that is about emotion that deeply binds people together, people have to pay attention to each other (…) I want the interaction to be about exchange of emotions and feelings rather than exchange of the blows” (2013). Taking away these resources allows not only the player to feel vulnerable, it also eliminates the need for comparison with the other player, as there is no incentive to compete for treasures, resources or overall dominance. Instead of viewing each other as competitors or as means to an end, players are encouraged to collaborate and positively interact. Similarly, the player is pushed to interact collaboratively with the environment, most notably with living creatures that we’ll refer to as ribbons. These ribbons (seemingly made of the same fabric as your avatar’s cloak) are natural inhabitants of your world and you feed off of them just as they feed off of you. Regardless of their size (i.e. as small pieces of ribbon in the air, or larger bridges and ribbon made creatures) these ribbons are resources that allow the player to fly and travel for a short distance: after the player flies or crosses the path established by the cloth, these ribbons fall back into the environment and can be used or reused by the other player: it is unlimited and shared, belonging to the environment instead of the player.

Figure 3. Ribbons in the game interact with player almost as a ressource. 

Although the player can only borrow power from the environment to use for their own goods, the chirps that they emit can give energy (the same borrowed from the ribbons) to the other player. This exception maintains the alliance and friendship between the players in their journey (Chen 2013). To further this sense of vulnerability and lack of power within the vast environment, the characters representing the players are always small in size on the screen, leaving much of the focus to the environment surrounding them. This framing technique puts the player in the role of a participant and explorer in the vast nature, instead of a colonizer or conqueror, rendering a sense of awe, similar to Eastern (Chinese and Japanese) landscape paintings and films.

Figure 4. Chinese ink wash painting. 
Figure 5Minimalist form seen in both this image and Figure 4. 

In short, the large physical space heightens the player’s experience of the humble traveller, preparing them for exploring the environment instead of dominating it, and pushing them to seek companionship when meeting another player. By creating a relationship of trust and cooperation between the two players, Journey allows for “emergent narratives” (Jenkins 2004).  In other words, within Journey’s vast level spaces, players obtain their own experience by crafting their own stories (i.e. trials and tribulations, exploratory phases off the beaten path) with their companion. With such a focus on player cooperation, Journey can be seen as a game that emphasizes player serenity and this is an aspect that distinguishes it from most video games. As said earlier on, when one thinks of the word “videogame”, fighting and defeating another party will most commonly come to mind. However, Journey is almost completely devoid of enemies. The only “enemies” to be found are the stone guardians found in the later sections of the game, though due to their being no fail-state in the game, they become interactive scenery more than anything else. With no chance of failure, the anxiety and fear that would most certainly be present in any other adversarial game is largely subdued in Journey.

Figure 6Guardians wander certain environments. Though they can spot and attack you (as seen in the image), they cannot harm you. 

Considering these unique departures that Journey makes from mainstream game design, it can be argued that it is more art work than game. Each and every level is composed of majestic landscapes that are sometimes (impressively) highlighted by the game’s ethereal score, which is composed by Austin Wintory. The design of both the main avatar and the creatures around it are unique yet minnimalist. In short, the game’s designers had the intention for the player to fully appreciate Journey for the art and to receive aesthetic pleasure from it. “The result, reflected in the vast majority of reactions to the game, is that players value Journey’s game space just for existing, for being there to explore, and for the beauty of the virtual environment.” (Duncan, par.4). Journey is not merely about gameplay, but there is also a strong emphasis on experience. The player is meant to see Journey as an experience, a small vacation to a whole new land. The beauty is what makes Journey stand out from other games and players are meant to seize up the moment and appreciate it for what it is. If the constant stimulation of enemies was endlessly coming from every direction, there would be no time to fully enjoy and appreciate the visual and auditory beauty that the game was created to offer. Instead of guiding the player through the presence of enemies, throughout the different stages of Journey, players are guided by the environment. In other words, it is the environment that directs players across the entire game by using navigational affordances. At the very beginning of Journey, after selecting the “Start Journey” button, you are thrown into a deserted environment and can’t help but realize that you are all alone. There are no written instructions on what one should do. It is only until you direct your avatar up a sand hill that the title (“Journey”) kicks in and that is also the first time you get to see the mountaintop and the light it emits. The player’s curiosity is piqued and by then, your goal becomes obvious— you need to follow the light.

In Journey, as opposed to other games, players don’t start with a well-developed mental map. There are no written directives or tutorial levels. You are simply dropped into an empty wasteland and the game is mainly told through sounds and pictures. On the contrary, in most games, “players start the game with a pretty well-developed mental map of the spaces, characters, and situations in the fictional universe” (Henry Jenkins, 124). Journey is a unique game because, the first time you play it, you can’t help but feel confused due to the lack of information and instructions on what actions to take. However, the environment never ceases to guide the player in his/her travels. The light at the top of the mountain, the sand, the wind and the placement of the structures are some examples of how the environment helps you get through the game

Figure 7Throughout the game, the player’s goal (to reach the mountaintop) is always evidently framed by the game’s camera. 

In general design, affordances are things that are built to be naturally or intuitively understood (e.g the handle on a tea-cup). In video games, it is used anywhere form implies function (Affordances – How Design Teaches Us Without Words, 1:00). Journey is a perfect example of a game that utilizes navigational affordance. In essence, the end-point of the game (the mountain) is framed several times within the player’s viewport. The mountaintop and its light acts as a guide towards the player’s goal. As Chen affirms at his 2013 D.I.C.E. Summit speech: “The light coming from the mountain is a guiding light” (Jenova Chen, 2013). Furthermore, due to the minimalism of the desert stages, any structural component you encounter will immediately catch your attention and guide you towards the end goal. On this point, Chen also says that “the environment in Journey is very simple in order to not distract the player. If you get the chance to see another player throughout your journey, he/she becomes your main focus” (Chen, 2013). Moreover, if you try to turn away from the main path constructed by the game, you will be pushed back on track by the wind. The environment ensures that a player cannot avoid the journey towards their destiny. This is further emphasized through Tom Van Nuenen’s article “Procedural (E)motion: Journey as Emerging Pilgrimage” where he comments that “the insubordinate player will find out that walking in another direction is unsuccessful: gusts of wind make it impossible to wander too far” (Tom Van Nuenen, 2016).

This leads up to a discussion on the narrative arc in Journey and how narrative elements can be found within the environment surrounding the player, which, in the article Game Design as Narrative Architecture, author Henry Jenkins refers to as the mise-en-scene. In the article, Jenkins writes that “one can imagine the game designer as developing two kinds of narratives – one relatively unstructured and controlled by the player as they explore the game space and unlock its secrets; the other pre-structured but embedded within the mise-en-scene awaiting discovery. The game world becomes a kind of information space, a memory place” (Jenkins, 126). The characteristic of having a world that awaits discovery is valid in a game like Journey. Indeed, the game opens with empty spaces, sand dunes, and a faraway mountain. Then, it introduces crumbling towers, pillars, then imposing ruins and caves in the landscape, creating the mystique of forgotten or abandoned lands. The players are therefore primed to explore the landmarks to find out what was once there. Throughout the game, we stumble upon the presence of murals, artifacts and ruins that hint to us about the environment’s history (a “world” before Journey). In a way, as Lana Polansky mentions in her article “The Poetry of Created Space”, an environment can make it “clear that we’re acting within something with an established past. We navigate the environment and it whispers to us […] about the themes and ideas the game wants us to operate with” (Lana Polansky).

Throughout the stages of the game, the environment is presented in different colors to incite the player to feel different emotions. The changes in music also sets the pacing of the game. Matt Nava, the art director of Journey, discusses the use of environment to present the hero’s journey. For example, fog is pushed back at the early stages of the game to convey a sense of openness and happiness whereas the environment is dimmed, cold, with dense fog, in later scarier stages with stone monsters lurking around. Towards the end of the game (in the winter environment) the wind also establishes a connection between you and your companion because you must keep each other warm.

Figure 8Illustration of the different environments in Journey and their attributed color schemas, taken from Matt Nava’s book The Art of Journey(2013).

As a result, some stages communicate a sense of shared joy between the players, while other stages focus on shared struggle (and the act of helping each other out). In other words, the environment of Journey also “evoke(s) pre-existing narrative associations” (Jenkins) by building upon the hero’s journey, and providing a playable experience of this well-known structure. Throughout the stages of the game, players are there for each other, helping each other fly and, therefore, they are encouraged to stay beside their companion and develop affection for them. As there is no obligation to go at a certain pace in Journey, the player may choose to stop and wait for their companion, emphasizing their connection. Chen and Thatgamecompany bring players together through shared emotions in a shared environment. Although the environment can present you with stunning vistas, there is still a sense of loneliness when you go through the game in single player mode. However, when you stumble upon another lonely avatar, they become your “friend” throughout the journey.

There are some opposing arguments to where Journey fits within the container class of video games. “Some commentators have argued that a game like Journey actually cannot be considered a game at all—for example, because there is no competition or fail state. Yet the game offers numerous gaming features: its presentation from the start fits neatly into a third-person adventure genre; hidden items are scattered throughout the world, which the player can collect; and there are puzzles to be solved.”(Van Nuenen, 2016) To further explain, some gamers and critics may not consider Journey to qualify as a true videogame. On some aspects, Journey is lacking some of the qualities that are just the “normality” when it comes to videogames such as bosses to defeat or even the fact to you cannot truly die in the game. However, Journey can still be played just like any other videogame, it only has different ways of offering its players the stimulation which they crave. “…The player uses the internal power of his avatar to help, liberate, or just commune with other beings, who in turn help and empower the player.” (Duncan, par.5). Throughout the game, the player is still faced with certain challenges. They are not meant to conquer over any bosses or to beat the other player, but instead, they are meant to come to the aid of different creatures and to their partner which allows for the overall advancement of the game. Journey can offer the player stimulation that all videogames must have, however it does so in a peaceful manner allowing the player to make friends with his surroundings and also enjoy the artistic qualities of the entire game while being guided by a breath-taking environment.

To conclude, Journey is a symbiotic and truly cooperative multiplayer experience as it delves players into a world untethered by complex game mechanics or other trivial design niceties. Instead, it’s developers focused squarely on creating an experience that fosters collaboration, all the while crafting a narrative that is open-ended and construed not simply by cinematic videos (though there are a few) but by the player’s own built-in pre-conceptions.

Be well on your journey…

Works Cited

Chen, Jenova. “Theories Behind Journey.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 8 Feb 2013. Web. 28 Feb 2017.

Duncan, Alex. “Journey and the Reinterpretation of the Game Space”. The Animist. N.p., 28 June 2013. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.                

Extra Credits. “Affordances-How Design Teaches Us Without Words.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 29 Jan 2014. Web. 28 February 2017.

Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Eds. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. 118-30.

Polansky, Lana. “The Poetry of Created Space.Bit Creature. 5 October 2012.

Thatgamecompany. (2012). Journey. [PlayStation 4], Sony Computer Entertainment, played 07 February 2017.

Van Nuenen, Tom. “Procedural (E)motion: Journey as Emerging Pilgrimage.” The Journal of Popular Culture, vol 49, no.3, June 2016, pp. 466-491. Web, 28 Feb. 2017.

Discussion Questions

1) What are some other multiplayer games that value cooperation over competition, and how do they achieve it?

2) For those who have played it, what would you qualify having more of an emotional impact in Journey: meeting another player in-game or interacting with the environment?

3) Does the lack of mechanical complexity make Journey any less of a game?

4) What lessons can other multiplayer games draw from Journey on the principles of player interaction?

Additional Readings/Materials

  • Although this isn’t a reading pertaining to the subjects discussed in the essay, the soundtrack of Journey by Austin Wintory is well worth listening to. (If you haven’t played the game though, it would be best to experience the music alongside it first).
  • In an article entitled “Journey: A Critical Analysis“, author Melissa Borda analyzes the game design of the game and, while mostly discussing the triumphs of the game, also dedicates a section to explain what improvements might have been taken to make the “flow” of the game more meaningful (i.e. without the art and sound, what would Journey truly be comprised of?).
Symbiosis in Multiplayer: How Journey Offers a Novel Perspective on Online Cooperative Play

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