Journey: An Analysis of the Abstract

I would like to invite you to partake in a quick exercise of the analytical. Take a look at this abstract painting by James Abbott McNeill Whistler called Nocturne in Black and Gold. Spend a moment viewing this piece and think about what it means.

How do you feel while you look at it? What sort of message do you think Whistler was going for here? You might feel happy and excited by this picture or you might feel distraught, concerned or even confused. This painting became famous for exemplifying the early 19th century artistic movement focused on “Art for art’s sake” or, as it was originally known, “l’art pour l’art”. Even though it has been said that this painting was created in mind of a recent court case that the artist lost, the actual motives of the artist are somewhat irrelevant and that is because the emotion and meaning that is actually conveyed onto the viewer is the only thing that truly matters in this movement.  In a loose sense , it doesn’t really matter what the artist was going for, what does matter is that the artist created a unique piece that, however un-objective, has meaning interpretable to the consumer. After all, before the word “abstract” became popular, many people referred to this type of art as “non-objective” and this style has regained popularity lately in painting and sculpting, and lately there have been a few art games that have taken advantage of the abstract and Thatgamecompany’s “Journey” is one of those few games.

“Journey” is a third person indie game that has the player control an unnamed cloaked figure across a vast desert, journeying towards a large shining mountain that is first seen at the beginning of the game. What sets “Journey” apart from many other games is that its strong narrative-driven gameplay is accompanied by little explanation or objectivity. There are no spoken words, no explicit directions, and no obvious mechanics at your disposal. “Journey” sets you on an expedition that you, as the player, actively discover. What sets “Journey” apart from other games is that it is abstract but not strictly in the way the art or sculpting is. The visually abstract is a feature that is present in paintings but rarely in games. However, “Journey” doesn’t have abstract principals in its visuals alone. This game is abstract in a lot of other ways. So then let’s look at exactly what makes “Journey” abstract and why I think this makes the game so much more interesting.

In one way, the game “Journey” is mechanically abstract. This is first evident through its tutorial stage. “Journey” introduces the player simply with a character to control and a single button that you can press. It doesn’t tell you where to go or what the buttons do, it just gives you a shining image of a mountain top. Right at the beginning this game has very little objectivity. There is little you’re told to do and you feel lost. Or you should be. Despite not being directly instruced in anyway, as a player you recognize what to do next. In a wide open desert with nothing foreseeable to interact with, what else can you do than journey towards the only glowing point you can see in the sky? You walk towards the unknowingly tall and distant mountain, you begin your Journey.

Throughout the game, players will see how “Journey” presents little objectivity in both its narrative and its mechanics. Firstly, players will see how few of the game’s mechanics are spelled out to them. For instance, the abilities the player is given are dynamic throughout the game. The player has the ability to sort-of fly and glide for a short period of time determined by the length of his or her scarf; however, this ability is hardly constant. The length of your scarf grows and shortens throughout the game for reasons of your own and of the game’s. Additionally, the different environments you encounter change the characteristics of your flight. While in the windy dessert you can glide as far as a few sand dunes, in the ocean you can swim as high as you can see, and in the frozen mountains you can barely even get your feet off the ground. All of these characteristics are completely out of the player’s control and because of this we, as consumers, can resonate with it each individually, and this is ever present. Every piece of this game’s mechanics are vague and yet intentional. The small little pieces of fabric have their own little minds. They move and flow and there is no real way to expect how they will act. And because of this we, as viewers, can construct so many ideas out of this. Perhaps these pieces of fabric represent lives long past, perhaps they represent hope of life and dreams that will be. The true answer doesn’t really matter because the abstractness of these little pieces allow each person to develop their own meaning and this is further exemplified through the game’s story.

Similar to a few other games like Dark Souls or Limbo, “Journey” doesn’t implement a concrete story. Upon entering the game, players are met with little direction and they are never really informed on what they are doing exactly. As most players have assumed, the first and only direction given in the game is to travel towards the shining mountain top. But why exactly? As you travel though this vast dessert you will probably find small bits of history scattered and in pieces. Small clues about a civilization long past are slowly given to the player. And although this history is linear and somewhat consistent, you can’t deny how vague and even irrelevant it is to the narrative of the player. Numerous people have put together the lore and history of the world “Journey” created. However, the game never truly explains what exactly the player is doing. Where did we come from, what were we doing before this game started? Did we always exist and are just now deciding to venture or were we just born at the start of the game? Why do we need to travel to the mountain what exactly is at the top of it? What exactly happened to us at the end of the game? All these questions don’t have a definite answer. Through its story and world, “Journey” has created a canvas of lore and then painted a vague piece of expression in its narrative and that is for the players to extrapolate, that is for the players to make their own conclusions. Through its narrative, Journey displays an abstract piece of art, something that is unique to all consumers.

If you ask me to define what art is, I would tell you that it’s an expression of an artist that can be consumed and interpreted by a consumer. One of the things I think that makes games so great is their interactivity. And this is because a game’s varying mechanics allow every player to have a different experience, a different interpretation. Journey takes this aspect one step further when it adds its multiple elements of apstractivity. Journey is visually stunning, creatively fun, emotionally riveting, but most significantly this game is uniquely abstract. And not only does this game provide its players with a memorable experience, it allows people to talk about it. It provides a discussion to be had much like that painting we looked at earlier. Journey is a game that touched me in a way that few things, not just games, have managed to do. People have sometimes asked me how a game can be considered art. I would then show them the game Journey and ask them, “How can something this inventive not be art?” Journey is a perfect example of Art and not just for games, for all types of media and that is why I think “Journey” is going to stick with us for a long time.

Thank you very much for reading.

Written by James Murphy

Edited by Caitlin Moffett