Journey: A Hero's Journey With No Hero
Normally, when one embarks on a hero’s journey, it is done to some societal end. Little surprise, since our perceptions of what is heroic are entirely dependent on our societies and cultures. Become a king. Succeed in the job market. Defeat the Empire. So what happens when there is no society to set the ideals to which budding heroes can aspire, no society to recognize who the heroes are?
This is the situation proposed in Journey, a small game I had the pleasure of playing this week. Your “destiny”, to climb a mountain, is dictated to you by possibly imaginary messengers of a lost civilization, who have left behind nothing but ruins, cryptic glyphs, and industrial machinery.
In another game, you might have the option of walking away from this destiny. You, after all, bear no responsibility to the dead. But Journey forces you to accept this destiny of voyaging to an obsolete holy ground, and then celebrates it.
So why do we accept and celebrate a quest from a lost civilization?
Nature and Industry
To have discussion on how Journey justifies the imperativity of the player’s destiny, we must first begin with an analysis of how it conceives of man and society. Normally, in the hero’s journey, the duality of man is one of good and evil (see my post on the last Star Wars movie for more on this). However, in Journey, we focus more on the duality of nature and industry.
The world of Journey is filled with red cloth, which stands clearly as a metaphor for life (and is coincidentally colored like coursing blood). All the living things you meet in Journey (except the Ancestor) are made of red cloth, and vaguely resemble real-life animals in their sounds and mannerisms.
On one hand, the game shows us that man is, at some level, in touch with this natural state. In the calm temple area, unlocking the glyphs– records of man’s history– raises the water level and revives cloth creatures. As the player, you free and befriend cloth creatures during your quest, while simultaneously serving the wishes of the civilization. To top it off, the mountaintop– the height of your destiny as dictated by the civilization– is the most pure concentration of natural glory in the game.
But man’s societies, as recorded on the great murals and in the ruins of their civilization, ultimately rely on trapping this red cloth and driving powerful machinery, as we first see at the end of the desert level. The robot whales are, as shown towards the end of the game, cloth whales encased in steel– lifeless industry– for the purpose of man’s civilization. The endless search for technological advancement leads to the destruction of nature and the eventual downfall of civilization.
Every Industry is Industrial in its Own Way
Now, here’s the claim we’re going to make: All people commune with nature in the same way, but they deviate from it in different ways. Alternatively, while our societies and cultures will inevitably depend randomly on our artificial technology, they must arise from the same natural origin.
The largest tipoff to this idea is the final mural scene, where two people holding a cloth rip it between them, before the camera scrolls to a depiction of the robot whales and the ruin of civilization. With nature, they are one, but with industry, they are at war.
The “oneness” of natural man is further backed in the game by the depiction of the travellers. You, and whatever collaborators you may find along the way, all don red cloth, in the fashion of the cloth creatures. You all rely on the cloth to recharge your scarf. With the questions of political allegiance and wealth removed, the travellers are really all the same.
So let’s return to the original question: why do we carry out the wishes of a dead civilization? The answer is…
While the voyage is framed by the ancient civilization, it does not actually concern human society. The quest you carry out is one of communing with nature. When you burst through the clouds to the mountaintop, the two robot whales following you shed their industrial skin and emerge as natural cloth. There is no industry here– only nature. In man’s greatest holy ground we find something primordial, something natural; we find a synthesis of sun and moon, water and ice, life and death, but nothing human.
It does not matter what civilization “designated” this holy ground or this quest. The hero’s journey here exists beyond any conceptions of society or culture; it exists in nature. We do not need the civilization to tell us of the greatness of the mountaintop– it is self-apparent in its natural glory.
Journey here claims that our civilization, our culture, our technology are irrelevant to the glory of the hero’s journey. They may guide or empower us as the white-hoods do in-game, but the mountaintop’s splendor is in no way dependent on them. It only requires the unperturbed beauty of nature, and our willingness to participate in and honor it.
Our celebration at the top of the mountain is utterly devoid of anything human: it is a pure celebration of the world that gave birth to us. This is what makes Journey unique, and what makes it great.
For something to be regarded as heroic, there must naturally be a culture that reveres it. But this doesn’t really exist in Journey, since civilization is dead. That’s where the title of this piece comes from: a glorious journey to the peak of what it means to live in this world, but with only a small and unacknowledged traveler.
It took me two playthroughs and a long time to put the beauty of Journey into words, and I hope that I’ve done so well enough. Much like when I played Ori, I felt a work that struck at the very heart of its archetypal story.
I’m still planning a piece on Bloodborne, but it’s difficult to think of a topic that hasn’t been covered. I’ll also be doing a piece on Ori, which I plan to replay this week; it’ll likely look much like this writeup (except not about the hero’s journey!).
Until next time.