Sublime Motion:

Wu wei in Journey

In the medium of video games, empathy is the most elusive form of player engagement. Rarely does a game have an emotional sophistication equal to its intellectual and sensory stimulus, and rarer still is the game that provokes genuine empathy for a character in the gameworld. Player emotion tends to be a binary condition dictated by the game’s win and fail states, a deficiency that has not gone unnoticed. “We see emotion as nutrition, and a healthy human should have a wide variety” (1) says Journey’s director, Jenovah Chen.

Journey tells a deliberately generic story: a traveller is guided by visions on a pilgrimage to a distant mountaintop that shines with divine light; hardship and hazard are faced on the path to enlightenment. It hews close to the archetypal hero’s journey found in the monomyth – the narrative template for mythologies identified by Joseph Campbell. (2) Where Journey innovates is in its approach to emotional engagement: our part in this pilgrimage is not limited to physical input.

At the outset we discover the hero kneeling in repose in an arid desert. This meditation goes unbroken until we manipulate the game controller and cause the figure to stand. The game prompts us to take our first tentative steps and the hero translates even our clumsiest inputs into deftness and elegance. We advance and the quiet is broken by the shushing of sand; it masses and disperses around our footless legs. Our poncho/burqa wafts as we move so that we appear almost to float. We climb to the summit of a nearby dune to investigate a pair of mysterious stelae on the horizon; there is a valley on the far side; we begin to descend and gravity propels us into an effortless surf. These first joyful moments instruct us in the philosophy that underlies Journey’s interactive experience.

Wu wei (“without action”) is one of Taoism’s characteristic paradoxes. A verbatim reading would appear to praise an attitude of stubborn indifference, but the true lesson has more nuance. Effective action appears effortless because it retains harmony by heeding the ebb and flow of cosmic energy. When action does not contend, it requires no undue exertion:

Wu wei erh wu pu wei. (3)
You do nothing and nothing’s not done. (4)

In Journey our spiritual seeker must always act with wu wei in mind. Gameplay is driven by the elemental forces of wind, sand, snow, and water. Flurries of ribbon and fluttering banners act as reservoirs of spiritual power, anthropomorphised tapestries transform into frolicking airborne creatures, and the symbology is completed by the magical scarf draped around our neck that gifts us with the fantastic ability to defy gravity and walk upon the air. Our pilgrimage requires that we master this sublime motion: to traverse the environment we must gain understanding of the forces surrounding us and then turn those forces to our advantage. Sensitive and attuned action is always the most rewarding, both in terms of direct feedback and in terms of progression.

The story’s first act has a playful mood that culminates in a boisterous slalom down steep sand dunes into the heart of a ruined city, but next comes a sequence in which we must proceed with the greatest of caution. In a crypt patrolled by fearsome guardians it is wise to restrain our impulses. Gregarious or unthinking action will result in discovery, we will be dived upon violently and our scarf will be torn. Though we may be indifferent to the attack on our avatar, we are soon made to share the hero’s pain keenly: a torn scarf reduces our power and curtails our freedom of movement. Our clash with the guardians, the only hostile entity in the game, reveals the nature of the trials to come: the definition of hardship in Journey is that which robs us of mobility.

Notably the systemic hazards are not lethal. Punishing the unskilful player by killing the avatar would cause the player to focus on the ludic challenge and lose empathy with each repetition of a frustrating encounter. Instead our hero is a hardy soul, able to continue even after knocks and tumbles. Death in Journey is a narrative beat timed for maximum effect, as hero and player experience a shared nadir.

We ascend the mountain, navigating ridge and crevice en route to the summit, until our advance falters in the face of a blizzard. Finally on a barren brae we succumb to the cold. Diminished and dispirited, we collapse. The hero’s demise is also the player’s tragedy; the pleasure of interaction has faded as our vigour has been sapped and our temper tested on the mountainside. In our moment of despair, a divine presence intercedes. Our body is lifted from the snowy ground by the benevolent mother figure who has guided us to this place. We are revived and transported to an idyll above the clouds, where we discover to our delight that we have been granted virtually limitless mobility. The music soundtrack swells, emotive and full of wonder. We swoop and soar through the azure sky. It would seem we have transcended the corporeal realm.

Our journey resumed, we make flight to the summit in bliss. The game indulges us with this rhapsodic interval, but we must recover our composure in order to bring the journey to a satisfactory end. As we arrive at the summit, the music recedes until all that remains is a reprise of the hero’s pensive motif. At our discretion, we signal our fulfilment by walking calmly into the light. Relinquishing our power, we complete the cycle and return to quietude.

The story concludes with the hero’s astral light flying back to the beginning, there to remain poised on the cusp of renewal until we next return. The circular nature of the pilgrimage is important to Journey’s enduring appeal: this is an experiential mythology; each replay of the game is a retelling of the story and a chance to embroider it with new discoveries and a new cast of companions. Journey engages its players emotionally by embracing the essence of interactive media: participation. Joseph Campbell may have said it best: “It is the song of the imagination, inspired by the energies of the body.” (5)