Journey, Abstraction and the Invention of Language

I’ve spent the last five Christmas Eves having dinner with a table full of people speaking a language I don’t understand. My partner was born and raised in Canada, but her parents were born and raised in Warsaw, Poland, leaving several decades ago when the country was still under the thumb of the USSR. She, her brother and her cousins are (frustratingly, perfectly) multilingual while I only speak English fluently and can somewhat passably read and understand spoken French. At Christmas family gatherings with only two or three others who can’t speak/understand Polish it’s only natural that conversations eventually shift away from English. The older members of the family are most comfortable speaking in their first language after all and, especially after several bottles of wine and vodka have been emptied, their usual consideration for including everyone in every conversation starts to dissipate. The first year I came to the big Christmas Eve dinner I felt extremely awkward because of this. I imagine a lot of people surrounded by a language they don’t understand get to wondering what the hell is being said and, most anxiety-inducing of all, if they’re being talked about without understanding it.

The next year it seemed a bit better. I knew these people, had grown more comfortable drinking my wine and sort of drifting out when the conversations turned to Polish. The Christmas after that I barely noticed a thing and now, all these years and several failed attempts to learn the language (it is goddamned impenetrable, but I’ll keep trying until I die) later, I find that I can follow the gist of my in-laws’ Polish dialogue despite only recognizing a handful of words. It is possible to intuit the rhythm of a sentence, to understand how changes in tone and volume communicate a joke or sarcastic remark without a proper understanding of the complexities of the language. This is, I think, a common phenomenon. In lieu of properly interpreting a language, those regularly surrounded by it will at least learn to “feel” how it works.

By the end of two hours with Journey a similar thing had happened.

All language is a formalization of abstract thoughts, a systemic method of organization that allows groups of people to communicate ideas without barriers of entry. Anyone who speaks English can speak English to someone else and, say, talk about the weather. With a good enough grasp of the language it’s possible to read literature or poetry that takes advantage of that common ground to express more difficult concepts. Instead of using our mutual ability to get access to one another’s thoughts to talk about boring shit we can, instead, try to dig around in the collective psyche to share our deepest thoughts and emotions — usually incommunicable stuff like intense sadness, happiness, frustration, etc. — with one another. Humanity, because we’re a pretty ingenious species at times, has systems in place that allow us to easily share personal concepts through unified constructs of expression.

Literature and poetry are almost like telepathy in this sense.

What’s probably more interesting, though, is how certain art can bypass the limitations of language entirely, offering the same type of exchange without requiring even shared words as prerequisite. When any of us listen to a piece of music like Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, regardless of our musical training, we immediately feel the melancholy of a man from a very different time and culture than our own. When we look at a painting like Picasso’s Guernica we are engulfed in the horror and chaos of war without requiring first-hand knowledge of combat or even familiarity of the historic bombing portrayed in his piece.

Great works of visual art and music move beyond the confines of the written word and hit us at our core. This is the main reason I’ve always been drawn to playing and listening to music. Written art accomplishes different objectives, requires that the audience comes to it equipped with specific tools (and usually a significant amount of patience) on hand and is, by definition, a more exclusionary medium. Until recently videogames have primarily followed that route, choosing to communicate complex ideas by following in the footsteps of literary and cinematic media.

It seems like a bit of a waste. This type of approach is completely valid, but offers a relatively limited way of interfacing with an (increasingly large) international audience. Games are such an immediately accessible medium — provided, of course, that an audience has access to a console or PC — that they can benefit enormously from the same type of abstract expression afforded by other audio or visual works. That they also encourage immediacy by the very fact of their interactivity makes an even stronger case for shrugging off the conventions of language-based media more often.

That’s where Journey comes in.

There is no established language in Journey, barring a handful of early game button prompts, and as much of the game’s experience is instinctively felt as it is logically understood. As players explore the game’s desert landscape they are presented with visual cues that are recognizable from any context: tombstones, altars, stone shelters. As they learn to slide down sand dunes and fly through the air for the first time the music soars along with them, reinforcing that, yes, this is a really joyous thing to do. These audiovisual cues continue in the short non-interactive “exposition” sequences — no words, just moving picture and sound — that mask loading screens. All of it is presented in a way that combines the power of universally understood symbols with intuitive elements of play. The end result is that every situation is invested with an even more intense feeling of dread, happiness and sadness than is possible in art that doesn’t force us to take an active role in experiencing it.

The abstraction of play, environment and narrative into intellectual neutrality continues with the game’s brilliant multiplayer. Another red cloaked figure (who looks exactly like the person the player controls) comes into view from out of nowhere. Press the controller’s circle button lightly to chirp once or press it several times to emit several sounds. The musicality of Journey‘s “language” means that it is easy to understand for any audience. It may seem like an arbitrary design choice at first, but by the time the player has encountered real danger and heard their partner’s rapid chirping they’ve understood that the game has provided a real tool. Frantic chirps from another player can’t represent anything but panic when both sides of the conversation are fleeing a menacing dragon-like creature in a dark cavern. Because both parties speak the same vague “language” it only takes one time experiencing a flurry of exclamations while soaring on an air current to realize that the other player is hammering on that circle button to express their joy. The inclusion of this language — completely abstract but completely capable of conveying human expression — shows a prodigious understanding of how to leverage artistic achievement with real interactivity. In short, Journey is the most fully realized and wholly universal videogame of any to date.

True art is capable of leading its audience to a sort of instinctual understanding, something that goes beyond the literal message of a song, a story or a game mechanic and resounds on a level just out of the reach of our critical minds. This kind of catharsis is why we are drawn to beautiful paintings, songs and poetry. We don’t have to be devoted to any of these forms of expression to be capable of taking something away from time in their presence. Fans, developers and critics of videogames seem to return to the question of whether games are art regularly. The end result is always a samsara style arrival back at the beginning of the conversation (or the return of the headache that caused you to start repeatedly smacking your forehead against the wall in the first place) and is, ultimately, completely banal.

When a videogame is able to invent a language all of its own — one that is accessible to anyone with a few fingers and two hours — there’s no need to argue about what it is and where it should be shelved on the sprawling library of global culture. It distills so much of what is alien and what is familiar in the human experience into a single piece of entertainment; it gives the impression that anyone experiencing it for the first time is sitting around a familiar dinner table hearing a conversation they both can and cannot understand; it is like viewing a prehistoric painting from a completely forgotten civilization that makes you feel sad in the same way that the far off creator felt sad when they made it. The fact that Journey communicates with us with on this level makes labelling it sort of besides the point. It is something new and it is a promise for the future of a medium.


Reid McCarter is a writer, editor and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, The Escapist and C&G Magazine. He maintains literature and music blog, Sasquatch Radio, and, more importantly, founded, writes and is editor-in-extremis for game site Digital Love Child. His Tweet-fu is strong @reidmccarter.