Journey came out in 2012, when financially I was firmly in the “can I afford a third tomato this week” phase of life. I bought used PS2 games for $5 or less, played on a console my parents had bought when I was in middle school. My high school laptop, a gasping Toshiba that I carefully squeezed every last bit of use out of, was too far on its last legs for me to even be thinking about getting new games on it. Instead I played emulated NES games and 2007 MMOs that had gone free-to-play with the graphics turned all the way down. Possibly this machine still could’ve handled Journey, but I wasn’t even looking at new releases, so I missed it. The asking price of fifteen whole dollars was a bit rich for my blood, anyway.

My finances have become considerably less dire since then, and at some point I picked up Journey, probably from a Humble Bundle because it only lasts 90 minutes and yet it took me until today (May 29th, 2022) to actually play it, which suggests I probably got it packaged with a bunch of other stuff and didn’t immediately play it for a full session. I know I at least booted it up and got as far as retrieving the scarf, but I didn’t get more than 5-10 minutes in with that first session before leaving it alone for however many years.

Masterfully designed indie darling that it is, someone even casually interested in game design was inevitably going to get the basic gist of Journey after waiting ten years to play it, so I knew that it was primarily a two-player game. You’d get matched with a random companion fairly early on as long as you’re connected to wifi. I’ve played so many MMOs, though, that the idea of a game ten years past release still having a sufficiently active population that you’ll actually bump into them outside of a single trade hub, the final bastion of player interactivity, seemed intuitively impossible to me. When I play a “multiplayer” game, unless I’ve specifically arranged to get some friends to play it with me, I’ll be walking through the remains of a dead community, full of wide, empty spaces between NPCs intended to hold crowds of players who’ve long since moved on. Sometimes it’s the boarded up shell of a ghost town that once bustled with dozens of inhabitants active at once. Sometimes it’s the ruins of an empire millions strong. What it isn’t, ever, is alive.

Journey, of course, isn’t an MMO. It’s got about ninety minutes of content and so long as any other player anywhere in the world is playing the same stage as you while connected to the internet, you will be matched with that player.

So, when I reached the ruined bridge and started figuring out how to rebuild it, I logically should’ve known immediately what I was looking at when I saw another figure that looked identical to me. They weren’t moving, so my first thought was “is this some kind of mirage?” And I started running towards them to see what would happen when I got close. They started running towards me, with what was unmistakably player-directed movement – purposeful but rigid, constrained by the inputs of a controller, yet not totally precise, making minor course corrections along the way rather than pointing themselves exactly at where they want to go like a computer. Somehow the idea that a ten-year-old game would still have other players seemed so impossible that I still didn’t get it. “Is this some kind of recording of me, playing back my own entrance to this valley?” I thought, which seemed weird because you’d think such a mechanic would’ve come up in discussions of the game, even if it only affected a small section near the start.

It wasn’t until they got close and I saw how much longer their scarf was that it finally hit me. Of course. Another player. The two of us stood next to one another, and exchanged a few notes of song. The only thing you can really use to communicate in Journey, besides the game’s movement mechanics, is the song produced by a single button, so it’s kind of like honking your car horn except it’s much more melodious. Still, you can’t even sing a specific tune, let alone add lyrics, so it’s pretty limited. So I’m sure my companion had no idea what exactly I was trying to sing at them.

“I thought for sure I was the only one left.”

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