Saturday, November 30, 2013

Journey and the Epic

Journey, developed by thatgamecompany as part of a partnership with Sony, is one of my favorite games ever made. Despite being short, simple, minimalist, and offering virtually no challenge, it has had the biggest impact on me of any game I've ever played, and I'm hardly the only person to say things like that. Among the many reasons already given for why Journey is so great, I'd like to add a new one: Journey is actually the simplest, most universal epic poem ever written.

No matter who you are, where you're from, or what you like, you have had experience with epic poetry. The epic is one of the oldest and broadest literary genres, and nearly every civilization in history has their own epic, or their own version of an epic. The Greeks had The Odyssey, the Romans had The Aeneid, the Anglo-Saxons had Beowulf, the Mesopotamians had Gilgamesh, the Indians have Mahabarata and Ramayana. All of these stories are required reading at some point in school, but more importantly they have shaped their respective cultures in profound ways that continue to the present day.

Despite the epic being such a broad and old literary genre, it has a surprising amount of specific characteristics. In A Handbook to Literature, William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman define ten characteristics that most every epic shares:
  1. Begins in medias res.
  2. The setting is vast, covering many nations, the world or the universe.
  3. Begins with an invocation to a muse (epic invocation).
  4. Begins with a statement of the theme.
  5. Includes the use of epithets.
  6. Contains long lists, called an epic catalogue.
  7. Features long and formal speeches.
  8. Shows divine intervention on human affairs.
  9. Features heroes that embody the values of the civilization.
  10. Often features the tragic hero's descent into the Underworld or hell.
For a genre that crosses centuries and whole civilizations, that's a surprisingly detailed list of shared characteristics, but it's an accurate list. And Journey features all of them despite just one word of text figuring into the whole experience.

1. Begins in medias res.
Coming from the Latin term for "in the midst of things," "In medias res" in narrative means starting the story in the middle of the action without any exposition explaining a back story or establishing characters. Journey begins in medias res by nature of the videogame medium. The story opens on the player character sitting in the sand without any explanation about where this character came from, why they're there, or what's going on in this character's life. Indeed, none of these questions are ever fully explained, though we are given some hints throughout the game, especially with the ending.

2. The setting is vast, covering many nations, the world or the universe.
Journey is not set in our world, but it is strongly implied within the game that what we see constitutes the whole of its own world. In the desert sequences in the beginning, the player can see for what seems like miles in any direction just sand and more sand. The robed creatures, the cloth beings, and their enemy stone snakes are the only living things ever hinted at in the game (excluding the Easter egg references to thatgamecompany's previous games, Flower and flOw, with the flower in the desert and the sea creature in the tower level). The unlockable stone glyphs and the cut scene visions all show only robed creatures and stone snakes--never is it implied that any other living thing inhabits this world, and this struggle of the journeying creatures against the antagonist snakes seems to be all that has ever happened here. This journey to the mountain is all these creatures do. At least, that's how it is now, though it does seem to be implied that thing were different once with all the headstones, the city buried in sand, and the several ruins. In any case, this journey and these characters seem to be the whole world of this fiction.

In addition to that, however, Journey covers all of our own world as well. As long as the player's Playstation 3 system is connected to the internet, as they head toward the mountain on their journey they will encounter another player's character on the same journey who they can choose to ignore or work with to reach the mountain in the distance. This online multiplayer function does so much more than let you play the game with a friend, however (in fact, it doesn't even do that because you can't choose who you play with, the system just decides which two players will appear in each other's world as they play the same level at the same time and their sessions become linked). By nature of how this multiplayer function is set up, this game suddenly becomes an international, multicultural activity where anyone can play with anyone with no barriers of language, space, religion, politics, or passports. Thus, the world of Journey is literally the entire online population of Earth. So not only is the setting within the narrative vast, but the narrative itself is set as vastly as humanly possible in the largest network humanity has ever produced.

3. Begins with an invocation to the muse.
This element does not appear in Journey, but this trope is linked with only Western epics anyway as it comes from the Greek tradition, and as I've stated before, Journey is trying to be more universal than just European tradition, so it's understandable that this convention was left out.

4. Begins with the statement of the theme.
I said before that Journey only has one word of actual text, but even that's a stretch. The one word I was referring to is the title coming on the screen as the player character comes over the very first hill in the game. One could see this as a simple title card typical of many games and films, but in Journey it's also the statement of the theme and the only goal given to the player in the game. As the title appears in a shot where the mountain is central to the player's perspective, the association is obvious and the player concludes easily that the point of the game is to travel to the mountain in the distance. The game doesn't tell the player why they should do this, or even why the player character wishes to do this, but that simple title given in that specific shot is enough to motivate the player to take on the rest of the hour and a half or so that it takes to finish the game. In addition to instruction, however, this title states simply but powerfully the theme of the game as well. The choice of Journey as a title in this case seems especially deliberate. Notice, for instance, how different a feel the game would have if "Go," "Travel," "Walk," or even "Adventure" appeared in that shot with the mountain in the distance. Journeys themselves are a trope of most epics, and a journey is much different thing than a travel or an adventure in fiction. A journey specifically implies struggle, learning, and especially growth and change in the main character. Travel has no such implication, while adventure may imply some growth or change, but it often implies more excitement and playfulness than the word journey. Thus, Journey becomes not only the title, but a statement of theme for the game--this is a game about life's struggles and how we grow and change as we continue on our own life's journeys.

5. Includes the use of epithets.
Epithets are descriptions of something that reoccur often enough to stand in place of an actual name, or that become part of the name itself. In The Odyssey, Homer uses "wine-dark sea" as an epithet, and titles like "Alexander the Great" are also epithets. In Journey, the lack of any text or speech forces the player to create their own epithets and exclusively use these epithets to describe the characters and places of the narrative. Notice how I myself have dealt with this issue already in this post, calling the player characters "robed creatures" and the antagonists "stone snakes." The settings also have epithets rather than names--"the endless desert," "the buried city," and "the distant mountain." This aspect of Journey as an epic might be completely incidental--there are many reasons to not give the characters or setting names other than to force the player to create epithets for them, but it nevertheless sets Journey still more solidly in the genre of epic poetry.

6.  Contains long lists, called an epic catalogue.
Most epics contain long lists of places, people, armor, weapons, or other things. Admittedly, this does not appear in Journey in a traditional way. There are, however, 21 glowing symbols hidden throughout the game that all make the player character's scarf longer (which in turn allows them to fly longer and higher), and 10 hidden glyphs that each show a bit of the history of the robed people. These create a kind of catalogue as players have to pay attention to find all of them, and they spur the creation of text catalogues as players take to the internet to help each other out by listing all their locations. In a way, this videogame version of a catalogue serves a lot of the same function as the epic catalogue as it provides depth to the fictional world with a greater level of detail that allows careful eyes to pinpoint a more exact perspective on the world presented.

7. Features long and formal speeches
There are obviously no speeches in Journey, but the tone of the whole game is much more formal than most games, and the visions given in the cut scenes between levels seem like a kind of wordless speech from the larger robed figures to the smaller ones as a kind of formal instruction.

8. Shows divine intervention on human affairs.
This one is featured very prominently in Journey. While it is not entirely clear if they are a deity or not, the larger, white robed figures intervene on behalf of the player to guide and direct, but also to save the player from freezing to death in the final level. Again, while not expressly deity, the white color, the robes, the large size, and the dreamlike scenery in which they appear, as well as they visions they impart to the player character, all link them to common symbols and functions of deity, especially deity that appear in epics. In any case, they have powers beyond the regular player characters and intervene on their behalf, so definitely constitute a kind of divine intervention.

9. Features heroes that embody the values of civilization.
The player characters in Journey lack all gender, ethnicity, nationality, politics, religion, or any other indicators to mark them as a specific kind of people. Indeed, they only seem like people because they are bipeds with eyes at the top of their head, and seem to wear robes like humans might wear. But their eye color and lack of arms mark them as distinctly not human. However, they still embody the values of the post-modern, post-colonial world by representing truly complete equality. Everyone can relate to these characters, anywhere in the world, and they exclude no human group because they align themselves with none. Additionally, as players from all over the world play together and become equals by playing such equal characters and helping each other through the Journey, these characters further embody the modern world's values of cooperation, diplomacy, and civility across borders and ideologies.

However, despite being so aesthetically the same, there are subtle distinctions that make each player still individual. Each player is designated a unique symbol for their "voice" within the game that is totally unique, so that every player has "their own voice," and as players complete the game multiple times the designs on their robes grow more elaborate to symbolize their experience and signal this to other players. Additionally, any player who finds all the glowing symbols in the game is given the ability to change their robe color between white and red. The white robe makes these players look similar to the deity-like characters who guide the player in the end-level visions. Thus, these dedicated players who have found all of the games secrets are allowed to adorn a white robe as a signal to any other players they encounter that they have full knowledge of the world's secrets and can ably guide a less experienced player along. With these nods to individuality inside of characters that symbolize total equality, these characters ably embody all of the modern world's values, just as heroes of every epic have embodied the values of their people.

The cave sequence of Journey serves as this epic's underworld sequence.

10. Often features the tragic hero's descent into the Underworld or hell.
This is actually the characteristic that brought this whole idea to my attention, as the descent into the underworld is a very stark contrast to the rest of Journey. The colors suddenly change from warm oranges, yellows, and reds to a sudden palate of dark blues and greens. The music and lighting darken, and it is in this portion of the game that the first antagonists appear, the stone snakes that feast on anything cloth and rip the player's scarf away should they cross their path. This section of the game is accessed through a literal descent as the player falls into a deep hole, and the player character's red and orange robes serve as a reminder throughout the sequence of the other-worldliness of the new setting. The descent into this pit from the beautiful and harmonious world of the first few levels makes this sequence feel especially tragic, especially if the snake nabs the player character's scarf and renders them suddenly unable to fly like they have grown accustomed to in the first levels. Even the title of the achievement given to players if they pass this part avoiding any attack from the snakes, "Trials," implies a connection to this trope of epic poetry.

As you can see, Journey successfully adapts the conventions of the epic to the format of videogames, and then takes advantage of this new medium to expand the scope of the epic to a whole new level. Journey is an epic for all people all over the Earth.

Once again, I hope this post has shown how videogames, despite being a new medium, speak and react to some of the greatest and most important art in human history, and seek to develop new art aware of tradition but pushing boundaries through modern values and communication technologies.

Images from thatgamecompany.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. (Sorry, formatting tags didn't work so I deleted the post and removed them)

      I didn't feel like I could really give meaningful feedback on this without going and watching a play-through of Journey. I know it's still not the same as playing through it for oneself, but all the same, I really enjoyed it, and I'll likely buy it and play through it when I'm home for Christmas break. Anyway, some comments: Journey is like no epic ever. There, I said it. Sure, it begins in medias res, and maybe it uses deus ex machina and pseudo-catalogues and has a jaunt into the underworld and all that, but I don't think we should classify it as an epic. I don't think we should take a medium that is much more rich and lively and vibrant than any written or oral epic and try to fit it into a neat little box so that other people will say, "Oh, okay video games are worth something." Because in the end, as I said before, this is like no epic ever. In trying to answer for the worth of video games in terms of classical genres, maybe we do make them more accessible to people who would have had little to no interest in them otherwise, but I fear that at the same time, we risk trivializing video games, presenting them as "just another epic" that, when one looks at it real closely, doesn't fit very well into the 'genre box' that we've crafted for it. In actuality, video games are more radical in form than pretty much any other medium... ever... and I think we need to help people see them as their own medium--breaking molds and opening minds.

      That's all for now. Thanks for posting this, and thanks for recommending Journey.

    2. You make great points, Greg. I totally agree that we shouldn't just box up videogames in literary genres. Though I may not have made it clear in the post, I believe Journey is an epic poem AND MORE, and that's what makes it so amazing. It's a videogame, first and foremost, and so much more than that, but somewhere in there it also manages to be an epic. That's what's so exciting to me about videogames. They can speak to, learn from, and satisfy classic genres and mediums and surpass them. Thus, videogames represent an advance in art and thought, not a degeneration, as so many lament. That's the point I'm really trying to make here.