Similar to how many remember Contra as grounds for two-player bonding and coordination, most agree Journey is better when you meet another player by chance during its two-hour expedition. Yet just as guns don’t automatically make Contra more urgent, the absence of nonstop violence in Journey doesn’t make it more sophisticated. Despite difficult challenges and machismo that may understandably be interpreted as exclusionary, the Konami shooter inspires more palpable comradery even in something as goofy as a high-five on a couch. With Journey, director Jenova Chen presents intimacy as a mirage in a desert and fits inclusivity into an abstracted model.
There’s no doubt that Journey is striking in how it encourages depictions of kindness. Its impromptu friendships relieve you by making the landscape seem less vast and the quest less cryptic. With only one player, Chen emphasizes loneliness, especially during the final stretch through a blizzard that deflates whatever buoyancy you had about reaching the end (here, Journey surpasses the sinking despair of Elude). With someone by your side, completing the quest can become secondary to ensuring you’re in step with another version of yourself. That you can recharge each other’s jumping ability results in a spontaneity and commitment that can be thrilling and blissful.
Without companionship, Journey appears impersonal, showering you with that vaguely spiritual, monoethnic dullness of the adventure genre that The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask countered with community-based identity and heroism. Lacking an equivalent of the documentary segments from the Iñupiat platformer Never Alone, Chen evokes the Middle East and East Asia without insightful context, creating a sentimental but culturally hollow fantasy. Unsurprisingly, you can see traces of developer Thatgamecompany’s Flower (released three years before the 2012 debut of Journey) in the area-by-area progression, though Journey’s esoteric payoffs can’t match its predecessor’s single-player offering of beauty for the sake of beauty. Having a random online buddy in Journey both divorces you from isolation and shows ambition that few developers can match (Tale of Tales’s The Endless Forest is an embarrassing chatroom in comparison).
Still, Journey exemplifies the movement that disregards the universality of in-person interaction. Anecdotes about the game function as mawkish indicators of social status, as the Internet crowd often forgets that being online is a privilege for more than a few. Chen isn’t even consistent with the illusion of interpersonal connections. After you complete areas with your comrade, transitional cutscenes put the focus back on the singular you. This technique is distant compared to how James Earl Cox III cuts to husband-and-wife bed conversations between sections of The World the Children Made. As Cox’s game illustrates, the increasing use and requirement of technology in human life will reveal disconnects between us. After I finished Journey, it disclosed my companion’s name: MAINEV3NT_69. The contextual absurdity of the sexual reference rejects the intended mood and points to the clumsiness of Internet-based design. Always more personal, Contra was never this silly or inexact.