Journey is a unique game because the story is entirely what you make of it. There are no expositional cutscenes or tutorials to tell you what you should be doing, or how you should be playing. You simply have to forge your own path, following visual clues and relying on your instincts.
For a game that relies so largely on player interpretation, the ending is especially troubling. After a long and trying adventure, you attempt to climb to the summit of a frosty-peaked mountain, only to freeze in your tracks and fall down, dead. The screen fades to white. After a few moments, you see several large entities in white robes standing over you. Your body rises up, is enchanted in a white aura, and shoots off above the clouds. It’s here where you soar free, guided in the warm sun towards the light at the mountain summit. You land in front of the light, walk towards it, and the screen fades to white once more.
As the credits roll, a little orb shoots from the summit and flies backwards through the same paths you traveled to get there. It ends at the beginning, burrowing into the ground where you took your first steps. The night has ended. The rising sun transitions you into the option to start a new game.
If you do, you’ll pick up right where your soul landed just moments ago. There’s no grand message, or conclusion thrown at you. Just the option to start over.
There’s an initial crushing sense of futility upon beating the game. You wonder if there were any consequences to your actions or if you’ve ultimately achieved anything or made any kind of progress. But I think the ending speaks more metaphorically about the cycle of life itself than any tangible gaming lesson.
The hard truth is, life can be meaningless sometimes. Some people toil away their entire lives and don’t truly accomplish anything. They live, they die – the end. Not everyone saves a princess from a castle, or finds the cure to some rare disease. Some of us just wander through life aimlessly until it’s over.
So what’s the point?
I think it’s reasonable to assume that the light at the mountain peak represents the afterlife, and the little orb that flies through the lands and into the earth is your soul, returning to where it started. Perhaps this is all just a grand demonstration in reincarnation, but I think there’s a deeper meaning to be derived from this game. Unlike Limbo, a game with a similar ending, your character is not doomed to repeat the game’s challenge indefinitely. You have fallen and your soul has passed on, and it’s time for a new soul to take up the charge and begin its journey. Even though you might never know what became of the other players you met along the way, or if your actions had any impact on the world, life goes on. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust (or in this case, sand to sand).
Is this an unnecessarily dark interpretation of a beautiful game? Perhaps. But it is realistic. There are many parts of life we have no control over, including our deaths. All we can do is try to make the world a better place while we’re here. And maybe that’s the ultimate message of Journey. Maybe being able to interact with other players online was the developer’s way to allow experienced players to guide new players through a world with no signposts, maps or cheat codes to help them along. A world much like our own, where we are all desperate to find our way so that we’ll be all right in the end. Only it’s not the end we should be concerning ourselves with, but the journey that gets us there.