Journey Without Words

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I'm not sure I've seen anyone describe Journey as a well written game. It's praised as an earnest, emotionally stirring masterpiece, and a subtle success that nearly denigrates other games just by existing alongside them. But the topic of writing in games is often confined to scripts, spectacle and whatever is said in a cutscene, and Journey doesn't have any of that. If you completed it, you'll probably agree: There are no words.

As I wandered through an orange-hued desert, coming dangerously close to outright frolicking, I noticed a figure striding into distant view. Here I met another nameless nomad, and one that shared my appreciation of tasteful, unfettered fabrics. A friend? Another traveler compelled to reach the mysterious obelisk at the center of the world? "Would u like 2 work 2gether," he said in a text bubble. "I know how 2 get 2 the mountain and beat the game."

Okay, that absolutely did not happen, and if it did it would ruin the story. Aside from an innocent, sonar-like ping, there's no communication between online players in Journey. We used that pulse to suss out secret spots for one another, or to find each other if an exciting downhill dune-slide separated us. We became friends, discovering a world that perfectly oscillates between trepidation, wonder and fatigue during the course of the game.

Alas, after our long trek through the sand and air, my friend ventured too close to an edge. As I turned around, too late, I saw the frigid crevice swallowing him whole. (Or maybe he got disconnected, or left to make dinner. That's a detail I'd rather not append to the story.) I braved the final, wind-hewn ascent up the mountain alone, and it felt lonelier, more grueling and more tragic than I could have expected.

That's a story, implicitly told by a game that appears to have no writing, or any traditional capacity to communicate a plot. Journey succeeds where others fail because it's firmly ensconced in the medium, and knows exactly how to talk to its players – quietly. With most other games, it's like striking up dinnertime conversation with a marching band.

What we have here is an immense success in communication. It's an ironic wonder that so many games, which start having extremely wordy panic attacks at the mere thought of a player getting lost for two seconds, aren't more fluent in less obvious language. Games can provide feedback and information in ways that can be more intuitive to a wider audience, through visuals, sounds, physics, icons, controller vibration and even environmental design. A solemn explorer in a sparse landscape, dwarfed by an inviting tower in the distance, imparts the goal of Journey better than a tutorial could.

All of that is still a form of written creation, with a sincere belief that players can sense direction and impact without being bludgeoned with the author's frying pan. And the scenario and the visual elements that explain the author's work don't simply fall under "graphics" or "technology," as more simplistic arguments would like to suggest.

It's a deliberate craft in all aspects, of course, but when it comes to storytelling a game like Journey is just written differently. It's not better, necessarily – there's good storytelling that takes excellent advantage of cutscenes and actors – but different enough to make you consider how much remains unsaid in video games. There's a whole, untapped spectrum in which games can talk to us.

The preponderance of video game plots in critical discussion is perhaps the greatest modern mystery. We're all talking about the content of the story, when the crucial, underdeveloped part – the beautiful part that connects you to a designer's vision – is in how that story is conveyed. Plot is important, but it's hardly the only measure of how well a game is written.

If it's our lexicon that's at fault, and we don't have a good way to encapsulate the crossover between writing, structuring and design, it's time we expanded it. We'll need designers and writers to head up that mountain with us, and some fencing to cordon off the treacherous cliffs.

Ludwig Kietzmann is the Editor-in-Chief of He's been writing about video games for over 10 years, and has been working on this self-referential blurb for about twice as long. He thinks it turned out pretty well. Follow him on Twitter @LudwigK.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.