[Game: Journey, thatgamecompany, 2012]
Not Lone nor Level Sands:

A Thorough Ecocritical Analysis of thatgamecompany’s Journey


The first and most dominant visual motif of Journey is . . . sand. As the game begins, an unfathomably vast desert of fine-grain sand stretches in every direction. Clouds of it move through the wind, and block out the sky. The area is a beige-tan wasteland of desolate, arid sediment, which unimpeded winds have gathered into rhythmic and monotonous dunes. And directly before the player-character lies one such large ridge of sand. Trudging up this dune reveals a landmark: a distinctive bifurcated mountain thrusts through the sand up into the air, undaunted by its dusty environs, emitting a glow at the point of union between its dual peaks. The destination is set, and with a slide down the obverse of the dune, the eponymous journey begins. It won’t be until that journey is roughly 80 percent over that, on emerging from a tall cave-bound temple, one actually finally exits the dust, dirt, and sand.

Yet, for all this emphasis, I have found that extant analyses of Journey have disappointingly little to say about sand. That is, the landscapes of the game—so foregrounded by Journey’s lack of HUD, lack of dialogue, distant camera position, and relative mechanical simplicity—are treated as irrelevant set dressing by those who have provided interpretations of the game’s content.

Now, why does that matter? Well, because: it means that, though people pontificate endlessly about the vague resonances between Journey’s campaign and a human lifespan, and about the several arguable overlaps between some of its story beats and the religious beliefs of different human cultures, they have ignored some key details of its literal narrative, which are intimately connected to its setting. And in particular, they’ve thereby ignored a theme which this quiet game is trumpeting fairly loud: its allegorical discussion of a relationship between intelligent beings and their world.

Journey screenshot with initial view of the mountain - thatgamecompany, ecocriticism, environment, sand

The Story of Journey:

Journey tells the story of the rise and fall of a civilization of robed bipeds, and it’s a tale told primarily through a series of engravings. Some are presented to us by white-robed ancestors when we meditate, and some are strewn through the gameworld. To quickly get you acquainted or reacquainted with the narrative, I’ll very quickly summarize the seven interactions with the ancestors, adding additional info from the hidden panels where relevant. Here we go:

In the first ancestor cutscene, one watches runic energy spew out of a mountain, scattering far and wide through the sky and down onto the surface of the planet, coalescing within bird-like animals, various plants, white-robed hominid-like bipeds, and finally enormous strips of cloth. One of the hidden panels implies that the robed figures engage in agricultural cultivation of the plants.

In the second ancestor cutscene, one sees the first inklings of the bipeds’ intellectual prowess—architecture appears among them, and the potently energetic cloth material is run into aqueduct-like grooves in the structures, providing the buildings with an electricity-like power. Ruins of such buildings, some still containing cloth (now desiccated), are found periodically during the game.

In the third, clouds of bird-like cloth fragments are now imprisoned within the architecture, and as the buildings swell with power it depletes from the air above. Tall city buildings expand rapidly, replacing what had been vegetation. A pair of hidden panels reveal that in this era large flying snake-like machines are created to carry the figures as they oversee their surroundings, and that such machines come to be mass-produced within the buildings. One automated assembly line for the heads of the machines is still moving toward the end of an early level.

Journey screenshot with mass production of flying snakes - thatgamecompany, ecocriticism, environment, sand

In the fourth, the once-abundant cloth begins to dwindle, and the lights in the buildings flicker out. A pair of robed figures fight over a small scrap of cloth, ripping it in half and exhausting it; the engraving pans further, revealing organized groups of the figures engaged in combat with each other on and around the mechanical snakes. A gargantuan flying machine blasts a large building apart.

In the fifth, as lines of figures are left deceased by the combat, the wind drives crushed remains of the buildings mingled with the now-plantless earth to create piles of sand that bury all. Beneath the re-scattered energy in the desert sky, a shooting star falls and a red-robed figure is thereby born among the gravestones.

In the sixth, the red-robed figure from the previous scene is confirmed to be the player-character, as their exact journey across the game’s chapters is depicted step-by-step, including their erstwhile accompaniment by a second red-robed figure where applicable. This engraving depicting the campaign is thorough, even showing an event that hasn’t happened yet: the player-character being buffeted by wind without reaching the summit of the mountain.

In the seventh and final cutscene with the ancestors, the player-character fulfills the end of the last engraving by dying in the frigid wind and collapsing in the snow. Their death at this moment, however, is not actually confirmed until the very end of the game, when the camera zooms in on a new tombstone forming in that section of the mountainside just as its glow fades. At any rate, what we see happen next is the red-robed figure awaken with full vigor in the dreamlike realm where they had interacted with the ancestors through meditation. They then glow gold and explode into the air, flying all the way to the crevice at the peak. Their energy having returned to the mountain, a runic shooting star flies out of it and into the desert, there to give birth to another red-robed figure to begin the journey anew, and on and on, potentially into eternity.

Journey screenshot with rune of energy flying out of mountain - thatgamecompany, ecocriticism, environment, sand

Analyzing Journey’s White-robed Figures:

Alright, presumably the environmental thread here is clear enough to most readers: Journey tells a story about voracious exploitation of resources and negligent expansion leading to scarcity, and scarcity leading to war, and war leading to a veritable apocalypse. Simple enough.

But that’s just a summary; we still need to dig deeper into the sand here to really understand the work, as a vital uncertainty remains. There’s an implied immutability to these events because of their presentation as being written in stone, but surely things could have turned out otherwise . . .

In particular, what I’m curious about is the historical moment depicted in the second and third cutscenes from the elders, when the managed distribution of cloth energy and the imprisonment of cloth animals allows for massive industrial potential by functioning as a kind of electricity in their creations, bringing about an explosion of automation and construction. The specific concern that lingers in my mind is this one: why did an expansion of technological capability cause the beings to destroy their surroundings, and even their apparent agricultural efforts, under the foundations of additional buildings?

The war that broke out seems to preclude the possibility of the scarcity and depletion being fully intentional, but as I see it that still leaves two possibilities.

The first is the kinder one, which says they didn’t know what they were doing. The cause, then, would be a general enthusiasm and ignorance. This answer would mean that the civilization of these beings had always been expanding to the greatest degree possible, but the advancements of the era allowed that to occur more rapidly than the region could support.

Journey screenshot with pair of white-robed players in the desert - thatgamecompany, ecocriticism, environment, sand

This notion reminds me of the opening chapter of The Grapes of Wrath, my personal favorite of the array of literary masterpieces by the author John Steinbeck. Principally about the hardships of Great-Depression-era migrants heading west away from the economic and ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl toward the promise of agricultural prosperity in California, Steinbeck’s novel opens with an almost-mythic account of its inciting incident:

In the roads where the teams moved, where the wheels milled the ground and the hooves of the horses beat the ground, the dirt crust broke and the dust formed. Every moving thing lifted the dust into the air: a walking man lifted a thin layer as high as his waist, and a wagon lifted the dust as high as the fence tops, and an automobile boiled a cloud behind it. The dust was long in settling back again.


[. . .]


All day the dust sifted down from the sky, and the next day it sifted down. An even blanket covered the earth. It settled on the corn, piled up on the tops of the fence posts, piled up on the wires; it settled on the roofs, blanketed the weeds and the trees. (Steinbeck 4-6)

The material there about the day-to-day movements of people and livestock being immediate agents in the formation of the region’s odious dust is a bit of poetic license—but it is nonetheless apt for the passage to implicate human activity in the production of the dusty conditions that devastated broad swathes of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma in the 1930s. It was not exclusively the extreme drought and wind conditions of the era that caused the Dust Bowl. Droughts and wind are common occurrences in North America’s Great Plains.

The sudden indiscriminate proliferation of mechanized deep plowing and related aggressive cultivation methods throughout the 1920s, facilitated by federal homestead policies stretching back decades that favored maximal conversion of American landscape into ranch and farmland, were what cleared the extensive root networks of native grasses that had historically held the land together both physically and via moisture retention through its long hot summers.

Journey screenshot with possible depiction of ancient white-robed agriculture - thatgamecompany, ecocriticism, environment, sand

The proto-biblical style of Steinbeck’s prose presents these events as a kind of secular sin—an error in behavior that carries its own terrestrial, corporeal punishment. And as in the novel, so in the game. Journey depicts a similar self-punishing mistake, also centering on the desertification of previously arable land and the humanitarian crisis that follows. In the game, though, it is ensuing armed conflict rather than ensuing economic circumstances that deal the decisive blow to the people. The white robes’ degradation of the area’s resources was a tragic accident. Unless it wasn’t an accident . . .

Recall that I said simple ignorance is just one of two possible reasons that sudden expansion in technological capabilities led to a rapid decimation of their world.

The remaining possibility is somewhat more likely based on the evidence in the game, and somewhat darker: that rather than plain ignorance, the reason could be a willful ignorance, an ideological stance. The beings may have known the importance of the plants and animals to their ecosystem, and almost certainly did know the low frequency at which the mountain releases energy into the landscape. But through agriculture, architecture, and technology, a separation may have been effected between the beings and the rest of their world—a hierarchical separation, with their innovative selves at the apex, managing the world on their machines (which they depict in their engravings with the same color as themselves), and everything else a mere context for their activities.

Notice the specific framing of the third ancestral cutscene’s end: at the crest of the hill where the plants have been replaced with stonework, several of the robed figures are positioned higher still, atop the towers at the highest point of all.

So, their ignorance of the storm they were bringing down on their own heads may not have resulted from never knowing about it—but from unlearning or ignoring what they knew.

Journey screenshot with depiction of white-robed beings at the apex of the world - thatgamecompany, ecocriticism, environment, sand

Here, it’s not a work of literature but a work by a literary critic that seems apropos. In particular, I’m thinking of a portion of an essay by Harold Fromm in which he discusses a message he received in the mail after an article of his concerning the negative health effects of air pollution was published in various newspapers. He writes:

A letter that particularly struck me read as follows:


Dear Sir:


Since all of the environmentalists who worry about pollution are also consumers of the products of these belching plants [. . .], what IS the answer? [. . .] Do we destroy our economy: eliminate many necessities of life; go back to living in tents for the sake of clean air? The answers are complex.


This was a profoundly disturbing letter. [. . .] For when she asks, ‘Do we eliminate many of the necessities of life for the sake of clean air?’ one wants to know: what are the necessities of life in comparison with which clean air cannot be regarded as a necessity?


[. . .]


Somehow, she is alive: she eats food, drinks water, breathes air, but she does not see these actions as grounds of life; rather they are acts that coincide with her life, her life being her thoughts and wishes. The purity of the elements that make her life possible is not seen as a condition of existence. (Fromm 36-7)

That kind of mental hierarchy, where essential natural resources are seen as a kind of low-priority background detail, seems perfectly symbolized in Journey by the literal replacement of water with sand—as enormous sandfalls appear in several locations within the game (and, true to video game dogma regarding waterfalls, conceal a couple collectables). Yet the universe of Journey does have water; we find most of what’s left of it condensed into snow and ice when the final act swings the player from the game’s dominant climatic extreme to another—and the remainder as liquid right near the geothermal activity of the mountain’s peak.

Journey screenshot with sandfalls - thatgamecompany, ecocriticism, environment, sand

From such hierarchical thinking, from such mental division of the species from the rest of the world, it is no very great leap to a division between factions within the species. And thus, when faced with scarcity, the white robes leaned not on cooperation and rationing, but on forceful seizure and warfare to secure what they could and destroy what they couldn’t.

A subtler subversion than the sandfalls is present in the game’s minor objectives. Only on a repeat playthrough will one be able to fully understand that the narrow sculptures peppered everywhere are tombstones, and that the creatures one is freeing in the early-game environments were imprisoned to be used as power sources for what ultimately acted as machines of war—in set-ups reminiscent of the robots and capsules in the earliest Sonic the Hedgehog titles (another set of games with obvious-yet-commonly-ignored environmental themes).

And analogous to these re-evaluations by the player, some white robes must have made a re-evaluation of their own, ceasing to see animals as essentially fuel and water as functionally sand.

Consider: whether the flaw that causes the downfall is ignorance or ideology, how do the white robes eventually overcome that flaw? Now, in an obvious sense, they don’t overcome it. They all die and their civilization literally turns to dust. But what I mean is: how and why do the spirits of some white-robed figures become the wistful sages we encounter in the game?

Although it’s very easy to miss, I believe that Journey does provide us with an answer to that question.

The final hidden story panel in the game depicts a group of 12 white-robed figures ascending the side of the mountain. If each spectral white-robed ancestor we see during the game is distinct, then we do encounter exactly 12: one each accompanying six engraving cutscenes, and then six more in a group at the death scene on the mountainside.

Journey screenshot with depiction of 12 ancestors ascending mountain - thatgamecompany, ecocriticism, environment, sand

What distinguishes these 12, then, is their attempt to summit the mountain—the same attempt toward which they impel their red-robed descendants.

An earlier hidden panel depicts a group of white robes mourning the death of one who is laid to rest under the mountain temple—possibly a political or religious leader of the community. That event may have brought about a change of consciousness for certain white robes, though it was clearly too little and too late as the only hidden panel in between the two I’ve just described is one which still shows groups of white robes engaged in active war.

Nevertheless, the 12 who remained after all combat was entirely concluded were changed by those events. For the panels to depict the circumstances that they do, some must have been created by these last 12 survivors who present many of them to us. Thus, these 12 demonstrate both a familiarity with the full history of their species, and a desire to preserve and share knowledge of that history.

And in coming to understand the role that the mountain plays as the ultimate physical origin of both themselves and the rest of the organic entities of their world, they decided to return their energy, their bodies, to it—so that energy could be reformed into new beings.

This even opens the possibility that the journey of the red-robed figures, as portrayed on the panels in the temple, may not be a prophecy or prediction but instead a supplication or hope. After all, if it’s truly the case (as it seems to be) that the mountain can not generate new energy apart from what it has already released—or at the very least can not generate new energy remotely on the scale it did in the distant past—then either the journey of the red-robed figures will be as it is depicted on the temple slabs, or else there will be no one around to see them.

Journey screenshot with scarf twisted into double helix while underground - thatgamecompany, ecocriticism, environment, sand

So, the first ancestral cutscene is not only first chronologically but also first as in foremost, because it contains the absolutely fundamental truth of the terrestrial origin and common material makeup of all life. Remember you are mountain-rune-cloth, and to mountain-rune-cloth you shall return. This commonality of material is rendered visually explicit through the decision to depict every living being in the game as being quite literally cut from the same cloth. The garments of the figures can be confirmed to be part of their bodies by paying careful attention to their animations (especially the active way in which the robe ‘flaps’ when they fly).

And why strips of cloth? Well, it could be an arbitrary symbolic material selected by the developers for any number of reasons. But personally, I feel that it’s because of the way the strips, and especially the player-character’s scarf, twist and move in the wind. When they’re twisted up, the colored bands running along their edges form a double helix, calling to mind the common material makeup of all life in reality by evoking DNA.

Yet, for all their lovely wisdom, it’s also the case that the 12 wise ones effectively trapped their red-robed descendants in a Sisyphean hellscape.

Analyzing Journey’s Red-robed Figures:

The difference between white robes and red robes (which we don’t learn unless we collect up all of the paltry scattered runic energy still to be found in the landscape, and forge a white robe of our own) is precisely that the cloth of the white robe is itself a great store of energy. It charges up for use in flight automatically. The red-robed figures, then, are the same species being born from a lesser store of runic power; this also seems to account for the diminutive stature of the red-robed figures in comparison with the historical white-robed figures. Apparently the life force of 12 individuals was not sufficient to allow the mountain to produce an entire ecosystem—just the small array of high-vitality free cloth beings and loose runes we find in the levels, and at least two red-robed beings.

Along these lines, it is notable to me that, in contrast to its occasional reputation, Journey does not depict a world whose timeline repeats in its entirety. If the game is supposed to present a mystical cyclical reality, it does so only in a limited fashion. The world is stuck in a cycle now, but it’s not eternal recurrence. It’s not a fated sequence that begins at the birth of the world and ends at its death, again and again.

Journey screenshot with red-robed figure encountering white-robed spirit - thatgamecompany, ecocriticism, environment, sand

Rather, the world of Journey initially had linear time, freedom, and variation; it moved through successive states of development which are never shown to return. But its denizens then transitioned the world into an apparently inescapable cycle. The never-ending repetition of the birth and death of individual red robes in the sand is a rhythmic fate which was arrived at at the end of white-robed history.

Red-robed figures may free and cobble together some of the still-extant cloth, but outside of the temple there doesn’t seem to be near enough energy to reverse any of what has occurred. And speaking of the temple, in retrospect it seems to function more like an oil well—jutting into the mountain and capable of filling with runic energy from the bottom up—than a likely route for energy to return to its origin in the land. Ultimately, it’s an extractive structure akin to the white robes’ other creations, as evidenced by the fact it had imprisoned some very impressive cloth creatures (including cloth jellyfish and what could be called a cloth whale).

With global restoration off the table, the best a red robe can hope to do now is to make of their life a pilgrimage back to their origin, to attempt to climb the mountain as their 12 guiding ancestors attempted before them. In so doing, they provide the mountain with the energy to make another red robe, and keep existence rolling along.

But they’re not always alone in making this journey, and neither is the player. A glimpse of another character on exiting the first zone hints at a feature which will soon make itself apparent to most who play the game.

Plenty of analysts of Journey have discussed the way that the distinctive shape of the mountain serves as a fertility symbol, with a form and a positioning of light that manages to make it simultaneously phallic, vulvic, and mammarian. What I’d like to add is that the mountain could also be said to resemble two figures in an embrace, a nod toward the game’s unique implementation of multiplayer.

Journey screenshot with near view of the mountain - thatgamecompany, ecocriticism, environment, sand

Basically, through a seamless drop-in-drop-out system, each player is paired when possible with a second player to navigate the world. Movement, and emitting a musical ping—with which player-characters can also charge the scarf of their partner—are the sole means of communication between them.

This elegant and intentionally limited system mechanically enforces cooperation. There’s simply not really any notable way for one player to substantially hinder or perturb another, meaning that all such interactions will be at worst neutral and at best mutually beneficial.

Thus, the cooperative play stands as an open contradiction of the factional warring depicted between members of the same species in the lore, and by extension to some degree it opposes the hierarchical thinking which seems to have created the conditions that preceded the war. Yet, to fully grasp the impact of Journey’s co-op and campaign on its environmental themes, it will be useful to compare Journey to Flower, which is thatgamecompany’s prior game.

While even more stripped down in narrative than Journey, Flower tells a varied-but-ultimately-optimistic story about how ecological systems damaged or hampered by the creations of industrious beings will outlive the industry and reclaim the land. It’s a unique and enjoyable game, and there’s nothing wrong with a bit of optimism now and then . . . but one has to take care not to let optimistic fantasies blind us to harsh realities.

And ultimately, what Flower never confronts is a notion raised by Journey: that a planet being hospitable to diverse forms of life is not a resilient guarantee. Ours wasn’t always so, and will become similarly unfit again at some arbitrarily far future date. The only variables are how soon that future comes, and to what degree humanity accelerates its onset. Sooner than that will be the date the planet becomes unfit to support human life, and (for those of us who aren’t entirely misanthropic) the degree to which that’s a date whose arrival we’re accelerating is also a topic of considerable concern.

Flower screenshot with tree and flowers in lush field of grass - Journey, thatgamecompany, ecocriticism, environment, sand

Now, some folks are fond of snidely dismissing environmental worries by saying that people will die, but the environment will be fine. They view such worrying as egotistical, and they imagine various plants, animals, fungi, and other species adapting and carrying on in our absence—as has already happened after various mass extinction events in the planet’s history. But even if we bracket the implicit (low) valuation of people dying there, that perspective still neglects the fact that humans and their creations (particularly of the last few centuries) are an unprecedented phenomenon, so there’s not actually any assurance that the dates the world is unfit for life and unfit for human life are radically distinct from each other.

Don’t get me wrong: Journey is optimistic as well, but it is so on a much smaller and more muted scale. It says that even in a likely hell of our own making there is the possibility of cooperation, learning, and beauty. I’ve twice now, first explicitly and later implicitly, described the journey of the red robes as Sisyphean—a process of a red robe being born in the desert and returning their energy to the mountain so a red robe can be born in the desert and return their energy to the mountain so a red robe can et cetera.

But anyone who has played Journey knows the experience of it is anything but an underworld punishment.

It’s overwhelmingly tranquil and pleasant, even uplifting. The red robes don’t perpetuate this cycle arbitrarily or under orders; they do it because their lives are worthwhile. Surfing down slopes or dunes, learning their history, gliding through the air, assisting one another, and freeing trapped cloth are experiences that fill their lives with adventure, intrigue, and joy. This is communicated to the player through the bright, relaxing music throughout; the playful dance-like animations that accompany their flying and singing; and the rich, golden artstyle of many of the desert chapters. They aren’t stultified by the sand. They want existence to go on, and for that to happen, as they learn from the white robes along the way, they must make their journeys. Thus the game’s concluding segment—depicting the somber or perhaps ambivalent occasion of a death in a random snowdrift on a mountainside—is an ecstatic and freeing vignette of success, showing the red robe’s spirit soaring to the summit.

Journey screenshot with glowing player-character nearing peak-adjacent mountain crevice - thatgamecompany, ecocriticism, environment, sand

I don’t mean to push things too far in the other direction here either, though. The desert is clearly an inhospitable place. There are no obvious sources of food or water or even significant instances of shelter whereby red robes could live longer than they do by heading straight for the mountain. And the mechanical struggle of climbing a dune with an uncharged scarf is a frequent reminder that the landscape and the beings are no longer well-fit for each other.

But through its energetic and welcoming tone; its dazzling visuals; its focus on the vim and pluck and mutual assistance of the red robes; and its ebullient final section of gameplay—Journey manages to walk a fine line and dodge a trap into which much apocalyptic environmental rhetoric falls: the trap of insisting cataclysm is the primary concern, and that it’s right around the corner.

[For environmentalism, apocalyptic narrative] brings with it philosophical and political problems that seriously compromise its usefulness, especially in its radical, tragic form. It tends to polarise responses, prodding sceptics toward scoffing dismissal and potentially inciting believers to confrontation and even violence


[. . .]


it could be argued that the real moral and political challenge of ecology may lie in accepting that the world is not about to end, that human beings are likely to survive even if Western-style civilisation does not. Only if we imagine that the planet has a future, after all, are we likely to take responsibility for it. (Garrard 105-7)

It is probably the case that those future dates I mentioned earlier, when the planet becomes unfit for some or all life, are still incredibly far away. It would be very easy to underestimate just how much worse things can actually get before we reach that point. How we’ll bear up under increasingly difficult circumstances and what we’re doing to forestall or avert them are both extremely important.

Journey screenshot with array of ossified flying snake machines - thatgamecompany, ecocriticism, environment, sand

Notice that, in Journey, ecological mismanagement creates the conditions for apocalypse . . . but it’s still the violent action that follows, rather than the energy crisis, which actually brings their world to the brink of destruction. The self-punishing ‘secular sin,’ as I put it in the last section, doesn’t really run its course; the white-robed civilization elects to make things much worse much sooner. If human activity continues to accelerate the frequency and severity of major weather events and climatic extremes in the ensuing decades, what that causes humans to do to each other may outpace what that causes the weather to do to us. The magnanimity, determination, and cooperation of the red robes in the desert are aspirations for us all in that future.


I would hope that this goes without saying, but outside of academic circles this kind of thing sometimes needs to be clarified: just because I have been annoyed that other interpretations of Journey have generally been offered to the exclusion of this way of talking about it, that does not mean that I think those other ways of interpreting the game are wrong, nor even that they are less valid than this way.

This analysis simply aims to highlight and examine what I take to be one of Journey’s most prominent themes—the environmental theme that comes to the forefront in most of the game’s cutscenes and most of the game’s levels, which is inflected by all of the innumerable grains of sand that its visuals suggest.

A more important clarification for me to provide, though, concerns technology. You may have perceived this analysis as having some measure of hostility toward technology. But that’s not the intention here. Recall that, after summarizing Journey’s story, I investigated why the increase in the white-robed beings’ technological prowess precipitated an ecological disaster. And I offered as the causal mechanism, not technology itself, but either the ignorance or ideology of the white-robed beings.

Journey screenshot with depiction of white-robed beings riding flying snakes - thatgamecompany, ecocriticism, environment, sand

If you think about the topic seriously, you’ll realize that there’s no firm basis whereby one could declare technology to be anything other than natural. As alien as the notion may be to some, a crowded concrete city and a human-less stretch of savannah are both parts of the natural world. A house or an apartment is no less natural than a bird’s nest; that’s just how our species now nests. In fact, a considerable amount of recent discussion in ecocriticism (which is the field of literary theory that examines human-made representations of the world) concerns the fact that urban living is often far less environmentally harmful than rural living, suburban living, and forms of ecotourism like hiking and camping.

But it’s not just a recent development in the conversation either. Even 30 years ago, environmental writers were saying things like the following:

As [a gardener] moves about the flower beds, weeding, propagating, pruning the apple tree, [. . . they become] a subtle and powerful force of natural selection in that place


[. . .]


The creation and use of other technologies, even those of steel and glass and oil and electricity, need be no different. It is all gardening, if we see it right. If we distrust our technology, we distrust our own nature, and nature itself. And this distrust inevitably makes us helpless and passive before the technical powers of others, and resentful, and disenfranchised. (Turner 50)

Our technology isn’t going away any time soon, and we shouldn’t really be hoping that it will. What we should be doing is earnestly pursuing and putting into practice forms of technology that are not ecologically damaging.

Now, any time I’ve discussed environmental themes in analyses in the past, there have been folks who have carried ideas similar to those I’ve just outlined unjustifiably far. They argue that, just as one can not speak of technology as unnatural, so one can not speak of anything as ‘ecologically damaging.’ Their position is that, because humans are a part of nature and anything they do is accordingly natural, therefore however humans act is fine. Humans are just one of the animals on the planet doing what they do, and so we can no more condemn a person for causing an oil spill than a tiger for eating a deer . . .

Journey screenshot with slide down sand slope at sunset - thatgamecompany, ecocriticism, environment, sand

But that’s a fallacious appeal to nature, which is to say it ultimately argues something is right for no other reason than that it is natural. It doesn’t really matter that I’ve just implied that, on a sufficiently neutral definition, everything is natural—because there’s not actually any logical relationship between what happens naturally and what should be deemed right. And, at any rate, ‘rightness’ is a moral quality assessed by moral agents, concerning actions by moral agents. Our ethics are just as natural as our pollution, and the former allow us to decide for ourselves about the rightness or wrongness of the latter. With reason and with emotion, we decide what the world should be like, and doing so allows us to assess what counts as harming it. The position I’ve personally reached is that reducing the world to sand is bad; I hope most people agree.

And if you agree, I urge you not to lose sight of Journey’s sense of muted optimism. Even as it quickly becomes too late to intervene meaningfully in a variety of deleterious processes affecting our environment, it will never be too late to steer the future toward one of its most favorable possible forms. That’s something we should do right now, and something we can do right now, regardless of when you’re reading this. And I can make those rather large claims with total confidence, for, just as I suggested earlier regarding the carvings depicting the red robes within Journey’s temple, either what I’ve just said is true or else there’s no one around to hear it anyway.

Works Cited:

Fromm, Harold. “From Transcendence to Obsolescence: A Route Map.” The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Edited by Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm. University of Georgia Press, 1996, pg. 30-39. Print.

Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism. Routledge, 2004. Print.

Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. The Viking Press, 1939. Print.

Turner, Frederick. “Cultivating the American Garden.” The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Edited by Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm. University of Georgia Press, 1996, pg. 40-51. Print.

[Game: Journey, thatgamecompany, 2012]
Not Lone nor Level Sands:

A Thorough Ecocritical Analysis of thatgamecompany’s Journey

was last modified: December 23rd, 2023 by Daniel Podgorski
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