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.
Not Lone nor Level Sands: