How Walking in Games leads to Fun: A Critical Play of Journey

I played Journey, a game made by That Game Company, as an iOS app. Journey uses walking as a mechanism to promote discovery, curiosity, and engagement with a story.

“Journey” game title is depicted over a mountain

Journey, like walking simulation games are known to do, challenged my expectations for what a traditional video game may look like and what my control is over the narrative.

The character I control is literally cloaked in mystery, with no visible face. Initially, I can only walk or change directions. There is no stated goal or target, and the game utilizes the mechanic of mystery to enable exploration. As a player dropped into a desert landscape, I pursue the clearly-implied goal: to reach the glowing mountain in the distance.

The player walks alone up a sand dune.

Although Journey’s beautiful graphics make it stand-out, I was also fascinated by how my only option seemed to be walking. Walking is the only way to unlock the story, since initially the only visible locations are desert hills. Only by walking can the player come to built structures, which appear to be ruins. And only by walking can the player collect objects to add to their “scarf”: pieces of cloth or symbols which enable the player to briefly do other actions, such as flying.

The character in the foreground, with ruins ahead, surrounded by a desert landscape.

Walking enables an exploration of the desert landscape, including physically climbing up some of the structures to observe different perspectives and find objects.

These objects are also important to the game play, since they add an element of discovery and reward exploration. However, walking is the only way to get to the distant mountain.

The character visiting ruins and collecting a glowing gold symbol.

Fundamentally, this mechanic really taps-in to the type of fun that comes with discovery and exploration, as well as an aesthetic appreciation for the game’s beautiful graphics. Although it can feel frustrating for the only possible action to be to walk, it also tells a narrative through space and proximity to the ending, using mystery and lack-of-instruction to encourage learning.

CS @ Stanford