The Story Hidden in Journey’s Soundtrack | Game Score Fanfare

, , Leave a comment

Telling a story without words is really hard. Heck, it’s hard even using words. It’s a challenge few game companies embrace,
but one game company that did is thatgamecompany. Their 2012 game Journey is a masterclass of
design by subtraction, removing every element that does not speak into the core idea of
the game – which in this case, includes any dialogue or written text. What you’re left with is a story that while
abstract, is told through every single part of the game – from the art style which uses
symbols and colour, to the gameplay and the interaction you have with a complete stranger. And then there is of course what will be the
focus of this episode of Game Score Fanfare: the music. Journey is inseparable from its score – literally
inseparable, there’s no option to turn down the music – but that’s because it’s
critical in creating emotional ties to the world and revealing the inner-workings of
the story. So Journey opens with this massive crescendo
of orchestra and white noise before cutting to silence. This acts as an auditory palette cleanser
for what lies ahead, and surprisingly it’s the last we’ll hear of Journey’s famous
orchestra for quite a while. The music in beginning of the game is actually
almost entirely this droning, buzzing electronica that to me feels like the harsh, relentless
desert sun and the desolate land that you find yourself in. Over the course of the game, this electronic
noise will be slowly replaced by an orchestra, our first glimpse of which happens in the
third area, when you witness the meteor. By the time you finally reach the summit of
the mountain the music will be entirely orchestral, but for now we’re stuck with this atonal
noise, our only solace being occasional instrument solos that accent the score, such as this
lovely cello performance of the main theme of Journey when you reach the title screen. I say main theme, but it’s actually the
only recurring musical theme in Journey, with composer Austin Wintory sprinkling variations
of this single melody throughout the entire game. In lieu of having various themes that act
as leitmotifs and can represent characters or places, Austin Wintory instead does this
through instruments. There are five instruments that Austin chose
as soloists to carry the score – the first of course being the cello we heard on the
title screen. The cello is the foundation of Journey’s
score, being the only consistent instrument throughout it. And this is because the cello represents you,
or rather the red-robed journeyer that you control. Austin himself puts it much more poetically
than I ever could, saying: “Musically, it’s like a big cello concerto where you are the
soloist and all the rest of the instruments represent the world around you, including
the other players.” Very early in the game we are introduced to
the second soloist. It’s the flute, although usually it’ll
be its deeper sounding variant, the bass flute. It first appears when you receive your magical
scarf that allows you to fly. It pops up again when you do things like releasing
these flying scarf bits, and most notably it features in the confluence scenes in which
you meet with your ancestors – these tall, white robed people who show you the way throughout
your journey, acting as your spiritual guides. So the bass flute is representative of these
ancestors and the civilisation of people that they and the Journeyer belong to. As alluded to before, there’s also a soloist
dedicated to your companion – in fact, there’s actually two: the harp and the viola. This is where the dynamic music design of
Journey really begins to shine. Whenever you are connected to another player,
the harp and viola are seamlessly added to whatever music is playing, and their level
in the mix is actually dependent on the distance between the two of you. – the closer together you are, the louder
they will be. So for instance, there’s one moment where
you come across this caged cloth kite animal thing, and when you release it, the track
Threshold starts playing. If you’re alone, all you will hear is the
flute solo backed with some percussion and plucked cello strings. But if you have a partner, you get to hear
the beautiful harp and viola performances. Or alternatively you don’t release the creature
at all and Threshold never even cues in, instead you’ll just hear an ambient piece. There’s so many variations of how this single
moment plays out, and the game is filled with moments just like this. Adding two instruments to the score changes
a lot – first of all it makes the world feel much less empty, as now you have a friend! But they also add a lot of beauty and complexity
to the music, which is now able to form harmonies and countermelodies.  
The fifth and final solo instrument is one called the serpent, I presume named after
its inventor. The serpent is an old 18th century instrument
that’s a cross between a brass instrument and a woodwind. You mostly hear it in the cave area, where
these dragons roam and will tear off part of your scarf if they spot you. Owww…. This area has a very different tone to the
rest of the game and is a massive contrast to where we just were, sand surfing through
the ruined city where the music is the most orchestral and fun it’s been up until that
point. The serpent is the only brass-like instrument
in Journey’s score, and it gives a resonating low hum, which Austin then layers on top of
itself over again to create an ominous sound. The otherworldly hum of the serpent is reinforced
by the cave area being the only section of the game not featuring the cello, and it also
sees the return of the electronica found at the beginning of the game, bringing back the
feelings of isolation in a foreign land. After the cave, the score continues on its
orchestral trajectory until finally blooming into a full orchestra on the track Apotheosis,
which plays as you approach the mountain’s summit. So even though it’s not one of the five
soloists, you could say the orchestra also represents something: the end of your Journey. It represents the mountain. At the very end of the game you walk into
the light, hopefully making it obvious that the journey is a metaphor for life. As we do so, the very last thing we hear is
one of the first things we heard: the solo cello performing the main theme one final
time. This perfectly mirrors the title screen at
the beginning of the game, giving the whole experience a cyclical nature. The credits then roll, and this is where we
finally get some hints as to what the game is actually about. It shows a sequence of your spirit leaving
the mountain and going back through all the areas you’ve just travelled, returning to
the beginning of the game. All the while a song plays called I Was Born
For This, which features lyrics in five different languages. The lyrics are actually quotes from famous pieces
of literature. Translated into English, they are: “To each
his day is given” from The Aeneid; “Time it is for me to go” from Beowulf; “Lost
is my homecoming” from Homer’s Illiad; “Along this road goes no-one, this autumn
eve” a haiku by Japanese poet Matsuo Basho, and finally the titular quote “Do not pity
me. I was born for this”, which is attributed
to Joan of Arc.  
What links all these stories together is that they are all famous examples of a common narrative
structure known as the monomyth, or the hero’s journey, a story architype that is followed
by everyone from Jesus Christ to Luke Skywalker. The hero’s journey was first outlined in
the 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which the author Joseph Campbell describes
it as: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural
wonder: fabulous forces are encountered there and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes
back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” The story of Journey is the hero’s Journey. A single playthrough of Journey represents
the first two sections: The departure from the common world, and the overcoming of trials
to receive a blessing. This covers the first 11 steps of the 17 from
the hero’s journey. If you’re familiar with Journey’s soundtrack,
you might’ve noticed that these steps closely line up with its tracklist. The final part of the hero’s journey is
what you see in the credits: your spirit returning to the beginning, and the game brings you
right back round to the main menu, inviting you to go on a new journey. But this time, you have the ultimate boon:
The knowledge of the game, that you can bring to other people and help them through it. And that’s the core idea behind Journey:
To make your experience in life a blessing for other people. To bestow your knowledge onto others as a
boon in order to help them through their own life. The purpose of your journey is that you can
make other people’s journeys easier, even if they are a complete stranger. And this told through every aspect of the
game: It’s built into the gameplay, as travelling alongside someone else will refill both of
your scarves’ flying power. And even the art-style, as multiple playthroughs
will grant you the white robes worn by your ancestors, thus making you the spiritual guide
for others. And it’s only through the music that we
know all this: Firstly, as it is our only link to the hero’s journey outside of the
name of the game, but also in this moment. The first time we hear the orchestra is when
we see the meteor, which we now know is the spirit of a journeyer returning from the mountain. The orchestra doesn’t so much represent
the mountain itself, but what the mountain represents, which is the final goal of our
journey. To receive the ultimate boon. The orchestra represents your purpose, and
so introducing the orchestra in this moment is Journey’s way of saying this is the purpose
of life. To return from your journey in life, whatever
that may be, and use the knowledge you gained along the way to be a blessing to other people. People who are then able to go and do the
same for even more people, thus continuing the circle infinitely. And that is just beautiful. Words can’t describe it.


Leave a Reply