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Journey, Anxiety And The Unavoidable Importance Of The “Walking Simulator” – by Lara Jackson

One of my favourite games of all time is thatgamecompany’s Journey. Originally released for PlayStation 3 back in 2012, Journey is a relatively short game in which you play as a cloaked figure traversing the desert. Your goal is to reach the distant mountain, aided by collectible cloth-creatures which form your scarf, an item that allows you to float and fly across the various landscapes.

Journey will forever be one of my all-time favourite games as it taught me (and continues to teach me) the importance of tuning out the often overwhelming noise of daily life. It reminds me of the need for human companionship. It tells me that, in order to reach your goals, you’ll need to persevere through the worst of the storms. Journey is a masterpiece, and it’s been an instrumental tool in managing my anxiety

The Need For “Walking Simulators” 

One of my biggest bugbears in gaming is the derogatory use of the phrase “walking simulator,” or “walking sim.” It’s a term which is most frequently used to bash games which favour minimal gameplay and lots of exploration over, say, your typical shooter. Though it’s easy to dismiss such titles (after all, they don’t fit the bill of the stereotypical video game) there’s a lot to be said for so-called “walking sim” games.

Walking sims such as Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, Abzu and Journey might lack the bright lights and loud bangs of your average AAA action adventure, but they have, in their own right, become some of the most meaningful and memorable experiences you can have with a controller in your hands. 

By stripping out the glitz and the glamour of your typical video game, walking sims invite players into the lives and worlds of unimaginable creatures and characters. Diving into the depths of the ocean and swimming alongside schools of fish in Abzu, or wandering around an English town lost in time in Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, provides players with a virtual experience like nothing else. Games like these – and like Journey – create universes for their players to explore and discover at their own pace, without the need for complex goals or difficult-to-master controls. For those suffering with mental health conditions such as anxiety, they’re the perfect escape from the suffocating claustrophobia of your own mind. 

A Guiding Hand

When it comes to managing my anxiety, a game like Journey helps me in multiple ways. Unlike the huge and sprawling video games out there, Journey is a small and guided adventure, holding your hand but also encouraging you to take your time and explore the world around you. This is something that my own personal anxiety really finds helpful, as it serves to gently keep your focus on the game, allowing you to block out any real-world nastiness without the need for overwhelming complexities. Journey is a distraction that isn’t mentally exhausting, yet it offers more detachment from reality than, say, a simple puzzle game, thanks to its beautiful levels.

The world of Journey is split into a handful of different landscapes, including the golden sands of the desert, the dark depths of the tunnels and the snow-capped mountains you see in the distance. The game is a visual masterpiece, even now, eight years and a whole console generation after its original release (it did get a PlayStation 4 remaster and a PC upgrade). The world glitters and shines all around you, begging for you to take note of its beauty. The game’s simplicity and lack of realism adds to the feeling of existing in a magical world, and no matter how many times I’ve completed this game, I’ve yet to get bored of just wandering around and taking in the views. It’s a world like no other, and when you’re in a mental tangle, it offers you the chance to escape to a place a lot more mythical and far less cluttered.

Playing Your Personal Story (And Beating It)

The story of Journey is another reason why I credit the game for its positive effects on my mental health and wellbeing. Simply put, the story of Journey is crafted in a way which invites the player to draw parallels between their own life and the life of the nameless character you play as. 

You unlock the history of your people as you discover different tapestries around the world, but these segments are only explained through a series of images, leaving interpretation fairly open. Your character remains nameless, genderless and voiceless, allowing for a blank canvas which invites you to fill in the blanks for yourself. In Journey, you project yourself onto your character, becoming the cloaked figure.

The task of reaching the mountain at any cost is one that everyone can relate to. Whether you see it as a symbol of life, hope, love or loss, the story of Journey is about overcoming adversity, trusting your struggle and knowing that the end goal will be worth the pain. These themes, combined with the blank canvas playable character, guide the player into a story in which they persevere and overcome their own struggles, as well as those of the game. I’ve completed Journey dozens of times, and I still sometimes deeply need to remember the powerful message the game instills in me: I can be unstoppable.

This is a massively important message for anyone with any type of mental health struggles, and it’s wonderful to see such a complex idea laid out so simply, beautifully and effectively within a video game. 

My personal anxiety means I can get overwhelmed very easily, so having a simple and singular task to complete is one that I find immensely comforting. When you need to switch off, it’s sometimes hard to escape into other video games, especially those with huge and multifaceted quests and stories.

Facing The Music

One of my favourite aspects of Journey is the music, which comes from composer Austin Wintory. The soundtrack for Journey consists of some of my favourite musical compositions of all time, and sets a new standard for video game music as a whole. The music of Journey works along with the beautiful visuals of the game, but still manages to be its own entity outside of the on-screen story. It carries you with it, allowing you to soar just like your nameless character through its unburdened ebb and flow. 

I own it on vinyl and even sitting on my own and feeling the music, without playing the game, is enough to transport me to a calmer and happier place. 

Many of the scenes in Journey evoke the deepest and most personal responses within my core. The music of the game is so inextricably intertwined with this that the standalone tracks are powerful enough to be a cathartic experience, even without the need to turn on my console. 

Being There For Others

There are many, many wonderful things about Journey, but one of its most powerful and unique features is the game’s multiplayer mode. If you want to play Journey solo, you absolutely can, but I’ve found this can be a lonely experience. Sometimes you just need to feel like someone is there, like someone is experiencing this small slice of your life with you, and Journey does this in the most magical way imaginable. 

Journey will randomly match you with another nameless player, one who you can only communicate with through a series of musical notes. There’s no voice chat, which is perfect for someone like me, who struggles to find the confidence to speak with strangers due to my anxiety. Though that’s more than welcome in my book, it’s not what makes playing with others so special.

You’ve probably heard at some point in your life that you don’t always need to say the right thing to someone – sometimes you just need to be there for them. This is one of the core concepts of Journey. 

By stripping away the ability to communicate through words, players automatically bond without the need to worry about narrating the experience. There’s no anxiety over saying the right or wrong thing, trying to impress people or attempting to make small talk, because you simply don’t have that power. You can make your musical sounds, run around in circles, and you can draw a heart in the snow if you’re particularly creative, but that’s all. These are the only ways you can communicate in Journey, and it has a strange effect – it leads players to assume the best in people. 

You can’t harm yourself or other playable characters, you can just explore and continue onwards, which means the only option you have is to help each other. This game mechanic organically invites you to accept that this is what the other player will work towards too. It creates a bond between players which is only strengthened by the adversities you’ll face together on the path to the distant mountain. By the end, you’ve shared a wonderful, wordless experience with other humans which is not only rare, but also impossibly meaningful.

I’ve had some wonderful experiences with people in Journey, and I hope some of those people can say the same of me, wherever in the world they might be.

The Trouble With “Walking Simulators” 

The term “walking simulator” should, in my opinion, never be used as a slight against slower-paced games. Games which invite you explore, imagine, and consider the world around you are infinitely helpful to those with a range of mental health challenges. They provide players with an immersive experience that isn’t too mentally draining, and that can harbour a deep and meaningful message at its core. 

Next time you’re reading a review or purchasing a game which focuses on exploration or simple goals, I invite you to disregard the derogatory term of “walking sim.” Walking sims are one of my favourite genres of games, blurring the lines between a passive movie and the immersive experience of gaming. 

If you’re looking for a gaming venture that encourages you to take your time, forges friendship without expectation and which will show you that you can achieve more than you think, I highly recommend checking out Journey on PC, PlayStation and iOS.