Journey is a game that tells so much by saying so little. There are signs all around your character as you make your way through the desert. The notes you and your partners emit, the tapestries floating in the air, the walls representing your story ; but what is a sign? If we take a quick overview of semiology, we can see that it is made up of two elements : a signifier and a signified. A simple example of this is “cat”. What is the signifier? It’s the arrangement of letter “c”,”a” and “t”, “cat”. What is the signified? Well, it’s the idea of the cat, the animal so many game journalists seem to have. Another classic example is René Magritte’s famous painting “La Trahison des Images”. Magritte is right, this is not a pipe, it is the image of one, a sign.
So, what do the signs in Journey refer to? Hard to say. While the cyclorama that is presented to you each time you finish a section of the game clearly represents the next step in your journey, the other signs are not so obvious. There is a reason for this though. By not saying anything about them, the game is building something on an other semiological level.
Roland Barthes defines a myth as : “A kind of ‘speech’ better defined by its intention than its literal sense” (from Denis Wood’s The Power of Maps, p.103). In Mythologies, he uses the following example. The statement “because my name is lion” is, in itself, pretty simple, albeit a bit ambiguous. It can also be used as a grammatical example. The statement does not signify this to me, and neither does it say much about the lion or its name. It has another function though, it belongs to a greater semiological system. The statement and what it signifies becomes a signifier, and its signified is “I am a grammatical example”. This is the myth.
The signs in Journey work a bit in the same fashion. On one level, the one of language, you have that musical note and the symbol associated with it when you sing. What do they refer to? Nothing! Or, at the very least, we don’t know, the game doesn’t let us know. The signs send us back to a mystery, to an absence of understanding. Considering the presence of those signs in the game world, you feel that there is a connection between them, a language you cannot grasp. We could easily leave it at that. This is the thing with myths, they have a tendency to just vanish behind the language.
Denis Wood raises that point when talking about signs in maps. A legend on a map of North Carolina is just that, a legend, and it is, or seems, totally neutral and innocent. Is it? We tend to forget that there is a choice being made as to what is being represented by it. The legend, with their signs (signifier) and what they represent (signified), becomes itself a signifier. In Wood’s example, it signifies (I’m paraphrasing) that North Carolina has points of interests. It is implied, it works in the background and you have to look for it to find it, but this is what a myth does. We don’t question it because it seems so natural.
Let’s come back to Journey. Those signs (signifier) are sending us to a mystery, an unknown signification (pretty awkward for a sign). Let’s take this relation and try to do the work of the myth ourself. What are signs with an obscure signification, but that seem to permeate a ruined space? A lost language of course! A mysterious “alphabet” (signifier) refers us to a dead language (signified). The symbols themselves never refer to this dead language though. We have to go to an higher level of semiological relations, the myth, to gain that understanding. From this simple relationship, we can expand an entire network of signification using other signs, such as the ruins themselves. We can then see how everything that is present in Journey is there to support the creation of an absence.
By not showing us its hand, Journey is able to tell us that an entire civilization, a language and therefore a culture, lived and died here, where only sand remains.