Swimming is difficult. It is propelling the human form through an unfamiliar medium using complex limb coordination. Lessons and training are necessary to become a proficient swimmer, turning a leisure activity into mechanical exercise. Most video games approach the water in a similar fashion. Navigating an avatar through the digital depths can be just as involved and frustrating as making headway through the waves in real life. Constant awareness of your virtual surroundings, along with a rigid routine of tapping buttons and manipulating analog sticks are necessary to keep your character from a watery demise.
Floating, on the other hand, is a less strenuous affair. So many of us take to our local pools in the warmer months to simply cool off in a state of relative weightlessness. We can ease our way into the chlorinated waters, overcoming an initial chill to bob along the surface with no pressure to speed through the shallows. Even though there is no water to be found in Journey’s desert landscapes, the simulation of gliding through the air feels so similar to taking a casual dip in the summer; occasionally flicking a button to bounce upwards as one world lightly splash the water to rise.
After trekking through several areas of parched desert and abandoned ruins, the robed protagonist in Journey arrives in a darkened tower. Outside of the faint glimmer of sun cast from a small opening stories above, the only light in the room comes from three lanterns in an alcove. As the player guides their character to the lanterns, a mosaic on the wall begins to glow and the lower floors of the tower are filled with hazy light. This murky iridescence lifts the robed figure, giving the impression of weightlessness in the glowing fog.
With a slight push on the analog stick, the player moves their character effortlessly through the light. A quick tap on a button lifts them through the air with even more ease than before. Moving isn’t as difficult here, now that gravity’s grasp has been loosened. The player can swim through this fog without a rapidly draining air meter or the constant threat of drowning. There are no antagonists to impede her/his progress. The robed figure can float through the air with the comfort of a casual swimmer; finding respite from the desert sun as their player would cool off in the water.
Ever since video games moved into a three-dimensional space, I have felt like any portion of play that involved swimming was a chore. It reminded me of the mandatory swimming lessons I endured as a child, where a menacing twenty-something would bark at me to keep my form and try to hold my breath for extended periods. These lessons turned my time in the water into exercise, breaking any illusion of freedom in my movements. Just like those moments at the indoor pool, trying to move Mario or Lara Croft through the water felt sluggish and mechanical. The virtual waters were not a medium to free myself from the earth- they were a hindrance that slowed my progress and made me feel like a novice.
Journey was the first game that felt like lazy summer afternoons at my neighbor’s pool, where friends could float along without guidance. There was no need for complex arm flailing or mechanical breathing. I could move in the water totally untethered and sublimely happy, just as the robed figure casually floated upwards towards the light.
Since the last swimming days of the season are counting down, this is an ideal time to enjoy the freedom of floating, both in the water and in a digital space.