Much has been made of the simple yet engrossing gameplay of thatgamecompany’s marvelous Journey. From the mystery of the main character’s identity to the seamless connections between level concepts, Journey is a project that often defies classification and challenges assumptions about games. For me, one of the greatest achievements of Journey is its remarkable environments, which take the seemingly empty idea of a desert and transform it into a living, vibrant setting.

Even as the game begins, before a character ever shows up on screen, we’re introduced to the desert. Wind blows across its surface, and individual grains seem to glimmer in the sunlight. The sand seems to go on forever, and the color stretches out to the horizon, almost blending with the sky in the distance. 

Journey’s deserts work as a narrative and metaphoric device because they don’t just remind us of the deserts we know, but of oceans filled with life. The dunes look like waves frozen in mid-crash. The tiny pieces of cloth that gather around the main character are like schools of fish. A few levels later, the larger cloth creatures move and act like dolphins, slowly gathering together into a school to splash along through the drifts. The metallic beasts in the later levels are like dangerous, circling sharks. As you slide down hills of sand, your character moves not like they’re stumbling down a sand dune, but surfing towards a distant shoreline.

These oceans of sand and snow offer compelling allusions to both life and death. The cloth creatures, which seem so much like frolicking sea creatures, bring to mind life-giving water. Simultaneously, as the player explores, we also learn that the markers that rise from the ground are the gravestones of your people, and the ruined buildings through which you wander were once the metropolises of your great civilization. This dichotomy of life and death is an accompaniment to the game’s wider message about a journey from life into death, and its cyclical, connected nature.  

The deserts also serve to establish a powerful sense of aimlessness and of being lost in a great expanse, adding to the sense of loneliness and isolation when playing alone, or further accentuating the bond with a single other player when you encounter them. Equally important, this sense of openness serves to make the game’s conclusion all the more powerful in contrast; as you ascend that last stretch of mountain, the wind carries you in an inexorable path towards the conclusion. 

Amid the many triumphs of Journey as a game and as a piece of art, the potent emotions engendered by its sprawling deserts are among the greatest. These frontiers of dust and ice serve the highest goal that can be asked of a game’s setting – to deepen the impact of an already engaging sense of exploration and fun.