Rules/Play/Culture: Why Journey to the End of the Night Succeeds

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I. Recap of my Journey

I (finally) played Journey to the End of the Night — Chicago has two different groups organizing this game every year, one in May and one in September, so I had had plenty of chances to play, but until now, I hadn’t.  This time, everything fell into place.

I arrived alone, but quickly found a team — an attendee from a game I had run the week before, and some friends of friends from my neighborhood. We decided to run together, and despite what I had heard about it being hard to keep a group together, this ad-hoc team stayed intact almost the whole way through.

The game started at an empty lot in the shadow of the Sears Tower, and moved throughout the near southwest side of Chicago. There are lots of buses in this part of town, so most of our strategy revolved around getting to a bus (buses are safe zones, but embarking and disembarking are not) that would drop us directly into the checkpoint. Using smartphones, we mapped bus routes, and, on foot, detoured a few blocks away from obvious transfers. One or two of us would wait, nonchalantly at the bus stop, hiding our player ribbons behind the pillars of the bus shelter. The rest of the team hid nearby, ready to bolt at the first sign of a chaser, then sprinting to the bus as soon as it pulled in. Waiting for a bus was never more exciting, and though we had few encounters with chasers (due, I’d like think, to our planning skills), we nonetheless experienced the excitement of the game.

Outside of checkpoint five, we were ambushed! Disembarking from the Ashland bus, just beyond the safe zone, one of our members gave up his extra life (won during a dice game at an earlier checkpoint), and the rest of us scattered. Most of the team ran south, into the safe zone, but in the chaos, a teammate and I ran north, and were quickly cornered and tagged. In Journey, when you are tagged, you aren’t out, you just change sides.

We grew into our role as chasers, setting traps for unsuspecting runners, or driving them backwards into safe zones they had been trying to leave. We ended up in a parking lot at University of Illinois at Chicago with about 6 other chasers. We took up positions behind parked cars and in the shadows of trees and buildings. The parking lot was in sight of the finish line, and was a tempting route for runners. As soon as they were too far in to turn back, we sprung out at them, catching some, missing others, but at least making them work for their victory.

Later, we rendezvoused with the rest of our team, who had traveled 2 miles north of most of the game activity, then rode the Halsted bus south, disembarking adjacent to the final checkpoint and claiming victory.

II. Why Is It So Good? Three Answers

While I was disappointed not to have been able to join my teammates at the finish line, playing both sides of the game gave me insight into why Journey to the End of the Night works so well (it is hosted regularly in large cities around the world!).

Much of what makes the game interesting is cultural — players participate in an outsider activity that allows them to simultaneously appreciate and subvert the urban scene. Players gain a real appreciation for parts of the city they might not otherwise encounter (especially, in this iteration, its functional public transit system) while repurposing its resources for unintended activities (a parking lot becomes a dangerous obstacle course). In a big city like Chicago, these activities can happen again and again, and engage new players in the magical re-imagining of the city twice a year.

There is also a facet of Journey that allows the player to define her/his own play experience, in particular, the game’s win condition. The official Journey to the End of the Night website says that “whoever reaches the end first wins,” but this race-element was not mentioned in any literature or introductory speech by the organizers at the iteration that I attended. At this event, the focus was on reaching the finish line at all, and many players defined winning as reaching the finish line with their entire team intact, regardless of timing.

Lastly, the rules of Journey to the End of the Night facilitate a continued engagement with the game even when a player is “out.” When I got tagged, the event was not over for me (though some players did choose to go home, rather than join the tagging side). Instead, I was reincorporated into the game in a new role. This is a particularly elegant rule: it keeps players engaged while serving the purposes of the main game by increasing the difficulty level as the game goes on (more players tagged out = more taggers in play).  Though it is not mentioned on the Journey website, taggers have also developed their own win conditions, despite the fact that, by a strict reading of the rules, they can no longer participate in winning the game (ie getting the final checkpoint). Most “kills” — player ribbons collected — is a goal that many taggers have defined as “winning” on their side of the game. Some players volunteered to start the game as taggers, and others let themselves get tagged early on, in order to have more time to accrue kills.

Thus, there are three important elements that make Journey fun and replayable. Firstly, the cultural appreciation/appropriation of the city dynamic. Secondly, the loose, player-definable win conditions. Thirdly, the game mechanic of “nobody out,” whereby even tagged players get to keep engaging (even “winning” their own sub-competition).

All of these things — engaging the culture, malleable play experience / win condition, and well-designed rules conspire to create game that is satisfying and replayable. I’m already gearing up for the September iteration of Journey!


Thanks to Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen, whose Rules of Play introduced me to the tripartite rules/play/culture model. Thanks to Shama & Evan Jacover and the other organizers of the Chicago’s yearly May Journey. 

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