In Journey, the player takes the role of a robed figure in a desert. After an introductory sequence, the player is shown the robed figure sitting in the sand, with a large mountain in the distance. The path towards this mountain, the ultimate destination of the game, is subdivided into several sections traveled through linearly. The player can walk in the levels, as well as control the camera, which typically follows behind the figure, either with the analog stick or by tilting the motion-sensitive controller. The player can jump with one button, or emit a wordless shout or musical note with another; the length and volume of the shout depends on how the button is pressed, and the note stays in tune with the background music. These controls are presented pictorially at the beginning of the game; at no point outside of the credits and title screen are any words shown or spoken.
The robed figure wears a trailing magical scarf which allows the player to briefly fly; doing so uses up the scarf's magical charge, represented visually by glowing runes on the scarf. The scarf's runes are recharged by being near floating pieces of red cloth, or a variety of other means. Touching glowing symbols scattered throughout the levels lengthens the initially vestigial scarf, allowing the player to remain airborne longer. Larger strips of cloth are present in the levels and can be transformed from a stiff, dull gray to vibrant red by singing near them. Doing so may have effects on the world such as releasing bits of cloth, forming bridges, or levitating the player. This, in turn, allows the player to progress in the level by opening doors or allowing them to reach previously inaccessible areas. The robed figure does not have visible arms to manipulate the game world directly. Along the way, the player encounters flying creatures made of cloth, some of which help the player along. In later levels, the player also encounters hostile creatures made of stone, which upon spotting the player rip off parts of the figure's scarf.
In each level, the player may come across one other player temporarily connected to their game. When players approach each other they charge one another's scarves. They cannot communicate with each other beyond patterns of singing. Players can help each other by activating strips of cloth or showing paths, but cannot hinder each other and are not necessary for completing any level. When two players finish a section at the same time they remain together into the next one; otherwise, they are connected to new players when they move on. While all the figures generally look the same, without distinguishing characteristics, individual players can be told apart by unique symbols which are shown floating in the air when they sing and are displayed on their robes at all times. The entire game takes about two to three hours to complete