Video games are even younger than television, and the question of whether they can be anything deeper than pure entertainment is just beginning to be asked.
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In keeping up with the faith-in-fiction conversation (here, here, here, and here, in case you’d like to catch up on it all at your leisure), I sometimes find myself thinking of the media that have grown at literature’s expense: television and gaming. I say “at literature’s expense” not because I want to start another jeremiad on how shallow these forms of entertainment are, but simply because of the serious time commitment required to keep up with them: we all have limits on our leisure time, and following a show or trying to beat a game is going to take a slice of it that could been spent differently. TV has become more sophisticated since Ray Bradbury’s apocalyptic take on it inFahrenheit 451, and more of us book-lovers believe it is worth looking for good programming rather than rejecting the medium altogether.
Video games are even younger than television, and the question of whether they can be anything deeper than pure entertainment is just beginning to be asked. Being married to a game designer who majored in English has gotten me to ask that question: Sean takes the element of story in games very seriously, and he got very excited two years ago when Journey was released. We both played through it, and I can only say that it is the first game I’ve played that I’ve pushed other people to play, for the same reasons I push them to read a great book or see a classic film. (It’s only for PlayStation, though, so that is an unfortunate limitation.)
In Journey, you are a red-cloaked pilgrim striving to reach a brilliant light on a mountaintop. You slide down dunes of hypnotically silken sand, explore ocher ruins, and acquire the power to fly short–and then longer–distances from jumping into flocks of flying carpet scraps. You kneel at certain points and receive visions of the road ahead or the history of the ruins from a glowing, nun-like figure I nicknamed “iMary.” And I don’t want to ruin the experience by revealing more of the “plot,” such as it is, but at the end of the game I felt that a crust of cynicism I hadn’t even noticed accumulating had been scraped from my mind. It was the sort of catharsis you get from a favorite novel. One of the game’s creators mentioned in an interview her inspiration for the game:
"There was a lunch conversation Jenova and I had at a USC event, where we met a spacecraft pilot who had been on three missions to the moon, piloting the space ships. He spoke to his experience, which was that every mission specialist, the people who get out and walk on the moon, was atheist or agnostic when they went on the mission, but when they came back, sometimes immediately and sometimes not ’til months after, they would suddenly be filled with a sense of spirituality. Jenova’s takeaway from that conversation was that… When you are on the moon, looking back at that blue ball, you’re filled with a sense of awe and wonder, and that sense of awe and wonder, because of all of the resources and technology we have available to us today… We don’t have as much access to it. And maybe that’s a fundamental human experience. Could we provide that experience, give people that opportunity to just have a moment where you feel small?"
Not only does Journey make you feel small, it makes you feel small alongside another person. The game is so moving because it is a simple, symbolic experience of human companionship: on your journey, you acquire a fellow wayfarer, who is actually a real player paired up with you over the internet. Interactions on online games can be cooperative and friendly or crass and destructive, but Journey brings out the better angels of the gamer’s nature. You can only communicate with the other player by chiming musical notes at them, and in the snow you have to huddle against them for warmth. If you are a new player, you feel tremendous gratitude when a more experienced player (some of them sporting shining white robes) shows the way and waits patiently for you to catch up–and the reward for completing the game multiple times is to become a guide for newbies, who have shorter scarves and can’t fly as far. And–spoiler?–when you finally walk into the light together, you really feel as though you’ve completed a small pilgrimage. How amazing, that a game can reorient us for a few hours, reminding us that we are wayfarers searching for something transcendent, that the help we give each other is critically important, and that we don’t make the journey on our own steam, but only with many helpful graces. I hope to see more small games like this, and I hope that large games will learn from its virtues. There are more forms of art and entertainment competing for our attention than ever, but my hours with Journey were a rewarding date with beauty.