A Journey in the Absence of Freedom


I am beginning to understand why I do not like Journey. Subtly put, the problem comes in the lack of freedom, but freedom in a specific sense.Jenova Chen, the game’s lead designer, says in an Eurogamer interview:

“There’s this quotation from St Augustine…”

Jenova Chen puts down his hamburger and fixes me with a warm but firm stare. Trust the designer of Flower and Journey to invoke a 3rd century theologian as an entry point to the subject of online tea-bagging. “Augustine wrote: ‘People will venture out to the height of the mountain to seek for wonder. They will stand and stare at the width of the ocean to be filled with wonder. But they will pass one another in the street and feel nothing. Yet every individual is a miracle. How strange that nobody sees the wonder in one another.'”

Chen takes a quick breath. “There’s this assumption in video games that if you run into a random player online, it’s going to be a bad experience,” he continues. “You think that they will be an a**hole, right?”

I nod, still thinking about Augustine and the sense of wonder I’ve felt since first sitting down to talk to this studious Chinese game developer.

“But listen: none of us was born to be an a**hole,” he says. “I believe that very often it’s not really the player that’s an a**hole. It’s the game designer that made them an a**hole. If you spend every day killing one another how are you going to be a nice guy? All console games are about killing each other, or killing one another together… Don’t you see? It’s our games that make us a**holes.”

It’s interesting that Chen, who seems the studious and intelligent sort, takes a quote completely out of context. Considering that I have a copy of the Confessions (from which the quote derives), and since he used it multiple times from what I can tell, let us see if it means what Mr. Chen thinks it means. From my translation, it says thus:

This faculty of memory is a great one, O my God, exceedingly great, a vast, infinite recess. Who can plumb its depth? This is a faculty of my mind, belonging to my nature, yet I cannot myself comprehend all that I am. Is the mind, then, too narrow to grasp itself, forcing us to ask where that part of it is which it is incapable of grasping? Is it outside the mind, not inside? How can the mind not compass it?

Enormous wonder wells up within me when I think of this, and I am dumbfounded. People go to admire lofty mountains, and huge breakers at sea, and crashing waterfalls, and vast stretches of ocean, and the dance of the stars, but they leave themselves behind out of sight. It does not strike them as wonderful that I could enumerate those things without seeing them with my eyes, and that I could not even have spoken of them unless I could within my mind contemplate mountains and waves and rivers and stars (which I have seen), and the ocean (which I only take on trust(, and contemplate them there in spaces just as vast as thought I were seeing them outside myself. But I did not suck them into myself when I looked at them with my eyes, for it was not these things themselves that entered me, but only the images of them; and I know which impressions were made on me through which of my bodily sense. (Book X, 15, page 247)

Sister Maria Boulding’s translation became the academic standard; as becomes plainly obvious, Augustine is not even talking about other people here. He revels and stands amazed at the faculty of mind, of memory, and of intentionality – issues that even plague philosophers and the most advanced psychologists and scientists to this day. He finds himself astounded that a person can think a thing at all, yet not have the thing in their mind – just an intentional state created by the memory and the imagination all at once. The mind remains a marvel to this day, with or without an explanation as to its formation.

Yet, Augustine does not seem interested here in discussing his passing of other people in any way. Rather, he discusses the faculty of memory. Memory creates our personality; it allows us to retain some semblance of a self. It affects our actions in subtle ways, and changes the way we think. In other words, this makes us unique.

Right now, through the written word, I’m communicating with you, the reader. I try as clearly as possible to make clear my intentions, my thoughts, my words, in the most precise grammatical structures and the most exciting sentence constructions I can muster at any given time. I do not attempt brevity, but completion. God made me free to convey my opinions, in a sense; He does not constrain our thoughts, but allows us to think in a way befitting ourselves. A father only goes so far in setting a child’s path, but it determines their future in a real sense. As Proverbs 22:6 tell us:  

Train up a child in the way he should go,
Even when he is old he will not depart from it.

However, I never have to act like my Father wants me to act; love does not come from control. One cannot engender love through coercion; one cannot establish human connections through the boundaries of constraint. When we establish the rules in advance – “this we talk about, and do not offend me or challenge my own worldview” – how do you interact with such a person? I find no connection there, for that relationship forever remains unrequited by virtue of one party’s actions. That, however, is how human interaction functions. Both parties must be free actors engaging in free dialogue, or else it is difficult to maintain any semblance of real connection.


Thus, when I see thatgamecompany’s much heralded product. I cannot but sigh. Rather than letting players freely interact, Journey constrains their communication through the chirping button. Certainly, you can figure out what the other person wants you to do, but there is little more than that. They’re a random passerby in the game, nothing more – in fact, their lack of communication means they could just as easily be an AI masquerading as a person (how funny would that be?!). If this person is interesting, or funny, or someone that could become a friend cannot be found through the game; it does give you a list of the people who entered your game after the ending, but why make this “connection” so stark and removed if that is how you want players to function?

Instead, Chen uses his authorial control to insert his own humanist fable into our proceedings. It is not players who act like sinful human beings, but the system around them. It is not we who act like terrible human beings when anonymous, but the games and their goals that cause us to act this way. We cannot act “good” because the game system does not “reward” us for it or provide enough psychological feedback. As a Christian, I cannot accept this premise. Chen believes an infant cries or slams its hands on the table when it wants something not because it has an actual desire, but because it receives sensory feedback that endorses the action in a young mind. That is the thought of a psychologist; hence does Chen manipulate the player into acting like a good person (and forcing it to boot). A Christan must believe that sin creeps into our actions from the beginning; it isn’t feedback, but desire of something we do not have even to another’s detriment. It is a perversion of want into lustful desire. Augustine lays it out straight:

So I tossed about and screamed, sending signals meant to indicate what I wanted, those few signs that were the best I could manage, though they did not really express my desires. Often I did not get my way, either because people did not understand or because what I demanded might have harmed me, and then I would throw a tantrum because my elders were not subject to me, nor free people willing to be my slaves; so I would take revenge on them by bursting into tears. I have learned that babies behave like this from those I have been able to watch, and they without knowing it have taught me more surely what I was like myself than did my nurses who knew me well…

…The only innocent feature in babies is the weakness of their frames; the minds of infants are far from innocent. I have watched and experienced for myself the jealousy of a small child: he could not even speak, yet he glared with livid furey at his fellow-nursling. Everyone has seen this. Mothers and nurses claim to have some means of their own to charm away such behavior. Is this to be regarded as innocence, this refusal to tolerate a rival for a richly abundant fountain of milk, at a time when the other child stands in greatest need of it and depends for its very life on this food alone?

Augustine, Confessions: Book I, Chapter VI

Just quoting Romans 3:23 seals the deal, I suppose.

To contrast: World of WarCraft provides the player with shared goals (like Journey) and a free channel of communication, either through text or voice chat. People communicate; everyone can freely voice their opinions, especially in an unmoderated guild chat. Yet, in finding their shared goal, people usually find they like the people who joined their band of adventurers. That camraderie and friendship comes through the game, sure, but many players use it as their personal chatbox at time – they log in just to talk to other people. Surely, some players act like horrible people and use their anonymity to their advantage, but a righteous social shaming usually puts them back in line. We’ve even got our own forbidden behaviors and unwritten rules (no ninja looting, for example).

And yet, unlike Jenova Chen’s game of “freedom”, I can freely choose with whom I want to associate, and freely communicate with them in a variety of ways. I am not forced to act like a “nice” person (which in our society mostly consists in being inoffensive or accepting of anything). Journey does not let me make that choice. It forces my hand and forces us to do good. But love cannot come from coercion, nor can relationship form through force. Sin comes naturally, but doing the right thing isn’t ever easy.

The father does not let the child go into the world with the knowledge that he is responsible for his own actions; instead, the father does not let the child leave the house for fear of his son’s failure. Jenova Chen is that father keeping his son in a permanent state of adolescence. He teaches through control rather than love. And He gives them the Law without showing them grace.

He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?)…

1 Timothy 3:4-5

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • I think the main appeal to Journey is specifically for people who (like me) would never play WoW or similar persistent online worlds with robust social systems. It’s certainly designed for people who want to get in, get out, and be able to talk about their isolated experience instead of dynamic and unfolding ones with a lot of long-term deep (actual) relationships. Perhaps, Journey is a hyper-reduction of an MMO? So much so that the comparison seems cruel. But if that’s what Chen was going for…

    Also, the Augustine connection that he made was certainly quite stupid. It’s like me quoting Kierkegaard. I may like the dude, but I haven’t read him in length. So my perspective is going to be skewed.

    • Huh. I’ve never had anyone think about it that way before. I assumed the appeal was in the experience and the aesthetic qualities. On that level, the design make sense. On the other hand as you pointed out, the comparison BECOMES cruel if you make a mechanical comparison (like, to put it bluntly, they used the aesthetic parts to cover their lack of understanding of what makes the game work).

      I was surprised as you to find the quote being totally wrong. He apparently trots this quote out in a lot of interviews. Check your sources! If anything, it’s a poor portmanteau of Augustine’s words.

      And you need to read more Kierkegaard. Fear and Trembling may explain my reticence to place absolutes on certain actions or “hedges” around temptations.

      • Well, the appeal is the conglomerate of experience, aesthetics, and much of the tactile kinetics: pushing up and around hills, surfing through the sand ruins, pushing against wind. This is kind of “motion gaming” is the one that doesn’t get the coverage that it’s due. And it’s also much of what makes Miasmata. In this sense, the central resistance is “felt” instead of “fought.” It’s something I’ve been thinking about as I play more Miasmata and get my dude back up to full health where he can sprint longer, actually swim, and (eventually) have better clarity of his relationship to the world.

        And yeah. I have been told I’m quite Kierkegaardian, but haven’t gotten to deep into his books that I own. I’ll have to pick up Fear and Trembling if I come across it.