Review: Journey (* star) Part 2

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Vacuity

If there’s one word that sums up Journey, then, vacuity seems an apt description. One could go through all the folderol, all the magical wonders of this creative world, find all the magic hidden symbols that make your scarf grow long, see everything the game has to offer, interact with every object, and what will you have? Nothing.

Conceptually, thatgamecompany laid out some impressive puzzle pieces. Journey certain conveys its controls and concepts rather elegantly. Yet, in any event, those pieces don’t actually form a full picture. One can have all the platforming and floating they want, but why does it exist here? Because jumping offers no kind of risk, it is a mechanic that exists for no reason other than to tick a function off a box. The Call button, an ever-present mechanic here, simply serves to activate switches and/or communicate with someone else. Yet you’re not really solving a puzzle, so much as you press the right button the developers WANTED you to push. Then you may watch a cutscene of some sort that forces you to look at something. Not that you’d need to decipher it or anything, but the developers thought it important that you look at something irrelevant to the game. There isn’t any thought to it; only the continual process of moving forward to a predetermined end-goal.

The actions you can do in the game aren’t even satisfying in themselves. There’s never great feedback as to what objects you can walk over, and which you must jump. That comes through trial and error; the laxity of the jump/float mechanics (i.e., get your power back with no cost but time) means it doesn’t make a difference, but this smacks of lazy design. On a further note, why bother with the enemies at all? They remove segments from your scarf but YOU CANNOT DIE (or, at least, experience a game over), so it does not matter at all. Just keep pressing forward and you will finish the game. Smash your head against a wall until it works.

Journey satisfies neither the criteria for difficulty or challenge. Michael J. Lowell says in his article “Debunking the Cult of ‘Nintendo Hard’“:

Quite simply, “difficulty” is the restrictions imposed on the player by the game. How little margin for error does the game grant the player in completing the task? That’s why they call them difficulty levels. Difficulty levels adjust variables. How hard enemies hit, how many lives you get. Difficulty is an integral part of game design. The proper difficulty level encourages and facilitates the intended use of the game mechanics. If the game is too easy, you end up with Cave Story, where you can ignore the game’s fascinating weapon mechanics and gung-ho your way through the game world. If the game is too hard, players will shun diverse combat schemes in favor of the “cheapest” attacks, a reboot of Ninja Gaiden where the Flying Swallow becomes your only friend.

“Challenge” is the range of skills required to master a game. Think reflexes. Pattern memorization. The ability to process information quickly. The ability to memorize and execute strategies. The more skills that are required to master a game, the more challenging it is.

Journey does not force mastery of any skills, nor even a basic competence. In that sense does it lack difficulty. Nor does it have any obstacles or predetermined constraints that forces the player to learn anything about the game’s mechanics. Thus does it lack challenge. Without those two elements. you merely wander through a theme park ride, taking in the sights and enjoyed yourself. While that works within the real world, translating this to the video game realm and calling it “unique” stretches the terminology a bit. Hence, this is why I call Journey less a “game” and more a “interactive experience.”

In fact, that’s far more descriptive and MUCH less vague. The only reason a person uses “video game” to describe Journey comes from the same impulse that changes our supposedly “gendered” language or turns a phrase from common vernacular to insulting gesture: a co-opting of a system by another, an annexation of a medium by another definition forcing its way into a conversation to which it wasn’t invited. Here lies oppression at its very finest, and in the most subtle and manipulative of ways.

These become tiring. They reduce the clarity of language for a preconceived political, social, or moral objective. Even in video games, we now see “Journey” held as a paragon when it should be a pariah. The game community adopts these “indie” games for recognition from the masses, only to find themselves out in the dust anyway (Video games are a bigger threat to safety than guns, apparently).

Perhaps this is why Journey does not permit failure: everyone wins! Yet the Journey means nothing. It is not earned. Journeys by definition involve work, time, effort. Journey presents the illusory qualities without digging into the real tangible qualities of a quest to somewhere, anywhere. The lack of a mechanical basis and a lack of mastery of any core concept, rather than engaging me, distanced me from the experience. All I could see was a flash of intentionally beautiful images in front of my eyes. Yet my efforts did not matter; what happened on screen would happen regardless of my skill or anything I could contribute. The game could play itself, almost.

Journey: an act or instance of traveling from one place to another. How exciting!

Accepting an Illusion

Journey’s vacuity shows us the vacuity of our culture, where appearances take the place of the interior and the surface covers the innermost parts of the heart. And when the game ends and you begin yet again, your rebirth comes as a Sisphyean burden. Once again, we roll the rock up the hill effortlessly over and over again. Without struggle, can there be any meaning, any resonance? It simply does not reflect human life in the least. Who has not had a Dark Night of the Soul, or found themselves in a spot where it feels the walls are closing in? Video games aren’t so much escapist as they show us a microcosm of human life and struggle – hence the predefined rules and structure. That exists in our lives as well, difficult as it is to see. God gives us weakness in strength:

And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:9-10

We must rejoice and love our circumstances, even in suffering and hardship:

And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

Romans 5:3-5

Journey, though, offers none of the real characteristics of a journey. It is fake, hollow to the core. Journey shows the impulse to escape life, not to accept it or learn from it. It denies life itself by smoothing its rough edges and making it a farce. It is a Schopenhauer-like approach to life – not a Christian one.

…aesthetic pleasure in the beautiful consists, to a large extent, in the fact that, when we enter the state of pure contemplation, we are raised for the moment above all willing, above all desires and cares; we are, so to speak, rid of ourselves.

The World as Will and Representation, Vol. I, § 68

Journey tries to make us escape from the Will by plastering the screen with pretty pictures, but once the high of the experience ends, you are left with nothing but the constant cycle of Buddhist suffering. Fitting, given the obvious nods to Tibetan Buddhism throughout the game’s latter areas. Christ brings new life; Journey brings reincarnation. Christ brings new birth; Journey brings a continual cycle. Christ does not deny life but renews it; Buddhism attempts to avoid suffering. Journey attempts to avoid suffering, but its ignorance of it only highlights its absence. The traditional death/win/kill scenario works in games because it represents real people fighting real conflicts. Forces in the world conflict. Death happens, physically or spiritually. That is the nature of things in a fallen world.

Yet Journey denies true life, and we all praise it. I shudder to think what other illusions we accept based on the fleeting pleasures laid before us. When we only look within for our own life and attempt to avoid that, we only shoot ourselves in the foot. We see ourselves as similar to everyone else (as Journey, which makes us a faceless protagonist similar to every other person you meet int the game). Yet this is the crux of the problem: we do not see our uniqueness. We see ourselves on a track, and passively observe our surroundings. We do not see the need for change, only observation of external phenomena.

Yet a Christian knows they must die to live. They cannot settle for mere illusions and denials of will. They must will by submitting their will to Christ. If they cannot do that, they will truly experience a continual cycle of empty promises and misguided actions. We can find nothing ourselves; we can find all through Jesus Christ.

Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Let us throw away these games that appeal to our instincts for self-satisfaction. They only harm us in the long run.

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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.