I like how video games have a way of drawing the secrets out of people. We can put on social facades in front of our friends and acquaintances (our “public face”, which the Japanese call 建前 (tah-teh-mah-e)), but in private settings, we can express our true feelings (本音 (hone-nay)). Games have a way of making the private known public in a statistical way because people don’t pay for what’s fake; they like having entertainment that appeals to their deepfelt desires.
On inspiration from Fr Blake Britton, I decided to check out the old game Journey (a playthrough video is at the bottom of this article), created by thatgamecompany. Gamers raved about it and loved it, and it won numerous awards while ranking as the top selling game the year of its release.
As a personal bias, I look at games through the eyes of a developer, and I’d say that, while interesting, the game wasn’t as astounding in graphics as people say it was. Yes, the graphics were very good, but nothing extraordinary for the time. The models were relatively simple but smoothed out (probably from subdivisioning). The textures and “language” of the creatures looked like UPC codes (i.e. nothing fancy). However, the computer graphic shaders (technical term there) were quite impressive, as was the animation. And yet, despite these things, people said it was a “masterpiece”. So if the game graphics weren’t revolutionary new technology and the gameplay didn’t revolve around intense action, what was it about the game that was so impressive?
I can think of a number of things.
The game was epic. Everything was huge: the landscape, the buildings, the bridges, the passageways, the whole world. Despite the tendency for selfishness to cause people to box themselves in a psychologically tiny world, the truth is, we prefer a huge world that makes us feel really small. It gives us a sense of belonging, something that elevates us to more than we can perceive.
There wasn’t a complicated story. People said it was a great story overall, but actually, it was super simple… so simple you could tell the whole thing in a short paragraph. What made it interesting was HOW IT WAS TOLD. The story isn’t about the backstory or cutscenes or lots of action; it was about LIVING it out. Everything in the game makes you the center of this epic. For the most part, you’re alone (unless someone joins over multiplayer). The only NPCs are inanimate objects made animate.
People really want to live out an interesting story. They feel cramped in by the world they live in, believing there’s no escape and life is just a dull routine. That’s why so many people have resorted to video games. It’s an ESCAPE from this “dull reality”.
What people don’t know is that life already is an epic, and that living for God will take you on a real journey that can cross continents. Literally, yours truly is scheduled to go to Asia. To escape the trap you live in, all you have to do is live by the promise of Christ: “Seek FIRST the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things (the things you need) will be added to you as well.” (Matt 6:33) In other words, do what God wants first – pursuing a relationship with Him and becoming holy – and God will take care of the other necessities that come up, such as food, clothing, shelter and transportation. Yes, even transportation.
My parish was recently visited by a deacon who was living out the journey in a literal way. God had him go all across the country to spark the church with inspiration, and God provided for him food, transportation, and housing despite his tiny salary (which could not have afforded it). And unlike those phonies on TV, this deacon doesn’t ask for money.
Transportation needs can be taken care of in bizarre ways. That brings up another interesting point, and it’s related to the overarching aspect of the game: the mystical.
Everything about the game of Journey is very mystical. That’s in important point. All of the elements emphasize that: the journey itself, the objective (a distant mountain), the clothes (a cloak), the mystery, the magical lights, the meditation, the connection to ancestry, the flying rugs (magic carpet), and even the way the main character moves.
Throughout the game, fluid motion is emphasized. Everything is very flowy, including the player’s cloak, the winds, and a bunch of flying rugs. Humans like soft and flowing things because it emphasizes grace. The main character begins their journey running alot, but as they accumulate snippets of carpet (no kidding), a scarf they wear grows and allows them to jump and fall gracefully. By the end of the game, you’re practically flying.
The mechanics of how you fly is magical. It’s mystery. People like that. It just so happens mystical transportation like this has happened. In the Acts of the Apostles, it says, “the Spirit of the Lord caught up Philip; and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip was found at Azotus” (Acts 8:39-40). It doesn’t say how the transportation occurred, but bilocation (a kind of teleportation) is a distinct possibility. Sister Maria of Jesus of Agreda (known as the “Blue Nun”) wrote about having bilocated from Spain to the New World to preach to the Jumano tribe (Texas and New Mexico). Peter’s walking on water sounds easy compared to this.
God gave us legs to walk, so most of the time, we walk. Walking is a power. (And your legs would weaken if you flew all the time. Just ask an astronaut.) That doesn’t mean flying doesn’t have its perks, but it would be very irritating to try to move through buildings that way. Hence, the game still makes you walk, and even uses it for emphasizing struggle. We like the concept of struggle because it’s passionate. Struggling in real life isn’t so fun unless you believe there’s an end goal you want, in which case, it can be highly fulfilling.
Flying, on the other hand, happens to give a very freeing feeling. That’s why aviators love it. I like gravity, and flying in real life without an airplane or helicopter would probably scare the crap out of us the first time we tried it. (Notably, there are a number of saints said to have levitated, such as St Joseph of Cupertino and St Martin de Porres. I can’t verify for you.) But as a concept, it feels heavenly because you can move closer to the sky. And that’s another key point: flying makes us feel like we’re moving towards the heavens.
In fact, anything “going up” makes us feel like we’re moving towards the heavens. That’s why the game uses a mountain for its destination rather than the pit of hell. No one wants to go down, they want to go up. We’re called to something “higher” than ourselves in a sense.
The Babylonians wanted to reach god, but because their motives were selfish (equaling themselves with God by reaching His throne) (and perhaps because they would have died from the thin atmosphere), God confused their language, preventing them from being a tower. (Now we’ve been successful in going to the moon, but nations don’t equate it with reaching god anymore.)
However, God still calls us “up” to Him. He just wants us to be part of Him, not equated and separate from Him. (There can be only one kingpin.)
Go outside and look at the stars. We’re in a vast universe that gives us an idea of how small we are, and yet, infinity is even larger. Looking up is inspiring, hence it’s easy to think of God as “up there”, even though God is everywhere (and fundamental to the universe’s existence). The Greeks thought the gods lived atop the biggest mountain they could find. The Israelites worshiped God who settled His presence on Mount Sinai – in the Arabian desert no less.
Which brings up another point: the game starts in a desert. Real deserts are hot, dry, and boring (until you get mirages). However, there is something mystical about the desert. The game creators used it to emphasize a number of things, especially loneliness and lack of life. But rather than being empty, the game desert has ruins that indicate a past civilization, creating an aura of mystique around the past civilization.
Humans love mystery. We’re born to seek the truth and ultimately find God Himself. God is incomprehensible and unfathomable, and likewise, we humans love the idea of pursuing something we can’t fully grasp. We don’t like it when the truth is so simple that we can piece it together and say, “That’s all there is?” That’s disappointing. Our craving is the incentive to search for a deeper, ultimate truth.
The main character in the story learns about their past by… sitting on the ground and thinking. There, they obtain the truth about their people’s past through a kind of spiritual connection with their ancestors. Such longing for a spiritual relationship with ones ancestors dates back to even ancient civilizations that performed ancestor worship.
As a Catholic Christian, I get to enjoy the prayers of the saints, reflect on their lives and influence, and even ask them for their prayers (because God does all the dirty work anyways). Unlike some people in ancient civilizations, I don’t worship my ancestors. They’re dead, and virtually powerless so far as I know. Nevertheless, there is comfort in knowing “we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1) – the saints.
Meditation as an act is very powerful. It is a time when you redirect your mind to what is greater, purer, complete, perfect, and infinite, such as the perfection of the love of God, the mystery of the creation of the universe in the cosmos, and the wonder of the intricacy of nature and physics. We don’t meditate on menial tasks like buying groceries. When we are able to focus on things that calm our mind and mood, such as kindness, peace, and tranquility, our body mimics the state of the mind and we naturally become more relaxed. Hence, meditation is also good for health.
Notably, as I watched the playthrough of Journey (You didn’t think I actually played a video game, did you?) and ate dinner, I found myself in the mood to pray and meditate. A lit a candle because we humans like outward signs. That brings up another point: clothes.
Flowing Robes and Elegance
I recall discussing some years ago with a friend of mine about cloaks. He wanted a cloak. Who doesn’t? Long flowy clothes are everywhere: Women in dresses, super hero all-hallows-eve costumes, kings and queens, Roman togas, cosplayers (costume players) at Renaissance festivals, Johnny Cash’s duster coat. Seriously, humans like long clothes.
Long clothes serve a number of purposes. In the Middle East, they keep the sand storm dust off your body. They also add a aura of mystery by hiding the body, giving it a secret identity. This in turn compliments and boosts the dimension of dignity. Long clothes don’t let the outsider judge the size, weight, and other features of the body, thereby forcing them to wonder about the features of the wearer. Shorter clothes are also utilitarian (because they allow the performing of duties more easily), whereas long clothes are for those not needing to do labor – the masters of an estate. (In the Roman era, masters of a house (both men and women) wore long togas while slaves wore short clothes to perform duties.)
Likewise, the main character in the game of Journey is a master, an inheritor of the history of a nation. As they move around the world, the magic carpets obey calls and aid their master in the master’s journey.
Flowing robes look odd ball in today’s society because people today are simply too utilitarian. I think people feel cramped by that, but it might seem embarrassing to walk around Walmart in a toga. People feel too enslaved to the opinions of other people to openly do such things… unless you’re religious, that is.
Monks, nuns, ministerial priests, and deacons all wear such clothes. Why? In a way, it’s considered simplistic, humble. But more importantly, it’s an outward sign of an inward dedication to a higher form of living than the meaningless pagan routine of work-eat-sleep-repeat with evenings seeking shallow pleasure.
In addition, flowing clothes also offer a sense of grace and elegance. The game of Journey very much grasps this, ensuring that everything from the running of flying of the character to the winds and hovering of its stone-like beasts are all smooth and elegant in their own way. People like elegance, and society has lost that, leaving people craving for it.
God has very much instilled in people the desire for elegance. Elegance is associated with politeness, orderly action, right conduct. It stands in contrast with violence, selfishness, and perverse action. In fact, throughout the game of Journey, the main character never once has to fight. Rash action is so contrary to the intention of the game that the creators didn’t even include hands on the main character because they aren’t needed.
Too many games resort to rash action to generate interest and stir emotions. The game of Journey shows that a remarkable story can be told without so much as raising a finger tip, and it stands as a testimony to the fact that a peaceful life can be just as satisfying and even more appealing than war as long as you’re seeing it as a an epic journey.
Visible Signs of Invisible Realities
The game of Journey manifests its magic in a beautiful and visual way. Rather than having everything by plain old trigger events like most games, you get to watch lights glow and surround your character as they move through the world. Even though there were only a two or three types of magic animation events that your character could perform, they weren’t boring to watch even though they were repeated time and time again throughout the game. Though the magic was never fully explained (its origin had to be inferred because there is no in-game dialogue), it provided a kind of mystical dimension to the game revealed through light.
Humans need visible signs of invisible realities. Life is boring without such signs. God designed us this way. After all, the entire purpose of this universe is for us to communicate with Him and each other. God isn’t limited to prayers, good ideas, and words of the ancients passed on to us; He uses the very particles world to communicate with us.
The ways in which God communicates physically in an “expected” manner are the “sacraments” – “visible signs of an invisible reality”. Such sacraments include marriage, baptism, and most importantly, the Eucharist: the physical body (flesh and blood) of God Himself. The whole concept of the Eucharist (God coming to occupy a cracker and grape juice) sounds bizarre, but it’s actually quite in tune with human desire, and it allows us to become more intimate and one with God even while still here on earth.
The other sacraments are outwardly actions, but spiritually something more. To be clear, the physical “dance” of atoms and molecules is meaningless. i.e. We move physical particles around to convey a message, not because a atom’s absolute spacial position (which is always changing, by the way) has any absolute meaning. On the physical side, things are happening. For example, people can only get married by the free will consent of both people, not by being forced to perform a ceremony. In true marriage, a spiritual bond is created between the man and woman. Hence the ceremony serves (or is supposed to serve) as a sign that something spiritual has happened.
We want to see beauty of the world beyond. That’s one of the things that makes cathedrals and basilicas so attractive. Catholics and non-Catholics alike flock to these structures to witness the remarkable beauty of these places that all have one thing in common: look to the heavens. Both outside and inside, these places lead our gaze to upward to grandeur, never outward. They are often rather narrow buildings with many pillars and spires. Even the inside pillars themselves are usually designed like Greek columns: the ridges of their surfaces are vertical instead of horizontal. (Note: the layering of the stone is not what I’m talking about.)
A Complete Sensation
The one thing about video games that can’t be modeled in real life is that they provide completeness to the sensation.
Throughout the game, there is an emphasis on light and shadow. The cloak of the player glows on many occasions. When they spin, things glow. The little “codes” located around the map glow. The meditation “visions” glow. The player is surrounded by light.
In addition to the visuals, the game of Journey (and many other epic games) utilizes epic, thematic music. Music is so powerful at arousing your emotions because it’s processed on that side of your brain. You can become happy, sad, fearful, expectant, angry, and relaxed just from different tones and rhythms. Music in games also contributes to the immersive experience because for no game-world reason whatsoever, it’s playing as your character is running around. We don’t have magic background music follow us around in life (and it’d get annoying in my opinion), but we do miss out on a heavenly, epic, sensational experience in our own lives because no one is implementing it.
In fact, it’s rather shameful the way the aesthetics are in handled in churches today. The parish I go to is a pathetic barf for a temple – a town hall with its normal-sized windows made of stained glass instead of clear. The music is a drone, a rehashing of the same old songs that laymen dribble out because it’s routine.
Churches should all have been built like cathedrals, and the experience within them should be more mystical, sacred, and peaceful than what you can get in a video game. After all, it’s the real thing!
In the meantime, a fantastic mystical experience can still be obtained in one’s own life by dedicating one’s life to the search for God and making it all real. But we don’t really believe. To “believe” isn’t to merely accept an idea. It’s to make it real.
Choosing a mystical life – one that’s visibly evident to the public – is a very difficult thing. We are gagged by our fear of how other people will perceive us. We don’t want to embarrass ourselves in front of friends, family, or strangers because we want to be liked. Even if you don’t care about opinion, the extraordinary may seem unlikely or impossible. Many people don’t really believe the fantastic (e.g. miracles) could happen in life.
Maybe an epic adventure sounds too good to be true. Is it really? Or is it lies that keeps us from believing we’re really on an epic journey?
Life is a struggle – not just against physical pain, but also against deception. Near its close, the game of Journey testifies to the struggle, but like all mysticism with no foundation, the struggle leads to a pointless ending. So too, we have a choice of pursuing a purpose… or having it all pass away, meaningless. How will your journey end?
Game Technical Commentary
The game seems to be influenced by Egyptian and Chinese cultures, as evidenced by the Arabic-style windows in buildings, the Greek columns, and the Shinto shrine gates. However, the designers put their own twist on everything, so nothing is a direct rip off.
The attractiveness of the visual appearance of the game depends heavily on its style. Each zone used a limited color palette, sometimes making it difficult to follow what the player was doing but ultimately unifying the world. Environmental elements like dust, fog, and shiny water add artistic depth where the scenery would otherwise be monotonous. The scale of everything is huge, and most of what the player needs to do can be done as they are seen from a great distance, thereby allowing the player to continuously enjoy the scenery.
The gameplay itself is really simple, but the challenge is not focused on fighting enemies or manipulating tools; the challenge is on finding one’s way.
Being a sharp critic when it comes to spirituality and philosophy in games, I often find objectionable material from a Christian perspective. Admittedly, most of the game was meaningless mysticism, taking elements from various religions but without promoting anything in particular. The magic seems benign if we assume the magic isn’t demonic in origin (but appears to come from a… volcano??). Thankfully, never once in the game does the player need to use magic for a malicious purpose, although it seems such power – shared by the ancients – created certain magical guardians that don’t have benign intentions. The most objectionable content was the presumably-already-dead-ancients’ magical power to rejuvenate the player. But overall, I think the game accomplished its objective of giving people a purely mystical experience without any hidden agendas. That in itself seems to testify to how people crave mysticism and don’t know where to find it.