Beauty for beauty’s sake(./?)

Apologies for the late blog. It’s been a week of shifting, as a number of major parts of my schedule are either being moved or disappearing. In any case, I was able to give Journey a few hours of my time (of many, many more to come, I’m sure), and, simply, I was amazed. I’ve known about the game for quite a while, and I’ve spent more time with the score than I care to admit.

But the thing about so comprehensive a work of art as Journey is the additive impact of all creative aspects upon each other. The gameplay of Journey is nothing short of sublime. It’s deeply immersive, visually stunning (to say the least), and sonically superb (again, to say the very least). The character, though only vaguely developed, is masterfully crafted to evoke a sense of calm, wisdom, and camaraderie, even though he/she stays largely mysterious. The world itself is unique and gorgeous, and the physics strike a dreamlike balance of grace and realism. The result of all of these working in tandem? A fantastic, immersive, and starkly beautiful experience.

There is something to be said for the engineering of so unique and compelling an aesthetic. The overall aesthetic of a fictional world can only be quantified to a certain point, after which comparison and experience become more useful tools. Journey transcends the mystical, entering into a space of profoundly unique fantasy and artistry. Aesthetically, I find Journey similar in some ways to the world of The Old Kingdom (Abhorsen) series by Australian author Garth Nix. Both are set within beautifully depicted ancient, abandoned kingdoms, with feminine main characters who operate more upon grace and wisdom than on valor and strength (à la many typical masculine protagonists). Nix, too, evokes a specific imagery regarding the world of The Old Kingdom that seems to echo Journey’s imagery. Highly recommend this series.

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Journey accomplishes something that is its own feat as well, however. It successfully brings the world of art into the medium of gaming. Following the New Yorker (full article here), the late Roger Ebert would argue the following:

“…The ultimate objective of a video game—unlike that of a book, film, or poem—is to achieve a high score, vaporize falling blocks, or save the princess. Art, [Ebert] argued, cannot be won.”

But Journey does in fact make “winnable” art! Of course, the entire point of the game is the path (journey) to the end goal, but it does have a teleology that Ebert seems to think cannot be artistic. Despite the sparse “narrative” of Journey, it does successfully combine a game’s immersion and drive to participate with an artistry of imagery, sense, and mechanic. This is largely new territory for the video game, as the vast majority of releases at this point are merely readaptations of concepts and ideas that have been proven to work (and make money). In this kind of dynamic, artistic endeavor becomes secondary, if not tertiary.

But Journey has successfully brought it back to the surface with a game that operates more than anything on an enjoyment of the beauty that is its design. Yes, the goal matters in Journey, but Journey is not beautiful to serve the purpose of the narrative. It is beautiful for the sake of being beautiful! Beauty, in this case, becomes its own end, while still operating within the goal-oriented teleology mandated by the medium video games.

But, does the vagueness of Journey’s narrative weaken it? Surely we can all, with a bit of effort, learn to enjoy the sort of Zen relationship to beauty that Journey offers, but could it become even stronger artistically and more accessible if there was just a bit more narrative for players to chew on? Does it need anything else? Can strong narrative and beauty for its own sake be married into one cohesive product? Of course, these are questions for the future. Nevertheless, Journey is, as it stands now, one of the greatest achievements in contemporary video gaming. So let’s bask in it just a bit longer, almost as most players will undoubtedly want to do within the game itself.

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