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.


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.


Emotionally Practical: That Dragon Cancer

There exists in this game a clear, apparent purpose by the authors/developers to ensure that those of whom are playing this game are given the ability to feel and to express emotion. I argue that it is not the purpose for this game to necessarily be satisfying in a typical FPS or level-up sense, but more so satisfying with regards to wisdom achieved or deeper understandings by the games end.

By just a little bit after the intro/begining, you will see how it already will be sectioned off into the life of the young child, with us eventually landing into the hospital. What was most intriguing by having this setting in a hospital is not necessarily showing or simulating that the parents were in the hospital, but it portrayed this dark ambiance, almost dark and mysterious feeling towards the players of the game. Even more so, one could feel extremley saddened by the juxtaposition of life- the young child- and there that of death- a happenstance that one only hopes to experience years well into adulthood- well into being elderly.

With regards to this newfound wisdom aforementioned in this game, I as a gameplayer was not privy to all of the different happenings goings (sic)  on with regards to dealing with the sickness of cancer. For instance, [below]


one can see that what seems like a race-track game with the kids is actually a way to collect different procedures for dealing with cancer. It listed differnt types of blood-works taken when one collected a token during the race, as well as listed other procedures such as chemotherapy. While I did know of the procedure of chemotherapy, I was not previously aware of all the different types of bloodwork taken while being treated for cancer, therefore, as a gameplayer, my real-world knowledge was increased from playing this particular game.

What was most present though was the emotional forethought put into this game. Let’s take this scence for example [I’ve enlarged it a bit]:


We can see hear the warm colors of the sun contrasted though with the hospital lime green of the Intravaneous fluid attached to the toddler. Specifically, what you can’t see, or hear that is, in here, is the baby’s crying. I remember having to turn down my computer’s volume when the baby cried, because of how loud and rough it was. This certainly was the most emotional part of the game-play- and in particular- made me as a gameplayer more aware of the struggles of taking care of a toddler  while you are in fatigue and exhaustion, on top of the worry for the baby’s well–being itself. \

Certainly, this game brings out the cultural awareness of the dealings with of cancer in the most practical, simulated sense. I would rate this game an 8.5-9/10.

Character development and communication in gaming

There are a lot of ways that characters can be developed in games. This could be something as simple as their communications with other characters in the game, dialogue, or simply a narrative. Every game has a different approach to the way they develop their characters, however almost every game depends on some form of communication to achieve this. Some of my most favorite games such as the Ratchet and Clank series on the Play Station Portable follow the idea of using a narrative to develop characters. The game uses short films in the middle of game play to both develop characters and further the plot of the game. This form of character and plot development is seen quite often in many games.


Journey is one game that uses a very different way to develop the main character and communicate between characters and the gamers. Journey is set in a vaguely Egyptian region, with appearances of several things such as many glyphs and symbols and of course the figure that possibly depicts the Egyptian goddess Isis, that point to this Egyptian influence. The way this game communicates between characters and gamers is something I have never seen before and find very interesting. Throughout the game, we control a robed figure that travels through a desert towards the mountains in the distance. What’s surprising to me was that the game had no mechanics allowing us to communicate with other characters, and we didn’t even see any cinematic scenes where the characters talked.


We start off as single player but often come across other characters, soon to realize that these are actually other players playing the game from around the world. Usually in cases like this, you would expect to be able to communicate with those players, for example, in Lord of the Rings Online, the world chat enables us to communicate with those characters, and we can also interact with them, and challenge them to duels or form a fellowship with them. However, in Journey, we can’t do any of this and the only possible way we could “communicate” with those characters is by “singing” and signaling to them. I found this form of communication very interesting, and after watching a couple of walkthroughs, I found that gamers ethos plays a big part in the game. I saw that many gamers would guide new gamers through the game and wait for them as they followed them – even though they didn’t actually know them. The game has an overlaying theme of maternity and has a very calm feel to it, and the actions of the gamers really represents it. The game shows clear and definite themes of romance, and this game really shows that games allow portray their creativity by using familiar themes in and shows that the same effects can be achieved in different mediums in variety of different ways.

Sunk Cost versus Characterization

There are a lot of good reasons to like a character in a narrative, whether it is a novel, movie or even video game. They can be written well with witty dialogue, have upstanding morals, or even can just be attractive. But there are those characters, who, like in Journey, are likable despite not saying anything or doing anything significant on their own. Now, there are micro-manipulations writers and developers can make to influence the consumer to actually want to like their creations (e.g. their physical mechanics including gracefulness, their coloring, the music that plays when focusing on them), but one possible thing to take into consideration is how much time the player is putting into these characters, and how that interacts with the character’s likability.

There’s a well-known fallacy/concept known as the sunk-cost fallacy, in which a businessman (or investor, etc.) will continue to put resources into something, despite having already put irrecoverable resources into it with no real gain previously, simply because they invested in it (and often heavily). This fallacy mostly is constrained to the world of economics, where it is most relevant, but it may be interesting to investigate its possible interactions with video games.

“Failing to Ignore Sunken Costs”

In a lot of video games, especially ones with heavy grinds such as MMO’s, the sunk cost fallacy manifests itself very strongly. Take, for example, the game Runescape, which is essentially one whole time sink machine. For most people, the ultimate goals are to reach the maximum levels in their skills (99 for oldies like me), which involves hundreds of hours of time put into single skills and eventually hours upon hours for single levels. If you’ve already put two hundred hours into reaching the next milestone, you will be much more reluctant to give up your lot and simply stop playing without actually reaching the milestone.

Narratives will have a different interaction with the fallacy than things like Runescape, though. In games like Journey, you’re not spending hundreds of hours trying to reach the end of the game. But you’re still putting in time, guiding this red-robed character with no real unique identification markers across the world to the mountain for the goal of completion. It is hard to say that the player-controlled character has any real markings of characterization – we don’t know its gender, it doesn’t speak, and we certainly don’t know what the exact motives of the character are throughout the story. Part of it might be that we have such a high level of control compared to many other games, where the character is predetermined, but in Journey the player is in charge of everything the character actually does.

Without real characterization, it might be hard to really answer why this character is likable, why we would want to sympathize with this character. I would primarily lay my claim as the idea that, by the time we start really thinking about whether or not we care about the character, we have invested enough time into the game for us to not really care about what’s been given to us about them, just that we’ve spent enough time with the character to want to ride out the rest of the story with them.

Which is certainly not to say that Journey isn’t worth finishing by itself. With such a fantastic soundtrack, interesting mechanics, intriguing and well-built up mystery, and some interesting but not complex landscape puzzles to figure out, the game maintains enough drive for the player to want to see the ascent up to the top of the mountain. While Journey certainly comes lacking in characterization, it is rare to find a game like it that can pull off that kind of experience without needing it.








Cathedrals on Cartridges: can gaming give us a spiritual experience?

Are video games the next frontier for spirituality? The indie video game Journey takes players on a, well, journey through a vast desert dotted with ruins, an “underworld” patrolled by menacing stone automatons, and finally an ascent up a mountain. The player may collaborate with other players they meet along the way, the two journeying characters becoming companions as long as they stay together through the levels. Players are unable to communicate with each other except for a musical “chime” sound.

Critics have praised Journey for its visuals, soundtrack, and story. Much of the praise, however, focuses not only on gameplay mechanics and visuals but on the experience of playing. Reviewer Christian Dolan of Eurogamer calls the game’s aesthetics “a kind of sparse… Biblical imagination” and called the game “an attempt to manufacture a kind of non-denominational religious experience for players: to make them feel like a small yet crucial part of something vast, mysterious, and powerful.” Finland says that the efforts fell short until he encountered a companion player: “all the convenient metaphors and artificiality melt away. The game’s lunges at profundity disappear, and you’re left to focus on the core of the experience: a pilgrimage.”

The description of this game as a “pilgrimage” caught me by surprise. the characters’ garb may recall religious wear, and the vast beauty of Journey’s setting can amaze and inspire, but do these elements create a sincere pilgrimage – even a truly spiritual journey – for the player?

It isn’t unusual for video games, especially rpgs set in fantastical worlds, to have their own religions and pantheons: the Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age franchises, for example, both boast elaborate pantheons of gods who often meddle in mortals’ affairs and send the player on quests, but few would call these interactions with a programmed deity a religious experience.

Though there are many video games that focus on real life religions, That Dragon, Cancer was the first I’d heard of that achieved widespread acclaim. That Dragon, Cancer boldly and directly shows the creators’ spiritual journey and Christian faith as their son Joel fights terminal cancer. Their faith is never reduced to a game mechanic, but the player is an intimate witness to their spiritual evolution: one of the most powerful moments of the game, for me, was when the player (as Joel’s father) is unable to soothe cancer-pained Joel; after trying everything without success, the father prays, and finally Joel is able to find piece and fall asleep.

Journey doesn’t profess allegiance to any real-life faith or even claim a directly religious message – the player is free to interpret everything, including the large white-robed figured that occasionally appear, however they like. The open-ended nature of the game means that many, like Donlan, draw comparisons to a spiritual or secular-spiritual journey. Can video games like Journey or the very difficult That Dragon, Cancer share a genuine spiritual/religious experience with players, or can games not (or should not) convey sun an experience? How do technology and new media influence or transform how we interact and interpret the “sacred?” Have you ever had a spiritual experience with a cheek game or encountered a game that tried and failed to achieve that experience?



God’s Role Needs Refinement

I wasn’t in class on Thursday (and thus totally blanked on posting to the blog, sorry!), so my response to That Dragon, Cancer will have to be based entirely off the experience that I had while playing it.

I already commented on the nature and beauty of walking simulators in my first blog post, and after seeing previews of That Dragon, Cancer, I knew it’d make for a good continuation of that topic. First and foremost, this game solidifies in my mind the existence of the narrative-based indie game. Gone Home and Journey, which we’ll play later in the semester, have both become classics of this style. That Dragon also immediately reminded me of Myst, one of the most acclaimed PC games of all time, with its point-and-click movement and vivid, low-poly graphics.

Of course, each of these games is unique, and That Dragon did not fail to break the mold. Its strengths include several novel storytelling techniques and a powerful soundtrack; its weakness, in my opinion, its its undeft presentation of the tension between the parents and the importance of their religion.


That Dragon, Cancer is a deeply Christian game. This isn’t in of itself a detractor, of course; the developers have every right to style their game to their philosophy, and the importance of the characters’ religious beliefs could hardly be overlooked. Furthermore, it’s not like I don’t enjoy Mumford & Sons and Sufjan Stevens, with their overt Christianity. But God’s role in That Dragon, as it were, was painted in with too broad of brushstrokes.

At the game’s first mentions of God’s presence and influence, I was intrigued, looking forward to where this theme would go. But as the game progressed and the narrative became more heavily laden with churchgoing diction, I found myself too bashed in the face with it all to fully appreciate the real point of the game—that is, an attempt to convey the potent misery and joy that such a parenting experience would bring. In all, however, That Dragon, Cancer did deliver this message, and did so in a really nuanced way.

Considering that this is an entirely true story, the couple couldn’t have necessarily been expected to produce a perfectly fluid presentation of the slow death of their son. But as a purchaser, consumer, and critic of the game, I would have liked to see God’s role worked into the story a bit more, rather than plowing straight over it.

Be sad.

Perhaps a little disclaimer before we get too far into this. I fully respect and appreciate That Dragon, Cancer. The game has gotten a lot of flak from users who are claiming a number of different transgressions of which the game is guilty. Many claim the creators are just monetizing the concept of child cancer (particularly because the game is largely crowdfunded). Others complain that it misrepresents itself as a ‘game’ rather than an ‘interactive narrative’, or something along those lines. Some argue that the creators are using the game to push Christianity upon users. None of these are issues that I have with it, and none are, for the time being, worth arguing. That Dragon, Cancer exists primarily as a project through which two distraught parents found solace and receptivity , a much-needed way to creatively and cathartically process and remember the death of their child. But let’s not pretend it’s good art.

Now, I’m a full proponent of our postmodern, all-things-valid, context-contingent,  quality-is-subjective artistic world. But, let us also recognize the dangers in an “everybody gets a trophy” modus operandi of judgement, particularly in a medium like gaming, which is yet still so young and full of potential. That Dragon, Cancer, taken out of its context as a coping mechanism, utterly fails as a piece of artistic content for a number of reasons. Firstly, the writing was unnatural, eloquent, and hardly representative of the human psyche grasping at reason and understanding in the face of total tragedy and loss. Any emotion in the speech was tactlessly fabricated, as if a computer program was assigned the task of conveying the deepest and most intricate human emotions. And, regrettably, any merit the writing itself may have had was lost in starkly affected, overdone voice acting. I understand, again, that the majority of the writing and acting was likely done by the Greens themselves, and I regret that it turned out to be so limiting a factor that any emotion in the narrative cannot help but be perceived as simply inaccessible and ingenuine.

Of course, a child dying of cancer is one of the saddest things most people can imagine. For many of us, it’s not even worth imagining what it must be like, as a parent, to watch your child die. We wouldn’t come close to a workable understanding. So, it becomes the impossibly hard work of the artist/creator to get us somewhere a bit closer to that experience. That Dragon, Cancer fails in this endeavor unfortunately due  not only to the poor writing and acting, but also the decisions made regarding certain aspects of the game mechanic. The game often operates in a way that forces the player to interact with it for essentially a specific amount of time before moving on. To take but one example, consider the scene in which the family receives the news that Joel’s cancer is terminal. The entire scene is controlled via the speak-and-say toy in the office, the only two changeable parameters of which are time of day and person (ie: whose point-of-view). The scene only begins to progress once the player has explored every possible combination of person and time of day, each iteration sitting through numbing repetitions of vaguely the same script. It is only through pure chance and time-spent that the player finally gets to move on. Consider another scene, in which the player takes on the perspective of a sea-dwelling bird, flying from bottle to floating bottle in an ocean in which the family struggles to row a small lifeboat. Each bottle has yet another poorly written and read musing on the struggles of dealing with a dying child, the emotion in which is all too predictable and pseudo-human. The player must fly from bottle to bottle to bottle, and again, only through pure chance, time spent, and number of bottles visited does the scene progress. By the end, the lucky player is merely bored, while the typical player is frustrated and seeking justification to quit the game.


We like to be sad. Sadness is therapeutic. Perhaps it’s a healthy release of the friction and stress of daily life. Perhaps it’s training for real situations in the future. Perhaps something about the cascade of neurotransmitters just feels good. We like (and need) a healthy amount of sadness in our lives. But what we don’t like is being told to be sad. The missteps of That Dragon, Cancer do not accomplish real sadness. They merely tell the player to be sad.

“We like (and need) a healthy amount of sadness in our lives. But what we don’t like is being told to be sad.”

“Be distraught! Be torn up! Despair! Feel our pain, for our baby is dying, and feel it in this way, and for the exact amount of time that we prescribe you!” This is what the game seems to say, for there is no room left to interact with the game according to one’s own manner of interacting with sadness. There’s no room for interpretation, no surface onto which one may apply his own experience, and there’s no space nor allowance for any personalized human emotion – much less a personalized worldview, as the entire game does operate within a fiercely Christian dynamic, another alienating and weakening aspect of it (though a conversation for another time). The game just expects you to be sad, because the narrative is inherently sad. And it forces you to deal with it at a pace that forces you, in utter vain, to feel it in their way. And as much as I wish it were (for the game’s sake), that’s simply not an effective way to make someone feel something.