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.
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.
One of Stephen Sondheim’s most recognizable musicals is Into the Woods, which you may recognize from the movie version Disney made in 2014. The story involves various fairy tale characters, in addition to two modern ones in the Baker and the Baker’s Wife, who go into the woods in a quest to get what they want and come out happily ever after (or at least singing a song implying so); the second half has them going back into the woods and reexamining their old desires. So just from this synopsis, I can expand on how the show uses the theme of journeying, how it is a remediation of other tales, and how it plays with Hypermediacy in its production.
The first act is a relatively simple tale of the characters’ journeys: it is plot friendly, about overcoming obstacles, poses only a slight moral dilemma, ends with all the characters, including the narrator, singing about how they have a happy ending (really, look at how joyful they all seem), and moralizes some simple tales that everyone has learned: “And we reached the right conclusions/ And we got what we deserved!”
Behind the happy-go-lucky surface, the philosophies of the protagonists are manically explained “To be happy, and forever,/ You must see your wish come true./ Don’t be careful, don’t be clever./ When you see your wish, pursue” The underlying belief of these characters is the exact same as what it was in the beginning: to be happy, pursue your wish, explained as “Into the woods/ To get the thing/ That makes it worth/ The journeying.” Although the characters have taken a physical journey, and killed the wolf, slain the giant, avoided making the decision to commit to a prince, and completed the witch’s task, they have not grown as characters since they have not changed, only their circumstances have. While this may be fine for a children’s show (as shown by the success of “Into the Woods jr” which is just the first act of Into the Woods) Act II is here to change that.
In the second half, the characters are forced to deal with their reckless desire to get what their wish. They go back into the woods because a giant is invading their realm, due to the various things that the characters have done – from Little Red taunting Jack to steal her harp, Cinderella carelessly throwing a magic bean away, and various other careless actions – and they eventually gather together and admit their blame in the present situation. Perhaps what makes act II about the journey and not the destination is the choices that the characters’ make: this is best exemplified symbolically when they sacrifice the narrator to the giant, signifying an end both to simple morals and having your decisions made for you.
Likewise, a good exemplar for how the characters grow as a result of their journey is Cinderella’s ability to finally make a decision. Whereas in Act I her happy ending came as a result of deciding that she would rather be the object of desire rather then follow her own volition, as shown by her realization “I know what my decision is/ Which is not to decide,” when leaving her shoe on the steps of the palace, in Act II she finally makes her own decision by leaving her prince and following her own desires, not his. Only after being forced to reflect in the woods, rather than follow one plot point to the next until they reach their prize, do the characters finally change and sing “Careful the wish you make,/ Wishes are children./ Careful the path they take-/ Wishes come true,/ Not free.” As such, the second act reflects on the danger in rushing recklessly through your journey to achieve your ends.
As previously mentioned, Into the Woods is a remediation, in which the classic fairy tale structure, themes, characters (remember that first image?), narrator, and morals, are put into a medium of a musical. This is significant because whereas a fairy tale is short, plot-based, and is told to tell a simple moral, this musical is almost the exact opposite: it is long, the second half is character-focused, and gives a more complex moral message. As such, it is able to both really reflect on and criticize the motivation behind the characters, both in the songs that illuminate their character and the whole second half that extends their story. Since the characters are humanized, and their stories interact in new ways, it forces us to really examine these tropes as characters, and to question just how reckless the message of fairy tales are.
It raises questions like “Does Cinderella actually like this prince and want to stay married to someone she knew for three nights, especially considering how desperate she was to go out of her old situation, how likely is it that she genuinely liked him instead of just accepted literally anything she could get?” and “Why should Jack not face any consequences for stealing from the giant,” and “How much can the prince actually love Cinderella after only dancing with her for three nights?” The answers that the musical raises are: She does not like him, Jack should feel guilt and lose someone important, and the prince just moved on to Sleeping Beauty when he got bored anyways.” As such, its remediation into a more contemplative art form allowed the show to critique the fairy tales it is based on.
In addition, many of the aspects of the musical directly mirror aspects of a fairy tale. There is the infamous first song, a 13 minute piece with several characters singing “I Wish” multiple times throughout, as well as a laundry list of things they wish for; this phrase is common in fairy tales, since the characters are literally only defined by what they think they want (Cinderella = wish to escape, Little Red = Go to Grandmother’s house, Rapunzel = explore the world). Furthermore, the title of the show, which is also the most repeated words in the cast album, is a reference to Fairy Tales, as the woods often represent a place of adventure. Finally, characters like the narrator and the witch are both remediation of the style of how fairy tales are told (simplistically) and the main villain in multiple tales.
Finally, the show plays on Hyper-mediacy: in the first half, the characters are almost caricatures, thus drawing attention to the fact that the audience is watching a play. And this works because it is supposed to be like a fairy tale, reflected by the simple, but unrealistic, world the characters live in and the set of the show. In the second they are presented as more real and having more complex motivations, thus making the show appear more transparent. Likewise, there are constant ironic references to Fairy Tale motifs, such as the three willow trees that bring them to the right path: the motif of three is common in fairy tales and allows Cinderella to find her way pack to her story; simultaneously, it reminds the audience that they are watching characters from a fairy tale, and so it makes the play more hyper-mediated in the same moment that Cinderella is able to find her story again. And finally, there is the infamous line “What am I doing here/ I’m in the wrong story!” sung by the baker’s wife in the middle of her climatic scene with the prince, thus drawing the audience out of the story while also illuminating the Baker’s Wife’s intelligence and her awareness of the social politics at play.
We embark on journeys of different lengths and purposes all the time, but we rarely stop to appreciate them. The journey is always seen as an obstacle to our goal, something we must go through to get what we want. Even when we get to the end we are not satisfied because there is always something more to strive for. I often find myself racing towards a goal without really paying that much attention to the process of getting there. However, reaching the goal doesn’t instantly make you satisfied. There is always another goal to strive for because without a destination you are just aimlessly wandering through life. In “Ithaca” Cavafy writes
“But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.”
emphasizing the need to slow down and appreciate the journey that is life instead of just racing towards a goal. On the rare occasions when I do stop and take a minute to enjoy what I am doing I am much happier and can interact more with those around me. When I move towards my goals at a slower pace and focus on the journey instead of the destination I can take in more of my surroundings and see many things instead of just one. This need to slow down and appreciate what is happening can also apply to a book like Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings. Since it focuses on a journey, the book spends a long time on each part and forces you to slow down and see the entire journey instead of quickly skipping ahead to the destination. You could skip ahead yourself to see what happens at the end of the book but then you wouldn’t get to enjoy the journey that the story takes you on. What use is knowing the ending if you don’t get to experience the how the characters got there and how they grew and interacted along the way? You can find the ending to almost anything you can think of online but it can’t replace reading the book, playing the game, or watching the movie. In many of the puzzle style games I often play the goal is to solve the puzzle and get to the end of the game. Looking up walkthroughs can get you to that goal quicker but reaching the destination of your goal isn’t fulfilling on its own. The path you take to get to the end is the part of the game that is fun and once you reach it you can’t keep playing or get any more satisfaction unless you want to retrace your steps and repeat the journey. It is much more satisfying to enjoy the journey for what it is instead of just focusing on the destination or goal at the end.
Narrative ambiguity is a central feature in Journey; a pro for those of us who enjoyed playing/watching the game, irritating and inconclusive for those who did not. But many of us felt connected to the character(s), sensationally aware of the setting, and personally invoked in the story–whatever we manipulated it to be. Not surprisingly, Journey’s critical response also centered on the game’s open interpretation aspect. Joel Gregory, a game reviewer for Playstation Official Magazine writes that “its [the game’s] brilliance . . . comes down to the fact that the symbolism is left open to interpretation” and describes the game as an “interactive parable” (2012). And as Gregory notes, the interpretations of the game are infinite, but a definitive answer isn’t the point here. Rather, the game invokes the player on an intellectual level and allows (or forces, for those who didn’t find joy in it) to engage with and in many ways, complete the story by his or herself.
In class, we wondered if this type of game–one that requires intellectual reflection and analysis–might be limited in audience. Many people, it seemed, might be turned off by the mental gymnastics required of the player. And Gregory echoes these concerns, writing that “some think it’s pretentious nonsense.” But the game’s critical reception overwhelmingly suggests otherwise: Journey is currently the fastest selling game on Playstation Store to date, won multiple Game of the Year awards (in categories ranging from story to gameplay engineering), received a Grammy nomination for the score and garnered 92% approval rankings on both GameRankings and Mediacritic.
So rather than excluding segments of the typical gaming community, might Journey (and games like it) actually invite a larger audience? The gameplay is relatively simple, but as Eurogamer reviewer Christian Donlan writes, Journey creates a “sense of hardship” because of the vast unknowns in the world of the game. (This “hardship” is precisely what draws so many advanced gamers to the game; they still find payoff in the end despite the low technical demands of the game.) Games like Journey invite another class of people to the gaming table: maybe those novice gamers who still want to participate in the stimulating virtual world, maybe those literature buffs who want something new to dissect and analyze, maybe those who feel most connected to a story when they make their own contributions to it. I suspect a bit of all three lies within many Journey players. (But to give credit where credit is due, the game developers have done the majority of the mental work for us plebian players by creating such a visually and sonically robust world.)
In a workshop on Vanderbilt’s campus this afternoon, game designer Evan Meaney cautioned the audience of the illusion of choice present in video games. In his words, games offer the viewer more choice than film (or other media forms) only by “better lying.” And this makes sense–of course a user doesn’t have full control over the game world, because the game developers have only coded so much! In terms of mechanics, Journey succumbs to this same critique. But by granting the player with narrative power, we’re gaining more control, and for Lamer Gamers like me, that’s pretty darn empowering.
The romance circle is common in all great epic stories. It starts out in childhood, then there is the threshold where the voyager leaves home for the first time, then the initiation, then the dedication to the quest, then the underworld, then the harrowing of Hell, then temptation, and lastly recognition. However, I don’t think the circle ends there. Life is a series of romance circles forming one large romance spiral.
Throughout life we are faced with many “voyages” or “adventures” creating one long spiraling journey. For example, college itself has been somewhat of a quest. You could analogize the process of applying to school, going to school, and graduating from school to Frodo’s own quest. Childhood instead would be high school and going to visit colleges would be leaving the threshold. Next, initiation would be acceptance to college and dedication to the quest is committing to a school. The next part I find rather comical where all of the classes and work throughout college are analogous to the underworld and the harrowing of Hell. Sometimes all of my work was a bit hellish. Temptation is all of the fun you have in college and your longing for the real world. Finally, recognition is equivalent to graduation where you gain recognition for all of your hard work.
Your life doesn’t end when you finish college (even though it feels like it). Therefore, instead of the circle ending there, rather it repeats itself and spirals into a long and great epic.