Random Encounter #3 – Don’t Stop Believing

Journey video game title card

Can video games be good for the soul? In her ongoing examination of the state of gaming, Olivia Cottrell wonders if we couldn’t all do with a bit more soul…

Video games and religion are not what you might call natural bedfellows. Even as games have grown up in the last few years and started to explore questions of race, sexuality and the more basic issues of morality (good vs evil, the needs of the many or the needs of the few and so on) religion has been a topic that most games try to avoid. As a gamer with a vested interest in religion (being a Christian), I find it frustrating that so many titles still shy away from a frank look at this fundamental aspect of the human condition. And that, when they do attempt it, they often fall very short of the mark.

Of course there are a few ‘god’ games. Titles such as Black and White and, more recently, From Dust cast you in the role of a god, then ask you to choose what kind of deity you wish to be – a vengeful destroyer or a benevolent guide to your computer generated worshippers. But, I’ve always found these games unsatisfactory. The theological question of ‘what kind of god would you be?’ is no real question at all. It’s too fundamentally self-centred. So-called ‘god games’ don’t explore our relationship with any higher power, they just wonder whether we’re responsible enough to wield that power ourselves.

Giant monkey god from Black and White
The face of God, according to ‘Black and White’

Fantasy roleplaying games, too, often have a religious element: TV Tropes calls this the ‘Crystal Dragon Jesus’- the mapping of real-world belief systems onto a fantasy universe so that we can ask. A recent example would be the Chantry in Dragon Age 2 – a religious institution clearly modelled after medieval Christianity. This can be extremely interesting, allowing the player to explore the structure and politics of religion. But in most cases the gods of these universes are undeniably real and often come down to talk to you or intervene directly on your behalf. In Skyrim, for example, gods will routinely talk to you directly as part of quests or help you with blessings if you pray at their shrines. Inevitably, you will meet these gods face to face and have your doubts confirmed or shattered. There’s no room for reflection on their nature or their relationship with their worshippers. They simply exist, in much the same way as any other non-player character.

Chantry Altar from Journey
Nice church. Wonder where they got the idea.

The game I would argue comes closest to a proper examination of religion is Journey, the new release from ThatGameCompany. In Journey, you take the role of a red-robed traveller pressing onward towards a mountain at the centre of a desert. Along the way, the game unobtrusively drops other players into your experience and you can help each other reach your goal. However, you cannot talk to each other or communicate in any way except by making a small ‘chirp’ sound. Much has been made of Journey as the sort of transcendent gaming experience that only pops up once or twice every few years, but I believe that part of the game’s lasting impact is the way it can function as an allegory for the spiritual life.

So much is left unsaid, allowing the player to piece together what they think is happening from a few cutscenes and glyphs. You are not even aggressively pointed towards the mountain – the game will push you gently towards objectives but the decision to take that first step is entirely yours. But everything in the game points to pushing onward: climbing that mountain, making that (if you’ll forgive the pun) journey. White robed figures (tellingly referred to by players as ‘angels’) guide you towards the mountain in cutscenes. At times it’s hard, even terrifying, but the reward at the end (even if you don’t know what it is until you experience it) is completely satisfying. As an allegory for the religious life and for spiritual faith in particular, it’s persuasive and rather beautiful.

Screenshot from Journey
The beautifully simple graphics of ‘Journey’

By leaving its message open to interpretation, and constructing a deeply personal experience, Journey allows you to draw your own conclusions. By leaving its gods unseen, the game invites you to actively thinking about who they might be and what they might want, instead of accepting them as simple facts of the world they’re in. It also provokes a sense of wonder, something usually sorely lacking from any kind of game, religious or not.

I don’t really believe ThatGameCompany intended Journey as a deliberate allegory for faith, but the fact is, it’s one of the best and most spiritual games I have ever played.

Journey game screenshot

Journey was developed by ThatGameCompany and is available from the Playstation Network.