'Journey' and the rewards of contemplative gaming
A scene from "Journey."
March 9th, 2012
11:55 AM ET

'Journey' and the rewards of contemplative gaming

When it comes to the words "video games," most people think about a fast-paced, action-oriented setting, possibly with lots of shooting and maybe even some splashes of blood for good measure. But gamers don't only crave that type of experience - in fact, both gamers and critics alike give rave reviews to titles that cultivate intellectual and even spiritual gaming leanings.

March 13 marks the official launch of the fourth game from indie studio thatgamecompany, known for their interesting and beautiful titles that defy conventional standards. Called "Journey," this "interactive parable to experience a person's life passage," as it is described on the official website, places the player in the role of a silent robed figure standing alone in a sea of glimmering sand dunes.

In the distance, a great mountain is silhouetted against the sky with a glow of light at the peak. Your destination is to reach that place, and learn what it may contain. The metaphor is clear: This is our life journey, and we will walk it to pursue whatever may lie at its end.

Unlike most current games, "Journey" is a very pared down, simplistic experience. In fact, the game only contains one word of text: The opening title. Beyond that, there is no dialogue, only the sound of your character's feet slicing through the sand as it presses forward. From start to finish, everything about this mysterious and beautiful experience is entirely open to interpretation, and the overall feeling of playing is one of serenity and peace.

While "Journey" is not the first game to take an approach that allows a player to explore their own universe without hand-holding or overt definition, it is one on a road less traveled. Cyan's tremendously popular adventure series"Myst" was renowned for its atmospheric environment and music. Japanese video game development studio Team Ico is also known for their vast landscapes and spiritual overtones in games such as "Ico" and "Shadow of the Colossus." And the recently released iPhone/iPad title "Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery" also wowed fans with a contemplative soundtrack and a mysterious, unexplained universe.

Indie game designer Jason Rohrer also shook up the gaming world in 2007 with a simple title called "Passage" that simply walked the player from birth to death, exploring the entire human lifespan in a five minute exercise.

So what is this new focus on "zen gaming" all about? Do gamers just want something chill to play as a break from the high-paced action of titles like "Halo" and "Call of Duty," or is there something more behind it?

"I think the quality we are after in 'Journey' and similar games is not zen or relaxation or even peacefulness, really, but something like interactive contemplation, or contemplative gaming," says Timothy J. Welsh, assistant professor of digital humanities at Loyola University. "I realize that is a term that also gets associated with zen, mediation, and mystic spirituality, but I'm thinking of it more in the sense of how one regards a landscape painting."

"We wouldn't say an art exhibition is aimed at promoting relaxation, centeredness, peacefulness, or zen. Instead, when we stand before the stillness of a landscape by Courbet - or for that matter the violence of a shipwreck in a work by Turner - we study it with active and attentive consideration. Prompted by the artist's stylistic choices, we think about the world it envisions, we make associations, we explore and imagine."

What makes a contemplative game so rewarding for a player, if it doesn't contain the same challenges we all know so well? How do gamers react to new worlds where their goals are different?

Welsh says that games of this type attempt to offer players something new and diverse in their interactions with digital media.

"They call for our attention, not through HD gimmicks or hyper-stimulation, but through appealing, attractive art design. They challenge us to think about and explore virtual spaces, not to win a competition or collect items, but simply because their environments are compelling and wonderful, in the true meaning of the word."

"In a media landscape filled with apocalyptic zombies, aliens, and invading armies, all rendered in gritty green-gray 'realism,' there is a lot to be said for games that are just plain beautiful, that invite exploration, even deeper thought. That there is an audience that wants that kind of experience from a game, shows how far gaming has come as a medium and that there is still room to grow."

Many types of games offer reward for action, which gamers enjoy on a personal and competitive level. But do gamers get their fix for being rewarded in peaceful games that don't urge competition?

"It's not just the (gaming) environment that has an impact on a player's psyche. It's the mechanics," says Kellee Santiago, president and co-founder of thatgamecompany.

"What you are rewarding the players for in the game? Are they being rewarded intrinsically by having a deeper understand of a puzzle, a touching moment, a connection with a team? Or are they being rewarded extrinsically with flashing lights, number counters and coins?"

"These are the questions we should be asking when we think about the impact of games on our players psyches."

Games have long contained themes that encourage all sorts of reactions that thread directly into our own human experiences: adventure, risk, problem solving. Some have even made us question our own ethics.

However, a title like "Journey" pushes the landscape for gamers into new territory: Exploring an allegory of our own life. Games are inviting us to contemplate instead of distract, asking us to question who we are and what we are searching for, and ultimately, what our lives mean.

Perhaps that's the reward.

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Filed under: Brainiac • Master User
soundoff (34 Responses)
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    August 4, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
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    April 23, 2012 at 11:12 pm |
  3. Mattski

    Can't you still have a little fun? Portal 2 was like that for me, no combat, very little dialog except in certain cinematics, it was relaxing and also fun - and funny.

    April 1, 2012 at 7:55 am |
  4. T.rex

    I played it... Most players are unaware that you can dig in the sand for uzi's and what not. Pretty cool.

    March 29, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  5. Goblinmoon

    How I wish it was an option on xbox. I love the idea of these more intuitive games. Even the folks that like shoot em ups, should appreciate that thinking about the standard game scenarios are what allows you some fantastic new things, in another game down the line.

    March 13, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  6. jiggaboo

    needs a bazooka or twelve...

    March 13, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  7. Asav

    Halo *did* have deeper themes than just shooting up monsters.

    March 13, 2012 at 6:30 am |
  8. Anakronism

    Sounds like something straight out of Phillip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" only no virtual reality tech yet. Hmmmm, makes one think.

    March 12, 2012 at 10:57 pm |
  9. brian

    They should have mentioned Minecraft. Great example of what kind of game this article talks about. There is no defined objective, plot line, or end to the game. You just gather resources from the surrounding world and use them to build whatever your heart desires.

    March 12, 2012 at 10:44 pm |
  10. Insightful

    When i first saw this game i thought it looked really cool but that was about 8 months ago and i have different thoughts now. 90 minutes and one person not doing anything but following sounds extremely boring.

    March 12, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  11. Nate J

    I purchased and downloaded this last night from PSN. It's $14.99 and available for pre-purchase if you are a member or have 'PS live' or whatever Sony calls it, the upgraded version of Playstation online, not the free one.

    The game is awesome. I spent a while playing. When you encounter other people the only thing you can do to interact is emote your characters one-note musical tone. The only way to identify others is a unique marking on each so you know if you have encountered them previously. Meeting someone else is contemplative; you spend the first parts alone and when you do see another player, you are surprised and excited to see someone else. Then, at least in my experience, both spend the rest of the game trying to keep up with or even wait for the other to have accompaniment. It is a deep and profound commentary on life! This game is rich and beautiful. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!

    March 12, 2012 at 10:40 am |
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      April 9, 2012 at 1:04 am |
      • Lyase

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        September 15, 2012 at 2:18 am |
  12. Allen

    This gaming sounds fantastic and these kind of innovations have to be appreciated

    March 12, 2012 at 1:35 am |
  13. GROW UP

    time for bedie by

    March 11, 2012 at 11:30 pm |
  14. sybaris

    Man, I thought this was going to be about Steve Perry rejoining the band.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
    • Kal

      Same here, Don't stop believin'!

      March 12, 2012 at 2:34 am |
  15. Avid Gamer

    60 bucks for a game that takes an hour and a half, no thanks. Rental at best.

    March 11, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • Logan Bear

      The game costs $15, not $60. And since it's download only on PSN, you can't rent it at all.

      March 12, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  16. Jason

    Dear Esther is a recent release that I think also applies this kind of mentality for gameplay (although a little more verbose).

    It was originally a HL2 mod but got released as a cheap game recently. It's definitely worth looking into.

    March 11, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  17. DisgruntledGirl

    Well if you're into this sort of gaming, do not ever purchase The Graveyard – which has a glitch causing you to Endtask several processes to get out. The glitch being they forgot to include the option to exit the game. Play its demo: because that IS the full game.
    Tale Of Tales really thinks this is the next level of gaming. Unfortunately, reading their blog, I took away 2 things: they don't really like gamers (direct quote: "we felt we had to give up on being obscure and do as much as we can to make it easier for the audience to connect to our work.") and they don't really for care America but will take grant money readily from America. These guys were so casually obnoxious I began to wonder if they were just French and pranking. Instead they're quite serious and Belgian.

    March 11, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  18. Jose

    Sounds kind of boring to me.

    March 11, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  19. SomeoneElse

    Arguably, Minecraft does this already.

    March 9, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • Sir Elipses

      damn straight

      March 10, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • BOB

      are you stupid? Journey and Minecrap are nothing a like.

      March 13, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  20. Serpentk1ng

    I've found lately that I prefer games that have these kinds of strange environments. Passage, From Dust, etc...

    March 9, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  21. Jack Kieser

    I love games like this. I was first kind of confused about what kind of game Journey was, but I've become really excited to play it. I hope more people become interested in contemplative gaming, because I really think interactive media is the next great crucible for intrinsic human understanding.

    March 9, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  22. chickon

    HALO AND PS3 SUCKS!!!!!!!

    March 9, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • The Egg

      How insightful.

      March 9, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • Logan Bear

      But you can't play Halo on a PS3.

      March 12, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
      • P Fidnin

        You also cannot make intergalactic stool in Halo.

        March 12, 2012 at 5:24 pm |