You have probably played Journey, or at least read about it. Its atmosphere is hard to pin down, and a few people have compared running across sand dunes and floating among ruins as a religious experience. I agree with them, and I think there are specific aspects of the game that give it a religious, ritualistic feel.
How could a video game be a religious ritual? First, let’s look at religious rituals themselves to get a feel for how they could be like a video game. Most people are familiar with Christian rituals such as communion or baptism. A longer, more comparable religious ritual would be the Mormon temple ceremony, and as a Mormon I can tell you about it.
Part of the Mormon temple ritual includes watching a movie about the creation and performing symbolic actions (mostly donning symbolic outerwear) alongside it. The movie includes the fall of Adam and Eve and their being cast out of the Garden of Eden. You, the participant, are a child of God trying to find your way back to God from a sinful world. The ritual is a lot like an interactive movie.
The temple movie doesn’t really hold up to modern standards of movies–it breaks the fourth wall, has unexplained backstory for the bad guy (Satan), and doesn’t really have an ending. But this movie isn’t meant for entertainment; it’s meant to be a part of a larger experience that reminds members of their promises to be faithful Christians. The rituals themselves are meaningless without an awareness of the context in which they are performed.
Part of Journey is watching cutscenes about your people’s origins. At first, the wordless representations are baffling–are they showing you that you’re about to harvest grain and break a ribbon? As players mull over the meaning of the cutscenes, it becomes clear that they are about your ancestors’ history. The friezes and cutscenes combine to form a story about an initially agrarian society whose abuse of power led to the destruction of their civilization. You, the student wanderer, are trying to find your way to the top of a mountain to complete a ritual of transcendence.
Both the temple rituals and Journey are experiences that are meant to be repeated. You can surf down the right side, see what happens when you try to ride a dragon, or try to make your scarf as long as possible. Similarly, when I visit the temple, I often focus on different things, like the exact wording of the promises, or how the movie compares to the scriptural version of events.
Repetition in Journey is fun not only because you can explore more of the world, but also because the world begins to make more sense over time. The aquatic ruins take on new meaning when you see them as a train station, and your relationship to your scarf is more significant when you realize that its magic both helped your ancestors urbanize and enabled them to destroy each other. Perhaps most significantly, the environment and gameplay only take on narrative significance after the player has interpreted the story behind the cutscenes.
At first glance, Journey’s gameplay seems like merely running and jumping. After repetition, it represents your progression from complete stillness to your final transcendence. The progression starts with extended leaps and leads to constant flying, culminating with your transformation into a shooting star. The process of lengthening your scarf for longer hang time represents this desire and ability to become an enlightened being. You’re aspiring to transcend your daily existence. The cutscenes on their own would make for a puzzling movie, but together with the gameplay, they make for a series of interactive rituals that emulates the process of becoming something greater.
The process of becoming an idealized being is common in video games, and video games feel like the best medium to pretend we’re more awesome than we are. The process of inner transformation and transcendence is essentially a religious one (religious as in having to do with one’s beliefs about the world). Mormons believe that the noblest aspiration is to become like Christ, and similarly, some types of Buddhists see becoming a Buddha as their ideal state. With this in mind, playing Journey becomes a meaningful religious metaphor. In two hours, players can see their progression from an earthbound nomad into a bright spot in the sky.
Mimicking transcendence in an interactive ritual uplifts the spirit. We can recognize the emotionally calculated or designed parts of the ritual, and, instead of getting cynical about them, we can allow ourselves to be a part of the ritual. I’m excited to see a video game that touches on religious feelings without being overly preachy or embarrassing, and I hope other games aspire to edify our spiritual sides.