You See It When You Know It: How Journey Proves That Games Can Be Art

In 2005 (and later restated in 2010) Roger Ebert said, “the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art…No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets.” (If you haven’t read his article, stop reading this, go here and come back). Ebert put a rather large target on his back in the internet community that seems so insistent on qualifying their entertainment medium as art. In fact, his words were so widely criticized that game developer at ThatGameCompany, Kellee Santiago called out Ebert in her TED Talk, “An Argument for Game Artistry.” Ebert’s response, written in the piece mentioned above, shows that Santiago’s argument was not enough to sway his opinion. He states,

“One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite an immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.”

Let’s ignore for a moment that Ebert is making a broad sweeping generalization about an entire medium with a small sample size. Let’s say he has seen and experienced every single video game on earth and still believes they are incapable of achieving the status of art. The issue here is that Ebert is not analyzing video games, he is analyzing games, the flaw is the conflation of the two. In his reply he likens video games to football and chess, both of with are games, not video games. This narrow definition of what video games are and what they must include is Ebert’s first problem. He believes that “winning” is an essential component to video games. Many, if not most video games can be won, they do have rules and objectives, but not all. Points and rules may be crucial to the existence of a game, but not a video game. For example, how does one win Minecraft? We must first break out of this narrow definition of video games before we can understand them as art.

Next we must understand and define art. Many articles advocate for video games as art but few truly tackle the nature of art. People tend to think of art as they think of pornography, they don’t know what it is, but they know it when they see it. One of my professors in grad school hated this phrase, she believed that the opposite was in fact true. You see it when you know it. To this affect we must know and understand what art is before we can begin to classify video games as art.

Before we go in depth, a bit of background is needed. The early 20th century brought about a unique movement in the art world, the Readymade. For the uninitiated, Readymade art is a practice in which everyday objects are displayed as art.  The founder of the movement, Marcel Duchamp popularized it with his piece, Fountain. Fountain is a porcelain urinal that Duchamp placed on its back and signed “R. Mutt.” It was submitted to an exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York in 1917 and was rejected. The piece was meant to be a commentary on art by Duchamp as the society stated that all works would be accepted if the artist paid the entry fee. Duchamp paid, but the piece was rejected.

“Fountain”on display at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, France

Now that we know that we can proceed. My first year in graduate school was more than a little bit of culture shock. I was a self-defined Classicist at a Modernist university. In my first week (before I even knew who Duchamp was) I was introduced to Joseph Kosuth, a Readymade artist still alive today. The particular work we looked at was called “Chair.” The piece consisted of a physical chair that Kosuth did not build, a picture of the chair that Kosuth did not take, and a definition of the word chair that Kosuth did not write, yet somehow, Kosuth was the artist, or author of this piece. If you’re feeling confused or angry at this point, you’re not alone. Hearing this in class made me want to rip my hair out. I didn’t buy it and was convinced that Joseph Kosuth had somehow tricked the entire art world. I absolutely hated it and everything about it.

“One and Three Chairs” on display at the MoMA in New York, NY

The following quarter, I took a course on the theory of art and architecture. This is the course that introduced me, not only to Duchamp, but of the concept of “You see it when you know it.” Here we had just read Robert Smithson’s, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey” and were discussing it in class. The piece is an account by Smithson as he walks around Passaic and takes a “Readymade” approach to monuments. What I mean by a “Readymade” approach is that he takes normal everyday objects and imparts the moniker of “monument” on them. To Smithson, a sandbox is a monument, a mound of dirt, a collection of old pipes, they are monuments because Smithson deems them so. Now me, being the wise ass, Readymade hating, person I am raised my hand in class and said, “So if these are monuments because Smithson deems them so, are they NOT monuments if I say so?” The class looked at me like I was a complete and total shit disturber (which to their credit I was trying to be, never follow the status quo, ESPECIALLY in academia). The professor however, looked at me and said, “Yes, but that doesn’t diminish their value.” I was surprise and confused by her answer. First, I never expected her to say yes to my question and second I didn’t understand if the answer was yes, how these monuments could still have value. My professor then called upon Duchamp’s Fountain as an example, asking me what I thought of the piece. Again, being a smart ass I said I didn’t like it, when asked if I would want to own it or accept it as a gift I replied, “No.” This was my mistake. What my professor then began to make clear to me was that even if I hated the piece, even if it meant nothing to me, even if I wouldn’t pay a dime for it I would be stupid not to want it because it DOES have value. This is not an opinion, it is a fact that is undeniable. You would be an idiot not to want Fountain even if it meant turning around and selling it for millions. And in the act of selling the piece, you acknowledge that is has value.

It is almost cliche at this point to say that art is meant to elicit emotion, but it is a cliche because it is true. What I hadn’t understood, was that that emotion need not be positive. Not all art wants you to like it. The purpose of Duchamp’s Fountain was to test the limits of art, to see if people would accept something that they hated, that didn’t fit their definition of art. I work at a contemporary art museum and every once in a while someone will question the validity of a piece. They say something along the lines of “I just don’t get it,” “Why is this art?” or the infamous “I could do that.” The first thing I say to these people is that I completely understand where they are coming from and they are entitled to that opinion and it is one I shared for many years. The next thing I ask them is what is art to them? This is something they usually have trouble defining but they are certain that the piece in question doesn’t fit their preconceived definition. What I tell them is that art is meant to engage the viewer in a variety of ways. Maybe you love it, maybe you hate it, maybe you don’t know how to feel about it. These are all ways in which the art is actually working. Why can’t you form an opinion? What is it about this object that is causing an adult to question their tastes? And if you are left asking “Why is this art?” or something similar then the piece is still working. Stop and consider, why it’s in a museum? Clearly someone thinks it is art, why might that be so? Or is it a commentary on art, similar to Fountain? 

I don’t want to rely on the lazy argument that art is subjective, but it is interpretive (remember that part, it’ll be important later). People will have difference opinions and reactions to art. I want to convince you that art encompasses much more than something that is pleasant or simply emotional. I will always consider my very first architecture studio final review the worst review I’ve ever received because the critics essentially ignored my work altogether. I had spent ten weeks working on nothing but this project and at the end a group of 6+ people had nothing positive or negative to say about it. I would have rather they spent 20 minutes tearing me apart instead of ignoring it. The worst critique one can give is apathy.

Now let’s get to the matter at hand, Journey. ThatGameCompany’s 2012 hit is just as good now as it was when it was first released. I’ve replayed Journey now more than a few times, it is one of the few games I’ve consistently gone back to since 2012. The game is short, lasting at most 2 hours, it’s meant to be played in a single sitting, meant to be experienced as a continuous journey without intermission. The game is about as minimalistic as it gets. There is no main menu, no voiceover, no talking at all. In fact, the only directives the game ever gives the player is a button prompt to start a New Game and a few controller diagrams that serves as the most basic of tutorials. The rest of the game lacks any sense of verbal or oral communication (the caveat being that when another player enters your game and travels with you on your journey you can communicate via soft echoes that emit from your character).

For a game that says so little to the player, none of which is about “plot,” Journey is extremely deep and meaningful. I say, “plot” because Journey doesn’t have a conventional plot. The player character must travel through a sea of desert, wander around ominous caverns, and scale an icy mountain with the goal of reaching its peak. What I have just described is essentially the extent of what the player literally does in game. Yet, Journey’s ominous environments, brief cutscenes, and guiding NPC’s convey an underlying depth that provides more heartfelt meaning than most triple A games can muster.

So let’s backtrack a little into the art debate. Journey certainly has rules, objectives, outcomes, and goals, but I would argue that you cannot “win” at Journey any more than you can “win” at reading a novel or watching a film, you can only finish Journey. The game ends when you reach the mountain top but, as the name would suggest, the heart of the game is about the journey, not the destination.  There are no points in Journey, no competition, no leaderboards. The game is more concerned with providing an experience than with rules and outcomes.

My girlfriend and I have played Journey together now at least four different times. Despite having a shared experience of playing the game together we have entirely different thoughts on what the game means and what it is about. To me, Journey is the story of the soul of a recently departed women who awakes in purgatory and must find and earn her way into heaven where her ancestors guide her and await. To my girlfriend, Journey is an account of one of the last members of a formerly great civilization that has been left in ruin. To her, the player character is seeking out the last remaining colony of her kind as she sees brief glimpses into the former glory of their civilization as they all fight extinction. The point is, neither of us are wrong. Remember that part about interpretation I said would be important later? Well here it is. Art is not subjective, it is interpretive. Viewers observe the same set of circumstances and arrive at different conclusions. To some Duchamp’s Fountain may be a commentary on the acceptance of art, to others it is literally something meant to be pissed on. Both people have observed the same thing, both have come to different conclusions, but the important thing is, neither is right or wrong.

The environments in Journey can be both beautiful and haunting

To me, Journey defines why video games can be art. The stripped down mechanics and minimalist approach to storytelling provides for the most emotional gaming experience I have ever had (perhaps only The Last of Us deserves to be in the same conversation). Journey causes one to ponder, ponder not only on the meaning behind the game but to reflect on one’s own life. It causes one to ask questions about our existence, our nature, our sense of home. This again, is a key facet of art, the reason it is so interpretive. Art possesses the ability to allow the viewer to imprint themselves onto it. To emotionally connect through self reflection. This is where Journey succeeds the most. By not telling the gamer anything concrete, the gamer is forced to interpret what they see and impart their own meaning onto it. They are meant to shape this story for themselves, a story that will be unique to each player.

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