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One Life, One Journey

April 8, 2012

In last week’s post, I exalted Thatgamecompany’s latest PSN game, Journey, for the wonderfully personal experience it gave me (I use the word ‘wonderfully’ in spite of—or, more truthfully, because of—the feelings of longing and loneliness I felt afterward). I have never felt anything like I did during or after playing. Why then, at the end of the post, did I tease that perhaps I would never play Journey ever again? This week I will explain myself and present my new philosophy for approaching these rich gameplay experiences.

Constructing Positive Experiences for Others?

It’s true that my journey was filled with negative emotions: distress upon losing my favourite partner, and bitterness and anger toward the mindless partner I had at the end of the game. But the moment that I met The Girl was unforgettably joyful. So knowing what I do now, I could choose to be an example to others by being that great partner in later playthroughs. And especially for any first-timers, maybe I could be the one to make their journey brilliant and fulfilling.

In this role, however, I become a teacher—and though a teacher may find joy in teaching, not every student is willing to listen. That is to say, I may indeed encounter newcomers who are eager to work together and treat our time together as meaningful and worthwhile, but I will surely also encounter players who care nothing for teamwork and find little value in shared experiences. Did I not encounter that in my first playthrough?

Then with each time I play, though I may be rewarded with partners who are easy to work with, they will likely be the exception. I will hang on to those great connections, hoping that those players have been affected by what I helped them experience, but never knowing it for sure. And my own memories of my first time through the game may become forgotten as I overwrite them with new, fresher ones. At least, that is my worry: I am sure that others may find some sort of redemption in being able to make the game positive for others, but I am worried that by doing so, my own first experience will be spoiled.

Powerful New Experiences vs. Remembering Past Ones

This discussion leads naturally to the next question: if the experience was so unique, so raw, then why not try to seek out those feelings once more? Better yet, perhaps a second playthrough would be quite different, and I might experience a different spectrum of emotions altogether—perhaps it’ll even be a wholly positive experience! The problem with these justifications, though, is that trying to repeat an experience is not typically a valid goal. Why should our most treasured experiences be repeated? We certainly do it all the time: we re-watch our favourite films, re-listen to our favourite albums, try to re-visit moments from our childhood. But as a result of re-living parts of our lives, we lose touch with the power of the first time we experienced something. Our memories of it bleed together with the countless times we’ve done it again.

Take a simple example: one of my favourite games of all time is The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I first played it when I was only 9 or 10. Since then, I’ve played parts of it a handful of times, but I’ve never re-completed it. And whereas I vividly remember the final visit to Hyrule Castle and the fight with Ganon (which I’ve done only once), my memories of the rest of the game blend between the first playthrough and my subsequent playthroughs. I can catch glimpses of what it was like to see the Great Deku Tree, Lake Hylia, and finally beating the damned Water Temple for the first time, but they are clouded by my attempts to recreate those moments. They’ve lost some of their power. Or how about when I first watched the 3rd season finale of Battlestar Galactica and was utterly shocked at who the Final Five cylons were? I’ll never be able to duplicate that surprise—so why spoil it by even trying?

In his sci-fi novel Out of the Silent Planet, C.S. Lewis discusses this issue directly. The novel takes place on Mars, which is inhabited by a few different types of creatures. The protagonist, Ransom, is a philologist, so in his time on the planet, he learns the language of one of the species—the hrossa. These creatures mate only once during their life, and in a conversation with one of them (named Hyoi), the hross explains why this is so:

‘Is the begetting of young not a pleasure among the hrossa?’

‘A very great one, Hman. This is what we call love.’

‘If a thing is a pleasure, a hman wants it again. He might want the pleasure more often than the number of young that could be fed.’

It took Hyoi a long time to get the point.

‘You mean,’ he said slowly, ‘that he might do it not only in one or two years of his life but again?’

‘Yes.’

‘But why? Would he want his dinner all day or want to sleep after he had slept? I do not understand.’

‘But a dinner comes every day. This love, you say, comes only once while the hross lives?’

‘But it takes his whole life. When he is young he has to look for his mate; and then he has to court her; then he begets young; then he rears them; then he remembers all this, and boils it inside him and makes it into poems and wisdom.’

‘But the pleasure he must be content only to remember?’

‘That is like saying “My food I must be content only to eat.”‘

‘I do not understand.’

‘A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered. You are speaking, Hman, as if the pleasure were one thing and the memory another. It is all one thing. The seroni could say it better than I say it now. Not better than I could say it in a poem. What you call remembering is the last part of the pleasure, as the ‘crah’ is the last part of a poem. When you and I met, the meeting was over very shortly, it was nothing. Now it is growing something as we remember it. But still we know very little about it. What it will be when I remember it as I lie down to die, what it makes in me all my days till then – that is the real meeting. The other is only the beginning of it.’

Lewis illustrates it so well that I hardly know what to say as a follow-up. I think we often discount the role that memory plays in our lives: instead of delighting in and reflecting upon nostalgic feelings, we respond to nostalgia by trying to recreate the original experience. I myself have done it countless times with games, and certainly in other parts of my life. But even the desire to return to times past is not as constructive as deliberately viewing the remembering as the next (and final) step in experiencing them—after all, life is brief and ever in flux, so what’s the use in spending our time trying to repeat things already done?

Already, my sole playthrough is becoming something very different from what I first experienced: as a result of it, I have thought about the nature of experience, thought about how this game (and games in general) can teach us things about the world, written two essays on the topic, and have conversed with friends and family on the matter. Last week I spoke with my mother (who doesn’t play games, but reads my blog regularly) about how much Journey had affected me, and what I might draw from it into my own life. She offered some observations that I had not considered. But more than these thoughts alone, my post about Journey prompted my mother and I to have a rich conversation about meaning in video games, which I would never have expected to happen.

So how much more will the two hours in which I played Journey affect the rest of my life? I cannot be sure now, but it would be a shame to limit its potential by trying to repeat or extend it.

Exception: Being Deliberate

With my stance on the issue defended, I wish now to discuss an alternative to not playing ever again: playing the game once or twice more in my lifetime. Like other ideas I’ve adopted and presented, this is not my own. Instead, I learned of this idea when reading A Canticle for Leibowitz, a post-apocalyptic novel by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (remember that it’s no secret that I love “postapo” themes). In the foreword for the version that I read—I don’t own the book, so unfortunately I cannot find out who wrote it, or what the exact quote was—the writer discusses her own experience with the book. In her opinion, one should read a good book three times: in one’s youth, in the middle of one’s life, and finally when one is old and can revisit it with the support of a lifetime’s knowledge and wisdom.

By doing this, I believe that we give the experience enough time and room to do to us what it will, but to also review it with a new set of eyes. Additionally, our memories are imperfect (perhaps the hrossa have better ones than us), so reading a book or playing a game for a second time can help us to see things that we’ve since forgotten.

Overall, I like this idea, and I’d certainly be willing to try it out. Unfortunately, Journey is best played with others, and in order for those connections to exist, the servers for the game must be running and others must be playing it. So if I desire to play it with others some 20 years down the road, I will be unable to do so. It seems, then, that as far as Journey goes, I will have to adopt the hrossan model of experience. And I’m perfectly fine with that.

A Rewarding Challenge, I Think

While writing much of this post, behind me my friend Mike was playing the game. He came over for an Easter dinner on Saturday and to play Journey. When we first booted up the game, I was overcome with an eagerness to replay, to re-experience. But as I watched him begin and watched him play this game for the first time, those feelings faded and I was content to turn my back and only listen to him play.

Having thought for two weeks about this idea of not replaying the game, I have begun to be excited about learning what my journey will do for me as a gamer, a game designer, and person. And I am excited as well to apply this philosophy to other games and to other parts of life. I have long held dear that passage from Out of the Silent Planet, but it seems that now I have a very tangible way to live that idea—and I am delighted to have this chance.

So as you go out to play Journey and other games, stop to consider whether you would ever play the game again. If you think it ridiculous to consider limiting your enjoyment, pause to reflect on the words of C. S. Lewis, and seek out a copy of the novel—or a copy of A Canticle for Leibowitz so that you may read its foreword. But if you, like me, would sit in front of a game for the first time, planning to play it only once, then perhaps you may get more of the experience as you play it with this intention in your mind. And if you do, please tell me about it!

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Spencer permalink
    April 8, 2012 10:41 pm

    One of my favourite passages from the Space Trilogy. Well done sir. It is because of Lewis’ writing that I have attempted more and more to refrain from re-creating, but rather growing in the experience of memory.

    Also, fun fact. I decided to pick up Lord of the Rings for the first time in years. I can safely say that I am enjoying the greater depth in personal experiences that I now bring to the book. It is a mix of nostalgia of my youth and excitement for each new truth a discover that I did not find (or perhaps forgot) the first time I read these books.

    Always enjoy reading your posts, perhaps I should re-read them for nostalgia’s sake 😛

    • April 8, 2012 10:56 pm

      I like that you refer to your “youth”, as though you are beyond that stage of life already. But I am glad (though not totally surprised) that you have been affected by that passage from Lewis as well. There are many things in the Space Trilogy that are of great value.

      And I liked that closing sentence. Well played, sir. Ever a delight, you are.

      • Spencer permalink
        April 9, 2012 8:19 am

        😛

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