As I write this, I heard about Ray Bradbury’s passing less than an hour ago. And less than 24 hours ago, I finished the sublime downloadable PS3 game Journey. Both are heavy on my mind. So, though there may not be an obvious confluence other than timing, I’m going to do a mash-up—a review of the game/reflection on the author.
As the pieces on Bradbury begin to flow, you’re sure to see the word “lyrical” bandied about. In recent moments, I’ve personally seen the word used to describe his writing in at least three different places. To me, this is a nearly perfect descriptor for his work: lyrical, in the sense of poetic, as in a song, as in beautiful on the surface and suggestive of an even deeper beauty and meaning underneath.
I submit that Journey is lyrical in exactly the same way. In terms of gameplay, it’s a fairly simple and short third-person adventure game—if you’re familiar with the maker’s previous titles, Flower and flOw, you’ll have some semblance of what to expect. You take the role of a nameless, mute protagonist and guide him (her?) through deserts, ruins, caves, underwater caverns, snowy mountaintops, eventually to reach… an all-enveloping light. More on that to come.
The beautiful art direction and streamlined control scheme accompanying the gameplay evoke far more within the player than could ever be stated or shown obviously on screen, even if the game were interested in obviously stating or showing, which it’s not. In fact, there’s literally not a word of dialogue or text within the game. Journey seems to pride itself on offering no explicit guidance or explanation in terms of your goals, what the “plot” means, and especially, how to interpret the ending and overall meaning. In a gaming age of hand-holding tutorials, one could easily argue that the game should pride itself on this.
And yet, for me, there was never confusion. I generally knew, pretty much from the beginning—when that all-enveloping light is first glimpsed atop a far-off mountain—where to go and how to attempt getting there. When the times for “plot” came, I knew, pretty much, what was happening.
And at the game’s conclusion—when my avatar continued walking forward, ever forward, into the light on the mountain until the two became indistinguishable, one—I like to think I understood the meaning. I like to think, personally, that it’s about the completion of the soul’s journey to God. That the entire game is about the journey of life: striving and struggling, sometimes through good times, sometimes bad, sometimes with a companion, sometimes not, to hopefully end peacefully, completed, within the light on the mountain.
But even if all my interpretive sense about the game is “wrong,” it doesn’t matter. Because I also knew, pretty much from the beginning, that this was an experience that was meant to be affective more than explicitly communicative. Like other lyrical things, like the writing of someone like Ray Bradbury, like all art perhaps, I can still be powerfully affected by the game, have it stir my emotions, inspire aspirations, seed dreams, even if there hasn’t been some kind of definitive information or data transfer. Even if my understanding of exactly what information or data the game is trying to transfer—for example, information about God—is completely different than every other player’s.
I would argue, however, that at least one thing is, or should be communicated by the game to all. That at least one sense, or message, or effect, was intended: forward motion. Progress. Momentum. “Onward and upward.” Forwardness.
From the first moments of the game, one knows to reach the mountain and that doing so means moving ahead, moving up. Not sure where to go? Try forward. Lost? Look for the mountain on the horizon and move that way. In two specific instances near the game’s climax, the player must literally simply press the control stick upwards and hold it there, forward, inching on—in one instance into death, in another into the light—until cutscenes trigger progress. It’s as if the game is saying, “Just keep going. Go on. Go forward. It will all happen and be okay, just go.”
I submit that Ray Bradbury’s writing, his life maybe, has exactly that same message. As with everyone else, know it or not, Fahrenheit 451 was a world-changer for me, as a writer and otherwise. He helped me to realize that something wicked may this way come, unless we pay attention. As a teacher, I tried teaching this, along with Orwell and the Holocaust, to my students.
But he also, of course, was a man enthralled with the positive prospect of the future, for a writing career that spanned 70 years. A man who spent the better part of a century journeying, lyrically, with us, to other worlds, or to our world as it might be. A man who knew and believed in, and helped us to believe in, forward motion, progress, momentum, “onward and upward,” forwardness.
Bradbury wrote: “Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t ‘try’ to do things. You simply ‘must’ do things.” I take this as a challenge from the man to go, to move forward, to get to that light on the mountain—perhaps, he’d say, whatever that means for me—and get lost in it. To simply press up on the controller and hold it there, into the future.
From my perspective as a Christian, as I write this, as I reflect on Bradbury and this whole idea of moving forward, the words of Paul in Philippians 3:12-14 also come to mind. To me, they are lyrical. To me, inspiration to forwardness. May they—like gaming experiences like Journey, like lyrical geniuses like Ray Bradbury—continue to inspire us ever “heavenward”:
“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”