Journey: East Asian/Islamic Design Mashup
05 Apr 2012
> It’s not something you can commit to words, really, it’s something you have to feel. Should you choose to play the game – and I really hope you do – your trek through the ruins will be a very personal experience, the impact of which only you will truly understand. It won’t change your life, but it just might change your thoughts about what videogames can accomplish.
The review above is fairly typical. The word “magical” tends to come up a lot in other reviews. Clearly, the game is extremely well designed, and people are duly impressed. But at the heart of the design is a fascinating mashup of Chinese, Islamic, and even Tibetan design elements. I was a bit disappointed that I’ve so far been unable to find any in-depth coverage of the design inspiration for this game. My original impression was something like: aliens + mosques + 8-bit + Chinese characters + Lhasa.
It’s probably the alien glyphs that impressed me the most. They have an 8-bit style, and the (sort of Moroccan?) desert setting guides your mind to the idea of Arabic calligraphy, but the style of the characters themselves tends more toward over-grown Hebrew letters. Each glyph has a clear four-part internal structure to it, though, which feels like a nod to the structure of Chinese characters. Later on in the game, you end up in a temple level, where the glyphs are covering the walls in a neat grid, and it definitely felt like some of the places I’ve been in China.
The game Journey is a rather obvious metaphor for life, but the mix of religious themes is striking too. Mosque elements are blatant in the beginning, and snowy mountain monasteries at the end, but the single culture woven throughout the game is consistent, and there are ongoing themes of meditation and murals of spiritual significance. No “religion” is ever mentioned (in fact, the glyphs and beautiful music are the only “language” that appear in the game), but the intensely personal nature of the quest and the white-clad enlightened ones returning to help the new pilgrims (a game mechanic built into the game’s trophies) feels very Buddhist.
The makers of Journey wanted to do something different with Journey by innovating around the emotional response a game could evoke. In this way, games can appeal to wider audiences, and perhaps even come closer to “art.” But Journey is a worthwhile experience for anyone interested in Middle Eastern or East Asian culture, especially from a design perspective. The writing system alone is worth admiring. If you have access to a PS3, check this game out.