Underpinning Journey‘s soundtrack is the ever-present leitmotif that underscores almost all of the game’s episodes;
The theme is remarkably simple, a simple B minor pentatonic scale, but it’s ubiquity throughout the game allows it to function as a powerful signifier for the spiritual narrative that unfolds throughout the gameplay. For instance, in the first statement, we hear it played lethargically on the cello, emphasizing its B minor modality (with a brief foray in G major).
The cello, sliding between the notes, mimics the Erhu, a Chinese two-string bowed instrument (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erhu), while the ensuing accompaniment (after a complete statement of the theme) by the harp, and flute, recreate the sounds of the koto, and shakuhachi respectively. In short, the soundscape is carefully calibrated to recreate the meditative of an imagined orient.
Take note of these musical tropes in the following examples:
My aim in this post is not to critique musical postcolonialism, but rather to investigate the role that these discourses are playing throughout Journey.
For starters, although many praise the game for its serene beauty and calming gameplay, almost no commentators have explicitly discussed the game’s complicated relationship with Asian stereotypes. Instead, discussions of the game’s exoticism are often unconsciously submerged in the constant fixation on the word “zen.”
“Who would have thought the most calming, zen, feel-good games on your PlayStation endured an emotionally destructive development cycle?” (http://www.ign.com/articles/2012/08/14/how-thatgamecompany-struggled-to-save-journey)
“With thatgamecompany’s newest game, Journey (which comes out this year), they have continued their tradition of zen-like, easy gameplay.” (http://www.power-animals.com/2011/06/22/thatgamecompanys-zen-video-gaming/)
“Rich landscapes and an elegant soundtrack make Journey’smeditative odyssey of solo exploration a compelling Zen experience. Think of it as a yoga retreat for your inner Master Chief.” (http://www.wired.com/2012/03/pl_journey/)
Despite this lack of critical discourse, orientalist tropes are legion throughout the game, not only in the music, but scattered throughout the mise-en-scene (the vibrant yet washed out art style), the setting (the sandy Arabian deserts to the snowy Tibetan mountains), and characterization (resplendent in Middle Eastern inspired robes and tapestry). These disparate cultures and icons coalesce within Journey to create a singular and fictional Oriental fantasy–a fantasy that, as always, says more about us (our fears, anxieties, beliefs) then it does them.
Arguably, Journey‘s invisible status as Orientalist text bolsters its inventive and challenging game-play mechanics. In a sense, because its visual and sonic fields are always, already Other, then we are not surprised by its obstinate haptic responses through the controller. Indeed, I argue that there is a slippage between exoticism and experimentalism that primes the user for the gameplay’s untraditoinal aspects. For instance, the game’s lack of discernible heads-up display (health meter, time, etc.) is “minimalist” and “zen,” while the opaque story-line and narration are suitably avant-garde and exotic. Even the sense of isolation that we discussed during the class is justified when considering the game’s supposed spirituality–mimicking the solo mountainous pilgrimage narrative (to Tibet, Mecca, etc.).
Moreover, I think that it is important to ask how these tropes are employed when we are talking about a video game. The conflation of “zen” and orientalism suggests that these ideas are being harnessed to serve the game’s meditative and calming affect. In doing so, through the unnamed avatar, we (the gamer) align ourselves with the “other,” and embark on a (our) spiritual journey through the orient. By engaging with the exotic landscape and soundscape, mastering the obstinate controls and interface, and parsing together the opaque narrative, we too are swept away on Journey‘s pilgrimage; in short, our arrival on the mountain’s peak at the game’s end feels like a personal spiritual awakening. Of course, like many exoticist texts, the experience is partly about escapism–unlocking the shackles of the neo-liberal Occident to engage in a knowable Orientalist fantasy–but I like to think that the real story is more complex.
In the end, once the game is completed and the credits roll, we again hear a last final setting of the game’s leitmotif, now set to lyrics (in a seemingly exotic language);
The song, called “I Was born For This” consists of texts compiled from several sources and languages.
Stat sua cuique dies
To each his day is given (Latin, The Aeneid)Mæl is me to feran
Time is it for me to go (Old English, Beowulf)Aleto men moi nostos
Lost is my homecoming (Greek, The Iliad)C’est pour cela que je suis née
I was born for this (French, Joan of Arc)Kono michi ya, Yuku hito nashini
Kono michi ya, Aki no kure
Along this road, goes no one
Along this road, this Autumn eve (Japanese, Matsuo Basho haiku.)C’est pour cela que je suis née, ne me plaignez pas
C’est pour cela que je suis née
I was born for this, do not pity me
I was born for this (French, Joan of Arc)
In many ways, this song stands as a metaphor for the game at large; a vaguely exotic potpourri of spiritual-sounding axioms, which attempt to give every player the feeling of uniqueness.
Coda: I just stumbled across this, an April fools day DLC from Thatgamecompany. I was struck by how the inclusion of FPS principles undermines the zen-like Orientalist aesthetic that the original game sought to emphasize.