Guest Post: Journey as a Buddhist Allegory

By Katriel Paige 

This latest guest post comes to us from writer, game developer and minister Katriel Paige. In this piece, Paige dips into  her theological knowledge of Buddhism to draw meaning from her experience with Journey, and the spiritual and allegorical themes that weave their way through the gentle puzzle game. You can support Paige via Patreon and follow her on Twitter @kit_flowerstorm. 

In thatgamecompany’s 2012 game, Journey, the player assumes the role of an indistinct, robed pilgrim on his way to the summit of a mighty peak. Aesthetics and basic premise aside, it can be difficult to explain the game. There are no big bosses, and few obstacles to confront and overcome. In fact, the closest thing to an enemy is a type of dragon, ominously foreshadowed by massive bones and cloaked in shadow, that eventually emerges from the deep to steal an important ribbon on the pilgrim’s cloak near the light of the mountain. The closest thing to a companion or guide the player interacts with is another figure, robed in white, who the player only sees a handful of times, and only in dreamlike sequences. It is unclear in the offline portion of the game whether this figure is another pilgrim or not; in any case, they certainly do not intend to harm you. Communication with this mysterious friend is only possible through cryptic signs and symbols, not any spoken human language. You encounter sigils that can unlock areas or new information on what happened to the desert environment around you. When you reach the end, the game goes through a playable epilogue wherein a beam of the mountain’s light travels all the way back to your starting point at the beginning, and a new journey begins.

As someone who studies various religious traditions both academically and personallyespecially their impact on popular cultureI couldn’t help but notice that threads of Buddhism seem to inspire every aspect of  Journey, from its puzzles to its plot.

For those who don’t know, Buddhism is based on the teachings of the sage Gautama Buddha (also known as Siddhartha Gautama and Shakyamuni), who is regarded by Buddhists as an ideal of what humanity can attain. Nearly all of Buddhist tradition agrees that Siddhartha Gautama was a real historical figure who lived in the Indian subcontinent sometime between the 6th and 4th century BCE. According to Buddhist legend, he lived the life of a sheltered, decadent prince before witnessing worldly suffering. He tried all the options he knew of at the time for living a satisfying, ethical life that would reduce suffering: he started with severe ascetic practiceseating only a few grains of rice a day, even practicing things like self-flagellationand ultimately rejected these practices as only increasing suffering. He put his faith in existing religion, and rejected that too, as it did not help him or fill him spiritually. After studying many paths and forms of knowledge, including learning from the great masters of his day, he finally found a middle path between asceticism and hedonism. Upon walking this path, he attained the state of enlightenment or awakening (“Buddha” can translate into “Awakened One”). And through this state of being, he could strip away the illusions of life and experience the world for what it truly was.

A foundational idea of Buddhism, reflected in all of its movements, is that anyone has the potential to become like the Buddha. Indeed, the suttas (also known as “sutras”)the closest that Buddhism has to scriptural textstalk of the Buddha as a man like any other. He is perhaps the best example of a perfected and enlightened man, and therefore a prime example of humanity, but he is a man nonetheless. Through careful practice and opening of the mind and body, the enlightenment he attained can be attained by anyone. There are an estimated 500 million Buddhists in the world today, making Buddhism a major religioneven though it may be a different kind of religion than what you may be used to.

Buddhist communities and practices loosely fall into three major schools of tradition; the two biggest of these are known as the Mahayana (or Northern) traditions, which are most prominent in Tibet, China, and Japan, and the Theravada (or Southern) traditions, which spread into countries like Sri Lanka and Thailand. (The third school is known as the Vajrayana, and focuses more on esoteric knowledge and practices meant to cut straight through to sudden enlightenment.) These movements share a common theological core, such as the tenets of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Generally, though, Theravada traditions concentrate on the individual’s own decisions, while Mahayana traditions incorporate the idea of the bodhisattva vow, whereby those who have attained enlightenment can provide counsel to other people. Mahayana is more intercessionarythe bodhisattvas, as part of their vows, delay their own awakening in order to intercede and help others attain enlightenment. As a result, the idea of salvation runs strong through Mahayana, and tends to appeal more to people who had not historically had the means or education to study in monasteries. Theravada, in contrast, concentrates on individuals following the example of awakened ones who have gone before, and monasteries, retreats, and so on are common. Theravada focuses on the individual working out their own salvation; Mahayana focuses on the idea of others helping everyone else. Most countries that have a distinct Theravada tradition do have monastic orders, but they live in the here and nowand being monastic is not necessarily a permanent state. Anyone can join the community, anyone can live and perform Buddhism.

The Four Noble Truths, a framework to help people understand the core of Buddhism no matter what school or collection of movements they might belong to, follow from the belief that life consists of conditional events and phenomena. These phenomena, being conditional, cause suffering and dissatisfaction (the first truth). The second truth states that suffering is caused by a deluded clinging to this impermanent life. The third states that putting an end to this clinging therefore puts an end to the source of the suffering. The fourth indicates that the way to put an end to this clinging and therefore eliminate suffering is by following the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path is further broken down into the following traditional sequence of factors: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. These factors influence and tie into one another, so they cannot be said to be independent of one another, but they are listed in this sequence because once the practitioner understands one factor, such as right view, it is much easier to gain understanding of the others.

Journey does not reflect all of the spiritual factors on the Eightfold Path, but it still reflects threads running throughout Buddhism in general and some elements of Theravada Buddhism in particular.

In Buddhism, right view (or “right perspective”) is left a bit vague, as it is meant to be held with a flexible mind instead of it being a dogmatic position set in stone. The idea behind this is to see the world for what it really is, with all its joy and suffering, and to realize that these are impermanent circumstances and experiences. Right view also includes awareness of the fact that past actions will influence the present.

There are two ways in which Journey handles right view. The first is by encouraging the player to be aware of how they are holding the motion-sensitive gamepad. Because the instructions for controlling the camera angle on-screen involve being acutely mindful of the positioning of the gamepad in real space, the game translates right view into being mindful of present actionsas well as being mindful of past conditioning and reactions. This particular way of realizing “right view” therefore delves into the factor of right mindfulnessthe player has to be mindful of what their body is doing and have a sort of dispassion toward it, because if their hands start shaking with anxiety or fear, that would affect the camera controls. (It is possible to control the camera using an analog stick for those having trouble with the motion control.) In a less literal sense, right view is a way to reorient oneself in-game if the player does get confused by the camera angles or distracted by the landscape: once the player manages to find the mountain with the shining light, it is possible to easily reorient and get back on the path.

Right action, as described in the Eightfold Path, is defined as action exercised from a place of mindfulness as well as compassion for other sentient beings. Right actions include actions that reduce harm and violence; by contrast, taking life is marked in the sutras as a wrong or illicit action. Taking what is not given (stealing) is also a wrong action, as is illicit sex (often defined as adultery, non-consensual sex, and abuse in modern times). Right actions are dependent on circumstance and context, as the Buddhist must be mindful of the society they live within as well.

In Journey, there are various elements that seem to demonstrate right action.There are no questions about sexual conduct in this game, so “staying away from sexual misconduct” as part of right action does not apply here. The pilgrim does not have a canonical gender; they are ambiguous, robed, and so can be anyone. During the game’s offline mode, the player focuses on their own journey. While the dragon-like creature is present in the game, the creature appears only occasionally and, by taking the ribbon, only takes away the player’s ability to fly and jump. It is not a game over, and the creature will never kill the pilgrim. Arguably, the only “enemy” is yourself, if you give up. In fact, the game seems to imply this through its use of markers scattered about the landscape. You are in no danger of falling into lava or drowning underwater. There are no timers setting limits on when you can reach the mountain. The game’s world itself reflects right action by minimizing harm to the player-character. The closest thing to a failure state in Journey involves not trying to move at all; if you quit, you get a marker depicting where you quit out of the game. When you go back to return to the game, the idea is to progress further than you had done previously. The only thing holding you back is yourself.

Right mindfulness is also once again illustrated in Journeythough not just regarding gameplay, but also where it sits in relation to other games.

Journey, as a game, does not exist in a cultural vacuum. Nothing we make doesit can be argued that even we do not exist independently, which itself is reflected in the First Noble Truth. As such, Journey is in conversation with other games on the market and thus most if not all players of Journey have likely played other games before. Many are likely used to factors like quests or hours of gameplay. Journey therefore invites us, by having factors like a lack of a timer, only one vaguely defined quest, and no character customization or even selection, to re-evaluate our expectations.Why do we pay so much attention to failure states? Are we afraid of failure? Why do we not enjoy the experience, rather than rush to an expected goal?

Journey thus asks you to examine not only the game itself, but also your experience with it compared to other games.

When you do reach the “end” of your journey, the narrative changes a bit. The controls make you feel the heavy burden of climbing the mountainthe friction and time lag between button press and action increase, and the movements become slower and slower, reflecting the pilgrim’s increasing difficulty in moving until you cannot move the pilgrim any more. Your cloak starts freezing due to the icy chill of the mountain climate; your ability to soar is reduced. You keep going, until you pass the very last marker, and then you can no longer move.

There, you see an array of guides before you in their luminous cloaks. They watch you to see what you will do. The guides seem to be enlightened ones themselves who have walked the path and traveled to the mountain before (the game hints that the mysterious companion you meet occasionally throughout the game is another player connected via server, but in offline mode this is more ambiguous). Most of the game seems to be in line with Theravada individualistic traditions in terms of how you work through your own salvation and the end is no exception: there are no bodhisattvas to rescue you, to lift you up from your hardships. You have acted in accordance with the awakened ones who have gone before you, and you now have your reward.

Suddenly, you can move againnow, the mountain is colorful and your cloak is no longer frozen. The controls are just as responsive as when you began playing. You can fly and jump upwards and onwards, and everything is helping you now. You have reached an enlightened state, but you still must keep going until your final goal is met. Eventually, you reach the lightand the light streaks across the sky and back to the origin point beckoning you to start a new journeywith a new, but identical, pilgrim figure, suggesting either a form of reincarnation or an idea of essential Buddha-nature.

When you start that new journey, you now know you can become enlightened, that all the Buddhas before you were people like you, who had made their own journeys. While the case can also be made that this end sequence of the game seems more in line with Mahayana Buddhism than Theravada, the idea remains that now you know your potential for enlightenment can be achieved. You have nothing to fear from the journey, for you have done it before. Your task is now to remember the potential for enlightenment within you, and to let that light shine.

Further Reading: 

  • Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dhamma (sutra)
  • The Pali Canon (via Access to Insight)
  • The Eightfold Path (BuddhaNet’s Basic Buddhism Guide)
  • World Buddhist Directory (BuddhaNet)