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A Bogost Analysis

The gaming industry as a whole is in a strange state. Expanding in all directions we're becoming more diverse, niche, hardcore, casual, gameplay focused, and more non-gameplay focused. Our diversity and rapid growth has created challenges for us in terms of establishing a base level of general knowledge about ourselves and our medium. The discourse surrounding games like Journey and the language gamers use to talk about it concerns me. There's so much to say about games like Journey, and so little of it is being said. Fortunately, there are those who work to raise the level of intellectual analysis of games. As you might expect, I am a part of and support such efforts. Even with the best of intentions, our words can easily do more harm than good. And I've found that too many do more hard than good in the most subtle ways.

A game analysis should understand and respect gameplay for what it is including its effect on an interactive experience. There's no need to trash games to try to make a point on how games measure up to movies or books or any other artistic medium. Some of the industry's smartest, most well spoken supporters seem to waste time measuring games against other mostly narrative based mediums rather finding the way to measure games on their own. Either this or they create weak distinctions between types of gaming experiences they deem are "art" in an attempt to separate what is intellectually stimulating or emotionally meaningful. Though they may never admit it, I think that these writers and thinkers are looking for some kind of excuse that will allow the world to overlook gameplay to get to the "good stuff" in games. The way some grasp at stories in games, at graphics and sound, at virtual worlds, or at high concepts tells me they don't understand the power and design of gameplay at its core. 

The following is my response to Ian Bogost's article A Portrait of the Artist as a Game Studio. The article does a great job of framing Journey via a brief history of thatgamecompany. It's when the article moves into the specifics of Journey that I take the most issue with Bogost's analysis.


image by jacksglassjaw


Like Goldilocks's porridge, Journey finally reconciles these two poles: neither too anxious nor too distracting. The game finally admits that the application of flow in games is best left to those that allow mastery at the highest levels of skill and challenge--games like basketball and Street Fighterand chess and go and Starcraft.

If Bogost is trying to say that Jouney's skill ceiling is comparable to games like basketball, Street Fighter, Chess, or StarCraft, then he is flat out wrong. As I described in my review there is not very much gameplay in journey, and the little that there is very straightforward stressing little skill. Whether you like it or not, the gameplay of Journey is not deep; there are no interesting choices. Journey does not find a balance for the "anxiousness "(difficulty/challenge) of its gameplay. Rather, it avoids the difficult design challenge by downplaying gameplay almost entirely. 


 Journey forgoes abstract, dynamically adjusted gameplay in favor of simple exploration, which allows the player to enjoy the haunting desert civilization the game erects from invented, abstract myth.

In other words, Journey forgoes actual gameplay and player controlled difficulty and replaces it with pretty visuals. Journey trades gameplay and overcoming challenges with walking around and observing the world. Being a ruined world, there's not much to see at work, not much to do, and therefore not much to enjoy besides looking around. 


Journey finally learns this lesson. Set in a mysterious, mythical desert civilization, the game abandons the cloying framing of Flower's levels... Journey explains nothing and apologizes for nothing. Like Star Wars or Spirited AwayJourney makes the correct assumption that a bewitching, lived-in world is enough.

I can't stand this kind of intellectual reaching. Bogost argues that an interesting world is enough. Enough for what? Movies? There's a big difference between movies and video games. Spirited Away is one of my favorite movies. If I had the time, I'd have an entire blog the size of Critical-Gaming dedicated to other mediums (see my Mixed-Media blog for examples). The truth is, a crazy world is not even enough for Spirited Away because it's a film about the transformation of a girl in a critical point of her adolescent life. In other words, Spirited Away has a story to put the imaginative world she's falls into in an enjoyable context to sustain the movie. And to convey this story, there's dialog, careful pacing, action, combat, and more. Simply having a world and, in Journey's case, mostly moving through its ruined state is not enough to sustain its movie-like length. 

So much goes unanswered in Journey, from the very first screen. The creatures are humanoid but not human, or not identifiably so. They have eyes and dark skin, or else eyes but no faces. The desert dunes are littered with monuments--are they pathmarkers? Tombstones? Relics? Advertisements? Sandfalls douse chasms lined with temples dressed in patterns reminiscent of Islamic geometric art. Fabric banners flap in the breeze awaiting the player's touch.

To support his poor argument, Bogost reaches into the "unanswers" of Journey. I argue that every work of art has this same level of mystery and "unanswers" from Super Mario Bros. on the NES (where do the Goomba live? Why are they drones? What are they made up? How does Bowser command them so well?) to games with complex stories like 999 or Radiant Historia. Even when answers are given, more questions arise. The fact that I can form questions about Journey's world is nothing special. 



In Journey, thatgamecompany finally discovers that facility was never the design problem they were looking for. Its games are about the feeling of being somewhere, not about the feeling of solving something.

I'm glad Bogost comes out and says what I've been concerned about. As I've hinted at in the fourth part of my series A Defense of Gameplay, there's a certain desire to escape the pressures of life and to be a part of fictional, virtual worlds in many cultures and especially in the gaming subculture. This desire is generally referred to as escapism. Unfortunately, "being somewhere," virtual worlds, openness, and many high concepts are anti-gaming because they work against what games are and the nature of gameplay. So when Bogost says "not the feeling of solving something" he acknowledges that he does not truly value gameplay. Though we put these products under the wide umbrella of "games," products that focus on "being somewhere" instead of doing something is partly the reason why talking about games is so difficult and the industry is so confused. Like what you want, but being somewhere is not a game. Virtual worlds are not games. Games are unique experiences that convey meaning in a unique way. Simple interactivity does not achieve the same effect. 


Indeed, given the usual subjects of videogames, players would be forgiven to mistake Journey's title for an adventure. The hero's journey is a common theme in videogames, but that formula requires a call to adventure, an ordeal, a reward, and a return. Journey offers none of these features, but something far more modest instead.

Reaching again, Bogost tries to make a case for Journey by differentiating it from other more traditional video games and narrative structures. Bogost claims that Journey is not an adventure like the hero's Journey. But from Bogost's own description, Journey seems to qualify. The large mountain that looms and beckons in the distance (with a literal beacon) is a "call to adventure." The "reward" is acquiring knowledge of your past and who you are as a red cloaked figure in a ruined world. And there is some sense of return to help others or a going-full-circle quality to the experience as well (example here). To claim that Journey offers "none of these features" is wrong. Journey may not exactly fit the typical hero's journey model, but it's pretty close. seems impossible not to read the game's story allegorically instead of mythically: an individual progresses from weakness, or birth, or ignorance, or an origin of any kind, through discovery and challenge and danger and confusion, through to completion. It could be a coming of age, or a metaphor for life, or an allegory of love or friendship or work or overcoming sickness or slouging off madness. It could mean anything at all.

Sure. If we abstract enough, any story can mean almost anything, right? Again, Bogost is reaching here. As I discussed in my series Metaphor Meaning Matriculation there are a lot of connections and meanings we can draw from games. We have to keep our considerations in check by deriving meaning from the complexities of a work. As soon as we play the "allegorically' game, we can describe Super Mario Brothers as a journey complete with individual progress from weakness (you start off as Small Mario), as birth (you are squeeze out of tubes), and through discovery (new levels), challenge (legendary gameplay), and danger (death is always a few hits away), to completion (rescuing the princess). Once we abstract our analysis to the "metaphors for life" level, we've open the door to more than what can be explicitly derived from the work itself. This is a poor way to make a case for Journey.


Thatgamecompany should be both praised and faulted for taking such a morally, culturally, and religiously ambiguous position; surely every sect and creed will be able to read their favorite meaning onto the game. On the one hand, this move underscores thatgamecompany's sophistication: in a medium where interpretation is scorned as indulgent and pretentious, Journey gives no ground: the player must bring something to the table.

Continuing with his train of thought, Bogost continues to make claims that are further and further from what Journey is and how it conveys meaning. Journey isn't the first game that can be engaged on a level where players must "bring something to the table." The more minimalist or abstract a game, the wider the range of interpretation there is because the work lacks the specific complexities to derive specific details.

In my corner of the gaming industry, interpretation is not scorned as indulgent or pretentious. Though there are some voices in this fledgling gaming industry of ours who are excessively harsh against any kind of intellectual or meaningful analysis of video games, it rash to color the entire industry this way. After all, the simple game of "what if" that we play when things are unclear, unanswered, or ambiguous inherently involves player interpretation. We play this "what if" game of interpretation constantly with games. We do is so quickly and naturally as part of how we embrace and enjoy games that to paint this ostensibly intellectual version of interpretation as something unique is a position that falls flat with me. 


These encounters with the other are both touching and disturbing. For one part, there is no mistaking a companion for an artificial intelligence; it moves too erratically, or speeds ahead to steal the next objective too definitively, or falls behind too listlessly. Even given the minimal actions of Journey, somehow these ghost players appear rounder than most of the scripted, voice-acted characters in contemporary videogames.

No one? How about my friend that I wrote about in my review of Journey. She didn't realize that the companions were actual players. She just thought it was a helper NPC designed to guide her along as one might find in Donkey Kong Country Returns or Super Mario 3D Land. It's nice to think that there's just so much "humanness" to humans that computers can't pass for them. But this is wrong. We're fooled more easily than you might think. Tune into this excellent episode of Radiolab called Talking to Machines for examples. Especially considering that the expressive tools in Journey (the mechanics) are so limited and simple, I can easily see how AI could be created to make an NPC very human like. 

One of the problems I have with the high concept of Journey is that some part of me feels that you have to be in on the secret to enjoy enjoy the experience. You have to know you're playing with other humans to empathize with them and read into their every movement. So when Bogost says that players he knows are humans appear to him to be more human or "round" than most scripted, voice-acted characters in modern games, that's not saying much. 


Journey Concept Art


When they speak about their games, Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago often express a hope that they might explore or arouse positive emotions in their players, emotions they do not feel from other sorts of games. Isn't this sense of delight and vitality precisely what they are after? Yes, to be sure. 

No, to be correct. I experience all kinds of emotions from all kinds of gameplay and non-gameplay experiences. Each experience evokes different emotions many of which are very positive. But categorically, there was nothing in Journey that I haven't experienced with other games. I appreciate the particular combination of positive emotions Journey evoked. But I don't think Journey is special in this regard. My problem with Journey is that the emotions and experiences weren't strong enough, or clear enough.  


Chen and Santiago sell themselves short with this this trite incantation about emotions. For their journey has not been one of creating outcomes, but of culturing a style, an aesthetic that defines the experience without need for their aphorisms. Instead: the sand and the ruins. The wind and the fabric. The silence of a cryptographic mythology.  The vertigo of breeze, the swish of dunes.

Instead of making a great game with great gameplay, Chen and Santiago put an extreme amount of quality effort into all the non-gaming aspects and hoped for the best. And while the non-gaming aspects are some of the best, the lacking game design drags the whole experience down. 



My struggle is I want to explain that much of what Journey is and how it works isn't special to video games. Yet at the same time I want to acknowledge that these experiences and emotions are what make games special. I want to explain how other games generate more positive emotions more clearly than Journey by using gameplay design, not downplaying it. I want to prove that gameplay alone is enough, and you only have to be honest with yourself to realize what makes gameplay special. I'm afraid that most of the positive press given to Journey is because the game is sold on its high concept, which is why so many people seem to have picked up on it. I'm concerned that people overlook how its lacking gameplay flattens the experience and there's nothing the non-gameplay elements do to mask this. I think that not directly addressing the actions players do in a game where constant action is required is a bogus way of analyzing video games.  

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Reader Comments (18)

You are really reaching here, and I think that damages what arguments you do have.

The first quote is presenting a contrast, not a comparison.

Journey plays up the mystery element by using the recognizable trope of ruins, which imply a mysterious history in a way that goombas do not. The game does explicitly invite speculation.

Gameplay is one element of games, an important one and one that I really like, but it is not "anti-gaming" to encourage games that emphasize atmosphere instead. Open-world games have their place. "Game" is a much bigger category than you are allowing; insisting that the broad categorical refer only to a specific subset is damaging to clarity, not helpful.

Just having a character on-screen respond to player actions creates a connection that doesn't exist without that feedback. That is something that is unique to games, and differentiates Journey from non-games in a meaningful way.

Journey definitely isn't novel, but it isn't "anti-gaming," it's just different. I get that you want to see more work in deep games, but don't try to shoehorn a chill game into your deep-game theory, it doesn't work. The category of games is bewilderingly broad, and what makes a good chill-game is different from what makes a good social-game, which is different from what makes a good deep-game. Your DKART theory is really good for analyzing deep-games, but screwdrivers aren't made for hammering!

July 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterXifeng


"The first quote is presenting a contrast, not a comparison."

I see what you're saying. Bogost claims that Journey abandons the entire flow in games idea. Though I'm not sure why he contrasts flow in games with a bunch of deep competitive games. It would have been better to contrast Journey with a single player game where the tunable difficulty is actually player controlled instead of half controlled by the opponent in competition.

Good point, but it's not so simple still. The allusion to Goldilock's porridge is of a situation where there are 3 choices; one is too extreme in one sense, another too extreme in another way, and the third is JUST RIGHT between the two. Bogost is saying that Journey finds a happy gameplay medium because it has room for mastery without any distracting interactive elements (like the controls in Flower). But then he goes on to not address gameplay or game design at all. Instead he transitions into talking about worlds and setting.

"As it turns out, the appealing aspects of flOw and Flower would be found less in their openness to new players through tunable gameplay and more in the unique and striking worlds they created for players to explore."

So he's saying the appealing aspects of these games is not their gameplay but their game worlds. This is a poor way of trying to pick out the elements of the games he wants to talk about to make a point. You know what I like about flOw? The gameplay and the rest of the visual/auditory elements. It's nice to have an opinion about what you like in these games, but it's different to say that they're appeal is only one aspect of them. The point I keep stressing is that all the parts work together or work against each other in various ways.

"This zone is nestled between anxiety above (too much challenge, insufficient ability) and boredom below (not enough challenge, too much ability). "

Bogost starts by explaining that the goal of flow in games is to appeal to a broad audience with tunable difficulty. And he argues that Journey achieves the goal by not going "tunable" gameplay experiences route altogether and merely focuses on the world/graphics/sound/setting. So, Bogost is trying to argue that a gameplay issue is solved by removing the gameplay. Sure, Journey appeals to a wide range of people because it's not challenging or interactive enough for that to become a barrier. But this is not the "this porridge is just right" medium that flow in games worked towards. This is the "instead of eating porridge, let's go look out the window."


"Journey plays up the mystery element by using the recognizable trope of ruins, which imply a mysterious history in a way that goombas do not. The game does explicitly invite speculation."

This kind of thinking is what I don't like. You say that Journey plays up its mystery in a way that Goombas do not, but I disagree. Mystery comes from the unexplained. And if you say that Journey presents a world where things aren't explained (as Bogost does) then you have to also extend this idea to all games where everything isn't explained. All the details you see in Journey are mysterious as are all the details you see in any game. Journey doesn't explicitly invite speculation either. It's just non-specific and ambiguous. It's just a game where you move through a world and slowly have information revealed to you that fits with that world. MANY games fit this model. Journey never says "what do you think of this." Journey never has you make any kind of choice based on what you understand about the world. Therefore, it's just a pretty setting and you can read into it or embrace the mystery all you want just like you can with just about any game.


"Gameplay is one element of games, an important one and one that I really like, but it is not "anti-gaming" to encourage games that emphasize atmosphere instead. Open-world games have their place. "Game" is a much bigger category than you are allowing; insisting that the broad categorical refer only to a specific subset is damaging to clarity, not helpful."

Games are not a bigger category than what games are. I took the time to define all of these terms very carefully so I can make the statements that I do. When you look at what games are and how they work, it's easy to see what decisions would take away from the essential parts of a game. And when decisions do this, we can say that they're anti-gaming.

I don't know how much you've read of my writing, but I've written a lot about this topic in the past few months. I've already addressed open world games and games that emphasis exploration and atmosphere. I suggest reading those articles for my full view on the matter.


"Just having a character on-screen respond to player actions creates a connection that doesn't exist without that feedback. That is something that is unique to games, and differentiates Journey from non-games in a meaningful way."

What feedback? If you're saying that getting feedback for what you're doing in a virtual space is important for making connections, this is what we all know already. Character, blob, ball of light, etc., we make all kinds of connections because of our connection to an interactive system. This is not unique to games though. You can have a virtual world with no gameplay and still have a character you can control and make a connection with that interactivity. Looks like you really need to double check what you mean by "game."


"Journey definitely isn't novel, but it isn't "anti-gaming," it's just different. I get that you want to see more work in deep games, but don't try to shoehorn a chill game into your deep-game theory, it doesn't work. The category of games is bewilderingly broad, and what makes a good chill-game is different from what makes a good social-game, which is different from what makes a good deep-game."

Journey is anti-gaming because it promotes non-gameplay experiences over gameplay experiences. This means that gameplay is not a priority so some decisions will ultimately be made that don't support or work against the gameplay in service of these other parts. Thus, anti-gaming.

I don't have a "deep-game" theory. The point of all of this is that Journey could have been a lot better, and a lot more interactively meaningful with just an ounce more game design. Just an ounce. Seriously, I could tweak Journey to be 95% the way it is now, but the result would more effectively convey ideas through gameplay that mesh with everything else.

I like Journey enough for what it is, but it plays with elements it doesn't do a good job of designing around (e.g. gameplay). The interactive experience is narrow, straightforward, restrictive, and expressively flat compared to the rich world and rich high concept the developers have created/promoted.

Be as chill as you want to be. But game design is game design. Use it for the good of a work that has gameplay. Or ignore it and see how things clash.

By the way, I'd love to see you write an article about Spirited Away sometime. That is one of my favorite movies too. :)

July 26, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteraxcho


I've been dreaming about an essay/commentary project for Spirited Away for years. I wonder if it'll ever see the light.

"Indeed, given the usual subjects of videogames, players would be forgiven to mistake Journey's title for an adventure. The hero's journey is a common theme in videogames, but that formula requires a call to adventure, an ordeal, a reward, and a return. Journey offers none of these features, but something far more modest instead."

On the whole I think this is a great article. It sums up a lot of my distaste for many modern games, like Dear Esther, Heavy Rain, Skyrim, and pretty much the entire trend of cinematics over gameplay that has been plaguing the industry.

I had a very similar discussion for this on the Extra Credits forums when I tried to criticize the Journey Episode. I was told that games have a broader definition than just, "Rules and objectives", the definition I gave which I figured was flexible as all hell, and that by defining games as "rules and objectives" I was limiting what games actually were and could be.

They went on to tell me that the definition of game is apparently a big deal in the industry right now as people are still working on it and trying to figure it out, and that for rejecting games like Dear Esther, Heavy Rain, and Journey, I'm apparently putting harmful limits on games by demanding that there needs to be gameplay.

What a nut I am, right?

July 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEvilagram


Indeed. Danielprimed told me about those penny arcade/ extra credits episodes. I recently watched them. I was going to write a follow up blog post about them, but they didn't have enough substance for that. I did not like their Journey episodes very much. I'm not a fan of their videos in general.

People have in a crisis in terms of what games are and how to define them. Instead of drawing on the history of games from around the world, people think they need to and should define what a game is as something else entirely. Then they conflate the idea with the word "play." Then they confuse the issue with "object I can interact with or put into my gaming console."

In some ways I think this is a language issue. In others, I think people are trying to defend the wrong parts of the experiences they like by trying to fit them into the wrong categories. The first step to solving this problem is for people to stop feeling like they're being attacked or accused of being wrong about what they like. That's is not what w'ere saying.

*sigh* Fight the good fight in the meantime.

Usage dictates meaning, not the other way around, no matter how much you wish it wasn't so. Journey and Heavy Rain are called "games" more than they are called "interactive experiences," "interactive movies," or anything else. The word game doesn't have to be defined as applying to them to validate them, the word has to be defined that way because any other way would be intellectually dishonest.

This is the same mechanism that gave us "irregardless" and "regardless" as synonyms. A word falls into common usage, and its meaning can be determined from that common usage, but it still exists by virtue of its usage, not by virtue of its having a meaning, which is just a summary describing the word's usage. It's like saying a road should be somewhere because it's on the map: if it isn't there, it's the map that is wrong, not the road.

July 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterXifeng

@ Xifeng

Good comment.

Language evolves, sure. This is something I know all too well. But this is still a small part of a bigger point I made. The problem isn't what people call these things. It's what they think they are, what they think they're not, and what they expect.

The word "game" being conflated to represent multiple entities does not mean that these entities are now synonymous, only that our language is poorly constructed.

Words can shift meaning based upon usage, but the definitions of words do not change the entities these words are used to identify.

All that the shift in meaning between games and interactive movies means is that we now have difficulty distinguishing between structured play with rules and objectives, and passive experiences that we can affect on the same level as a DVD menu that happen to be rendered in real time.

This doesn't mean that games include the latter category, only that we are collectively terrible at constructing language.

July 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEvilagram


You say poorly constructed. I see it as a natural part of how language evolves and for the better.

You're right though, words clearly have multiple definitions. It's not wrong to be general with your words. But it's definitely right to mean a specific definition when you use a specific word.

If a language makes it difficult to distinguish distinct entities, then it's not doing its job as a language. And as evidenced, it is creating a real world, not just a literal, lack of distinction between entities.

End result of confusion: Fun goes down the shitter.

Primary evidence:

August 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEvilagram


That's a pretty extreme statement. Makes it sound like you don't know what you're talking about. You're confusing the "job" of language with many other factors and then trying to use that idea to draw conclusions about fun.

You should probably take a few steps back and take a look at the bigger picture. Advice from someone who has a degree in English.

I am not an english major, nor do I have a degree in it.

Maybe I'm making an extreme statement, but I think this is what is happening, given the perspectives of people I've talked to. If it can be purchased at Gamestop and it runs on your system, that means it's a game, seems to be the general consensus. Or hell, if it uses a video card for rendering people consider it a game. So forgive me if I'm going over the top in saying that this particular development in language is not a good one.

In programming terms, it's like having two possible object properties that are named the same thing, but one is an integer and the other is a string. And then you try to add them together and 2 + "2" = "22".

The latter statement about fun is exaggeration with a link attached.

August 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEvilagram

" I want to prove that gameplay alone is enough"

When I read this, it almost seems as though it calls out that stupid semi-famous Rev Rant video titled "Fun isn't Enough".

Another thing I want to note is that the notify followup comments via email doesn't work.

August 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohnathan

@ Johnathan

Yeah, the email notification thing never worked. I sent a message about that to squarespace, but so far... no luck.

Here's the video you mentioned.

It drives me crazy. I couldn't watch the whole thing even now. People have a really skewed way of looking at things. Oh well. Fight the good fight one blog post at a time.

Great stuff (from my initial skim) as always - please keep fighting the good fight, i feel in the blogosphere (yeah i hate that word too but i'm lazy) gameplay is losing it's importance in gaming - which is nuts as you point out in the comment, games are all about gameplay, everything else is either supportive or subtractive.

I do feel sorry for journey after i read your articles though lol. Curious if you have analyzed indigo prophecy and the sequel, both "games" that i pretty much feel like are the opposite way of where gaming should go, but both hailed as innovative for some reason... probably boils down to our inferiority complex when compared to the movie industry... some how we feel movies are higher art than games (which is total bogus and i feel it's just the opposite)...

anyhoo back to work, sorry if my comment sounds disjointed but i should be in a meeting right now!

August 3, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter60Hz


Thanks for your support. I think there's plenty of room for interactive experiences that are not primarily about gameplay. I just think that by putting in a little gameplay, one can easily do more harm than good if they don't know what they're doing. But you're right, in the blogosphere gameplay is being dumped. I think this is because people don't undersatnd what gameplay is, why it's good, and what they're missing.

I haven't played Indigo Prophecy or its sequel. Perhaps they can be innovative and poorly executed at the same time. This is possible.

for whatever reason, the notification worked but only for 60Hz's comment and not yours. Strange.

August 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohnathan

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