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Video Games: A Lesson on the Importance of Aesthetics

May 7, 2019


I recently had the privilege of visiting the J.R.R. Tolkien exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City titled “Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth.” There is much to be said about the exhibit itself, but for the sake of our current topic I would like to focus on an experience I had with some fellow millennials in the museum gift shop. In the course of my browsing the store, I overheard two cashiers, a young man and young woman, discussing video games. Obviously, the conversation piqued my interest, so I walked up to the counter and introduced myself. The young woman was quite surprised to see a Catholic priest (in full clerical attire mind you) so well-versed in video game culture. We starting spouting off different games from our childhood, listing some of our favorite levels and boss battles, laughing all the while. It was delightful. Eventually, I asked her, “Why do you like video games?” She responded without any hesitation, “Because they’re beautiful.”

Her response struck me, not because it was unexpected but because it was familiar. I knew exactly what she was talking about and so do many other gamers. Type the phrase “beautiful video games” or “video game music” into a YouTube search bar and scroll down to the comment section to see what I mean. You’ll find thousands of threads and replies conveying the same reaction. In one video comprised of a series of cinematic scenes from different games, a person commented, “This brought so many emotions, so many memorable moments, some people don’t realize that games are part of our lives, stories we get invested into, characters, places, great video . . .” On a video game soundtrack compilation someone commented, “I’ve got no words . . . It just ignites a flame inside of me which makes a whole bunch of feelings dive to the surface, flying apart to the end of the mountain, to the moon and stars. And then, a massive group of new feelings come after them, again and again and again . . .”

The desire to experience and convey the beautiful is a core value in video game culture. Game developers have tapped into this desire with great success. One game developer in particular excels in this aspect. Thatgamecompany is an independent developer renowned for their graphic artistry and deeply emotive gameplay experience. The designer’s philosophy is to create a medium which allows the player to immerse themselves into the breadth of the human experience through art, storytelling, nature, music, and interaction with other players. The result of this philosophy was the creation of perhaps one of the most beautiful and enchanting video games to date: Journey.

Unlike its entertainment-driven counterparts, Journey is void of high-strung action or intense first-person gameplay. What is more, the game does not have a single word of dialogue. Rather, the story is transmitted through sight and sound, leaving the player to infer meaning and learn the plot by exploring the world around them. The avatar communicates through intoning sung notes by which it interacts with the environment. Instructions are minimal. You get a few pointers at the beginning of the game about the controls. No other advice is given. Your character, a mysterious cloaked figure, wakes up in the middle of a desert graveyard. Far off in the distance, you spy a huge mountain with a light shining at the top. Reaching the peak of this mountain is seemingly the goal, but you’re told nothing about what you’ll encounter or learn along the way. You have to let the world unveil itself to you.

As the game is played, you discover a virtual world of largesse and intrigue. The player explores a city of ancient ruins riddled with secrets about the protagonist’s past. Through meditation on art in the ruins and several silent spiritual communions with ancestors, the player slowly pieces together a series of visions that eventually reveal profound truths about the meaning of life, the fruits of selfish civilization, and the call to vocation.

The game was an instant sensation, topping the charts as the fastest-selling game of the PlayStation store in North America and Europe. It won numerous awards including “Game of the Year” from seven different major game review organizations, not least of which was the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences. The game’s soundtrack was nominated for a Grammy in 2013, making it the first video game in history to receive such an honor.

What was the secret to Journey’s success? The entertainment website GamesRadar+ says it best: “It is an aesthetic masterpiece.” One game reviewer states that Journey succinctly blends all of the necessary elements to manifest beauty in gaming—namely, a touching plot, a moving soundtrack, and artistic graphics that invoke human emotion.

Thatgamecompany took a risk, emphasizing beauty and art over action and entertainment. It paid off. When released in 2012, Journey held its own against a host of wildly popular games filled with intense battle sequences and exciting stories; Assassin’s Creed III, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Halo 4, The Walking Dead, and Mass Effect 3, just to name a few.

We evangelists could learn a thing or two from Thatgamecompany. Many Christians tend to belittle the importance of beauty (especially in the liturgy) and its role in the promotion of the Gospel. We would sooner invest $15,000 in a new high-tech sound system or installing projector screens into the sanctuary before thinking of spending half that amount for a statue of the Blessed Mother or a fresco depicting the life of our Lord. The gaming industry does not make the same mistake. Even some of the more action-packed games such as Halo, Skyrim, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild provide the gamer with artistic virtual environments, sweeping orchestral soundtracks, and heart-wrenching plots.

As Catholics, we are inheritors of the most prestigious and splendorous beauty in history. Nothing can compare to the haunting neumes of Hildegard’s chants and the soaring melodies of Mozart’s masses, the epic adventure of Dante’s Divine Comedy and the stirring speeches of The Song of Roland, the stunning architectural feats of Notre Dame cathedral and awe-inspiring brushstrokes of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. What is more, we have a story to tell. Not a made-up story about aliens far away or a great battle against magical creatures, but a “true myth” as J.R.R. Tolkien called it—the greatest story ever told.

If we were to expose the world to the beautiful tradition of Catholicism and allow this tradition to inform our future decisions in the divine liturgy, sacred arts, architecture, music, and means of evangelization, there would be no need to invent new programs or have workshops. People would flock to Mass and see our parishes as bastions of culture augmenting and conveying the deepest yearnings of the human heart. The one thing the massive worldwide success of the gaming industry has taught us is the priority and necessity of beauty in the modern evangelical endeavor.