The Spirit Moves

journey 01

Spirituality in video games is a rare beast. Games are largely agnostic, steering clear of organized religion, or using invented faiths as simple color for fantasy worlds. The Dragon Age series has done a lot to flesh out its medieval swords ‘n’ sorcery power fantasies with nuanced portraits of different beliefs, including the Andrastian faith, a direct analogue for Christianity. But it’s far from a stock plot point that every NPC parrots—each character has a different relationship to their faith, and different nations have different versions of the religion, right down to a divisive denominational split that mimics the real-life historical schism between Western Christianity and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

And these are only the human religions; the world of Thedas is also populated by elves, dwarves and the hulking Qunari, each with their own belief systems. Dragon Age is patterned on an anglocentric view of medieval history; with countries like Orlais and Ferelden acting as obvious stand-ins for France and England, it’s not a stretch to read the religion of the nomadic Dalish elves, with their worship of pre-Andraste elder gods and their life of perpetual exodus, as analogous to the Jewish faith. The Qunari, too, follow the Qun, an intense and seemingly inflexible religion that could easily represent Eurocentric anxieties about the rapid spread of Islam. Even the etymological relationship of the words “Qunari” and “Qun” mimics that of “Muslim” and “Islam,” where Islam means, roughly, “submission to God” and Muslim is a variation of the same root that means “one who submits to God.”

dragon age inquisition last supper

Dragon Age: Inquisition, the recent third entry in the series, dives much further into these faiths and the philosophical problems that characters encounter in reconciling their lives to the tenets of religion. Qunari party member Iron Bull finds a certain serenity in knowing his place in the scheme of the Qun, and engages in a discussion on the nature of freedom if the player prods him about the intractable social class system that the Qun enforces. Meanwhile, Sera, a “city elf” who has long since lost her ties to her Dalish heritage, is a firm Andrastian, but seems to regard the religion more as a story that one can follow to lead a good life—the notion of any of it being actual, tangible reality is initially upsetting to her, causing her to reconsider the gravity of her faith. Inquisition is a game that doesn’t feel like much in the long view; its story hinges on another tedious, scenery-chewing villain who wants to subjugate the world and ascend to godhood blah blah blah, a disappointingly slim character for a game with such rich religious lore. But what it does incredibly well is to depict the birth of a new denomination of an established religion, and to give the player input into its philosophical leanings. All the while, the main cast of characters each has their personal story intertwined with the events at play, both the celestial and political. If the devil’s in the details, then so is the rest of Dragon Age’s theological world.

But Inquisition runs into problems with its actual meat-and-potatoes gameplay. Exploring your home base and having conversations with your subjects and teammates feels immediate and fun, giving you a sense of story and place by involving you in the texture of the world. But out in the field, the player is let loose in gigantic, MMORPG-style zones filled with random mobs and endless mini-quests that the player must slog through in order to gain “Power,” the attribute that must be spent to advance to further story missions. It’s possible BioWare was overcorrecting for widespread player criticism of Dragon Age II’s tiny, claustrophobic dungeons with frequently reused textures, but the end result is a tiresome and disconnected game world, one that’s cosmetically attractive but ultimately lacking the cultural texture that the game’s character writing and dialogue sequences bring to the table. It’s a stunning disconnect for a game so concerned with allowing the player to determine the character of a spiritual movement—are you a true believer, a skeptic, or a ruthless pragmatist? Or perhaps even an outsider from another faith, thrust into religious power by a weird twist of fate? As ever, the problem with BioWare games is that it doesn’t matter too much in the end.

dragon age inquisition 01

Which leaves me with the question: what would a truly spiritual gaming experience be like? The first thing that comes to mind: not like MMORPGs. The repetitive tasks and operant conditioning style of questing gameplay that plagues these games are the opposite of a spiritual state of being; they’re a treadmill of distraction. If living a spiritual life means turning inward and embracing the divine, or the moment, or whatever words we want to use, then the gameplay of Dragon Age: Inquisition is squarely at odds with the story.

A game that continually comes to mind when I think about a spiritual gameplay experience is thatgamecompany’s Journey. Playing as an anonymous traveler on a pilgrimage through the desert, Journey is antithetical to the complex control schemes and information overload of many modern games. There is no HUD, controls are minimal, and your only object is to walk towards a distant mountain. And yet without words, the game depicts the whole arc of a spiritual adventure, from the birth of an innocent neophyte to the youthful joy of exploration, and from there into the dangers of adulthood, the specters of death and harm, the cold of old age, and finally, the spiritual renewal of a pilgrimage completed. The game asks us only to continue moving forward; it prizes the player’s experience over all else.

By adding an online multiplayer component, thatgamecompany elevated Journey from a beautiful, artistic experience to a truly spiritual one. We don’t journey alone—another player, robed and anonymous, accompanies us through the deserts and mountains. We don’t know anything about this player, and they are physically identical to us. Our only way of communicating is through glyphs of light that emanate from our person, accompanied by a musical tone. My best experiences with Journey have been with partners who engage with me in a kind of musical call-and-response. The joy of these encounters is something I haven’t experienced in any other game. When I finally walked into the summit of the mountain, having another player by my side and knowing they had just shared in the same profound experience was almost too beautiful to bear. I admit I can’t make it to the end of Journey without crying, and not just crying but the kind of heavy, cathartic release that comes with spiritual unburdening.

buddhist monk

Journey isn’t just a game to me—it was a genuine spiritual experience on par with any other I have had in my life. I’m not religious, myself. I was raised in a largely Muslim family, but as in Dragon Age: Inquisition, the members of my family were far from united on how the religion should be observed or practiced. These varying degrees of devotion, the relative openness of American culture, and my mother’s professed atheism all left room for me to question the religion and decide for myself what my spiritual path would be. In fact, playing as a Qunari in Inquisition felt incredibly resonant; in Thedas, too, I was an outcast in a Western world, connected neither to my religious origins nor to the traditions of my adopted homeland. Some of my favorite moments in the game were the conversations my character, Wounded Trunk, had with Iron Bull. Even in my disconnection from his faith, he had a name for me: Tal-Vashoth. The word stuck with me: neither “Western” nor “Eastern,” my spiritual life was destined to be a lot more like Journey: wordless, absent any dogma, a soul moving down the road, playing the music of my spirit for any who wandered beside me.

Dara lives, works, and writes in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter at @palakchaval or on Letterboxd.

For more on the topic of spirituality in games, read Grayson’s followup.