On Minimalism and the promised land


I have been walk­ing. My gait isn’t very fast, but it is steady. There is a soft crunch on the sand as my feet press into it, before lift­ing away to the next step, and the next. I watch the hori­zon – a dun pur­ple of ris­ing and falling lines, the yel­low sand, the pas­tel clear­ness of the sky. Nothing changes, per­haps, though it is hard to tell.

I have been play­ing the promised land. It is a game about walk­ing. It is, to give it its mechan­i­cal and prac­ti­cal title, “a pro­ce­dur­al walk­ing game”. Your aim – such as it is – is to reach the fabled “promised land”. You don’t know why you’re going there, or from where you’ve come, but you know that it is your goal. It is as sim­ple as the “left” and “right” arrow keys on your key­board. Depress the key and walk. Walk and walk.

Minimalism is close to my heart, not because I am tidy or log­i­cal – I am nei­ther – but because min­i­mal­ism has a way of get­ting at com­plex­i­ty by other ways and means, of sur­pris­ing us by the nar­ra­tive poten­tial con­tained in sur­face sim­plic­i­ty. In reduc­ing things to a seem­ing coheren­cy, to a “small­ness”, you are not remov­ing these com­plex­i­ties at all – you’re sim­ply refo­cus­ing them. There is a sense – with the game’s geo­met­ric abstrac­tion, its graph­ics rem­i­nis­cent of 8‑bit imag­i­na­tions – that you are walk­ing through some­thing like Kazimir Malevich’s Red Cavalry, an art­work pro­duced between 1928 and 1932 that, in its sim­plic­i­ty of line and colour, betrayed a far wider con­sid­er­a­tion – of the stra­ta of time embod­ied by those over­lay­ered strips of colour at the bot­tom of the paint­ing, in the ques­tion of where the cav­al­ry are charg­ing – whether they in attack or are retreat­ing, cheer­ing or flee­ing ter­ri­fied for their lives. In short – in a min­i­mal­ist way – min­i­mal­ism and abstrac­tion always opens up more ques­tions than it seems to at first present.

I need to be more pre­cise; the “sim­ple” premise of the game shears away the com­plex­i­ty we’re used to in con­ven­tion­al titles. It does away with the User Interface, with points, even with names for things and per­sons (except for the “promised land” itself, and the “joshua” trees you can pray beneath). And yet, you can’t help but fill that “void” with mean­ing. Unchecked by sta­tis­tics and menus and objects in the game world, in reduc­ing the process­es we’re used to, we let our minds expand and fill out into other ques­tions„ encoun­ter­ing odd and unex­pect­ed pat­terns and coin­ci­dences as we go. We urge toward glean­ing “some­thing” from this world, and come to realise – with each patient step – that the “promised land” is per­haps not as impor­tant as how we get there. But that per­haps  it might also be real­ly good. We sim­ply don’t know.

It is a pil­grim­age. We can sense this. There is a rev­er­ence about it. We think of St Simeon of Stylites who – for many years, his beard snaking dirt­i­ly past his skin­ny shin bones – lived on a pole in the desert. People called him “holy”. He became a “holy” man. And so, by remov­ing him­self from the fluff and ephemera, the con­tent and con­texts of the every­day urban world, he could not escape other com­plex­i­ties. He had become a “saint­ly” fig­ure. People – other pil­grims – came to visit him. I imag­ine him, a lit­tle awk­ward­ly, twist­ing his beard between his fin­ger­tips, greet­ing these pil­grims. They’ve worked their way across the desert, sweaty and tired and gasp­ing for water. He points to a pool of water. They drink. “So, now what?”


I’m not Christian, or in any sense part of an organ­ised reli­gion. I was bought up – attend­ing church spo­rad­i­cal­ly — with one side of my fam­i­ly belong­ing to the High Anglican faith (Catholicism shorn of Latin, more or less), and anoth­er being athe­ists and a smat­ter­ing of Buddhists (like my moth­er). But because you don’t “have” that, it does­n’t mean you don’t learn to appre­ci­ate the wealth and rich­ness and inten­si­ty of feel­ings and expres­sions that faith – var­i­ous acts and moments of faith – have filled into the world. Of the fact that, his­tor­i­cal­ly, we have filled moun­tains and rivers and pat­terns of weath­er around us with moti­va­tion and iden­ti­ty. We have called that river a god­dess, and the sea her father. We have left offer­ings to secure good seas in the lap­ping waves, and prayed to the boar before we hunt it with spear and arrow and torch. I men­tion this because the promised land rep­re­sents just such a moti­va­tion, to fill the “sim­ple” world with com­plex­i­ty. To let our thoughts snake and wend and broach and bub­ble out into the oth­er­wise ordi­nary expe­ri­ences that we are exposed to, that we par­tic­i­pate in.

One of the glo­ries of min­i­mal­ist games are their abil­i­ty to not real­ly be sim­ple at all, as I said. There are moments where this is made quite appar­ent. I’d been walk­ing to the right of the screen for five, six min­utes before – with a jolt – I realised that I could also walk to the left. I knew I could, but I had­n’t actu­al­ly done it. I’d assumed that “right” was right, and that the “promised land” must be there, some­where beyond the hori­zon of my screen. The char­ac­ter – a cubist clus­ter of brown, black and green colour, some­thing like a per­son – stands in the cen­tre of the screen, unmov­ing. I nudge the “left” arrow and watch them wan­der for a bit. I press “right” and do the same. There is the ambi­ence of the wind sweep­ing around me. I want to sit down. I make a cup of tea and, sit­ting back down in front of the com­put­er, realise that I want my char­ac­ter to sit down, too. I close my eyes.

This is a game that makes Journey (yes, that bright, bril­liant beast) look com­plex. But they do share a lit­tle some­thing. There is a PS3 “tro­phy” that you can win in Journey if you sit and med­i­tate with anoth­er play­er. It is a game that rewards sim­ply think­ing. But to say that these games are “med­i­ta­tion sim­u­la­tors” is basi­cal­ly to miss the point. Okay, you’re not real­ly walk­ing to the promised land, and you’re not real­ly sit­ting and med­i­tat­ing, but in a sense you are. Actually, at cer­tain points in the game you are invit­ed to fall to your knees and pray. Every so often – it does­n’t mat­ter if these are ran­dom­ly gen­er­at­ed, or not – you encounter a “joshua tree”. Here you kneel, alone or with com­pan­ions, while you are pre­sent­ed with a small chunk of text from the Old Testament. It also does­n’t real­ly mat­ter whether you pay heed to this or not. In fact, I pre­ferred to ignore it, because I was already locked in to some­thing that seemed to not need words. Take it, or leave it.

This sense of thought­ful reflec­tion is deep­ened when you encounter – at var­i­ous stages along your jour­ney – other trav­ellers. As you approach, they stop in their tracks, turn, and join you. Together now, with­out words, you con­tin­ue the jour­ney. Your jour­ney. And like Journey, there is no sense of need­ing to “talk”, no need other than to walk sim­ply togeth­er. Perhaps the other isn’t look­ing for the promised land at all. Perhaps they are, but for dif­fer­ent rea­sons. Each time you exit the game and return, those fol­low­ers remain, link­ing your jour­neys togeth­er in a sin­gle, encom­pass­ing sweep.

There’s an old Zen say­ing I remem­ber from my mother’s occa­sion­al lessons . It’s for those times when your head is impos­si­bly clut­tered. It goes; “chop wood, carry water”. Sometimes, you just need to do some­thing rou­tine, some­thing ordi­nary in order to “get at” those pon­der­ous­ly frag­ile ques­tions in life. Go find “the promised land”. Go chop wood and carry water.  But I won’t tell you if I ever found the promised land, though.