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.