The Journey to the West Narrative in Video Games

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"Journey to the West" inspired artworkLet me tell you a story, one that you are almost definitely familiar with in some fashion. It comes from 16th century China, and goes by the name of Journey to the West. The story tells the fictitiously augmented story of Xuanzang and his three companions with troubled pasts as they make their way across western China atop a white dragon to obtain sacred texts and return them home. These three companions may begin to ring a bell to you. The first was Sun Wukong, more familiarly known as The Monkey King. He is a… monkey… with superhuman strength, the ability to transform, the knowledge of dozens of fighting styles, boots that allow him to walk on clouds, and most iconic, a bo staff as his weapon of choice. The next was Zhu Baije, a half pig half man known for his lecherous nature and gluttony, often having to be comedically silenced by Sun Wukong in the story. Lastly, we have Sha Wujing, the least important member of the group, the one who contributes the least to the story, and honestly, the one with the least amount information to tell. He was a jerk. He liked sand. He once broke a vase in Heaven that, depending on the translation of the story, was an accident or not. And that’s… it.

Alright, shut up, right? What could any of this Asian gibberish have to do with modern day video games. Well, a surprising amount, and not just with video games, but entertainment media as a whole. If you find yourself a frequent anime viewer or JRPG player, some of the concepts above may have sounded familiar to you. Like, I don’t know, the monkey dude with a staff who was mega strong and knew how to fight who rides a dragon and walks on clouds. You see, Journey to the West essentially created a genre of storytelling. Character wants thing. Thing is far. Other character needs thing. Both agree to team up. They go find the thing. Hijinks ensue. In fact, most fantasy stories that you will read have little nuggets of Journey to the West (JTTW) references sprinkled all over them. If you look hard enough, you can find some in just about anything, whether the creator intended it or not. Games and movies and any other media that use tropes from JTTW are some of my favorites of all time.

Let’s start with a more obvious example. A little lesser known masterpiece known as EnslavedOdyssey to the West, released all the way back in October of 2010. Now, we can clearly see that this game is inspired by JTTW, it’s essentially in the title, but let’s look at why it does it so well. The story follows a nameless protagonist, later dubbed Monkey (ayy) by his female companion (ayyyyy), as he escapes from a plane transporting him to be someone’s slave. He escapes after retrieving his staff (ayyyyy) and a little device he calls his “cloud” (AYYYYYYYY). Sound’s a little familiar now, doesn’t it? So what, is this game a rip off? Absolutely not. It is a beautiful interpretation of JTTW, and a love letter to those who came before it and did their best to do the story justice. The plot of the game includes the apocalypse, robotic demon-like creatures that roam the world, and a safe haven to the west for humans that the two must, surprisingly, JOURNEY TO.

Character battle scene from Enslaved

God, I love this stuff.

JTTW has recently been referenced in a big title like Overwatch during a Chinese event, giving characters such as Roadhog a skin to make him look like the pig man, Winston look like Sun Wukong, and Zenyatta to look like Xuanzang. A subtle yet sexy approach to paying homage to what I would honestly call the great grandfather of tropes and cliché’s.

Overwatch Characters in "Journey to the West" inspired skins

Think of any story that involve two characters who maybe don’t get along so well, and they have a mutual place they need to get to, so they decide to work together. Journey to the West.

Just looking at my own gaming collection for JTTW references, (monkey dudes with staves, guys riding on clouds, pig dudes, “I have a thing and it needs to go to a place”, “We have to go to a place, but it was about the journey all along!” etc.) I have:

  • Child of Light
  • Tales from the Borderlands
  • Final Fantasy XV
  • Persona 5
  • Fire Emblem – The Sacred Stones
  • Bulletstorm
  • Resonance of Fate
  • Nier (original)

And many, many more I probably haven’t even noticed myself.

Ultimately, what am I trying to say here? Every video game is a rip off of something else? Well, yeah indirectly I’m saying that, but that’s everything in art isn’t it? We take things we like, we want to be like the people who make the things we like, and whether we mean to or not, we emulate their work. What makes everyone special is that secret sauce mixed into the pot, the little spin on the narrative that only you can think of. All of these games share themes with JTTW, sure, but I wouldn’t call any two of them similar. Not in the slightest. They are all extremely different experiences, and great in their own right, they just happen to show their Eastern influences in a very fascinating way. Even in anime, we have things like the alluded-to Dragonball, Mushrambo, Tsubasa, Inuyasha, Saiyuki and all of its incarnations, and so much more than that even! The list goes on forever.

Dragonball Characters posing

Why though?

Why do all of these things allude to the same story? It can’t be some kind of weird cosmic coincidence or a Chinese conspiracy to keep us all thinking about monkey and pig people. Well, I honestly think it’s the flawless combination of simplicity and creativity JTTW displays, as well as the ripple effect it’s had on media today. It’s an easy idea to work with for creators; guy meets girl or other way around, they share goal, work together and meet oddball friends, accomplish goal or don’t. Take away all of the fluff and that’s what you get. Start with that as the start to your outline, and I bet you could come up with some real crazy stuff. Like an alien kid with a monkey tail who shoots lasers, rights on clouds, can turn gold, eventually goes to space, and fights against other dimensions. Isn’t that wild? Dragonball turned Journey to the West into… what Dragonball is today, and it’s -astounding- to think about its evolution. And it all began with inspiration from JTTW. Maybe one of your favorite creators has made something inspired by JTTW, but they were actually just inspired by someone else who was also inspired by JTTW, so their works came out similar. How phenomenal is that?

If you’re not familiar with Journey to the West, I highly recommend it if you want to become a writer, a storyteller, a game designer, any form of creative career. It’s such an influential piece that has inspire some of your favorite ideas, and some of the favorite ideas of the people who made those ideas, etc. etc. So, the next time you sit down to enjoy the next Netflix original, or the next adventure movie, or the next anime series you want to binge, look out for these cute little details. You may just find one or two, and then you can impress the party with your clearly superior knowledge on the history of entertainment media.

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