DeathDigital Media & VideogamesMagicMythologyReligion

Sanctifying Games

This art­icle was ori­ginally pub­lished on The Onto­logical Geek as part of “Rel­igion Month”.

Reli­gion is a com­plex phe­nomenon, and on the whole, games seem to be able to rep­res­ent a great deal of that com­plex­ity, though as Jordan Rivas argues, much of it is kitsch. Fre­quently rep­res­en­ted in games is the socio-polit­ical pres­ence of reli­gion, the power it can exert as a group over the minds and bod­ies of people, and their social rela­tions. In nar­rat­ive-heavy games, reli­gion can be a theme to use to make a fic­tional world come alive. Take Dragon Age, where the Chantry plays a sig­ni­fic­ant role in the polit­ics of Ferelden. Like many real-world reli­gions, it acts as an organ­isa­tion that tran­scends national bound­ar­ies, and even com­petes with nations for the loy­alty of people. In addi­tion, it serves as a (self-appoin­ted) peace-keep­ing force, the one organ­isa­tion that con­trols magi and sanc­tions the use of magic. The rela­tion­ship of any given char­ac­ter in Dragon Age to the Chantry says a lot about their pos­i­tion in the world as a whole. The sim­il­ar­it­ies between the Chantry and (the early his­tory of) Chris­tian­ity are too many not to view them as a form of fic­tional com­ment­ary, but that is a mat­ter for another day.

In gen­eral, fantasy games are quite ready to incor­por­ate vari­ous reli­gions into their world. Dun­geons & Dragons, as the obvi­ous example, has many dif­fer­ent pan­theons scattered across its myriad of set­tings; appar­ently poly­the­ism is the norm among fantasy peoples. Not only does the game present a wide array of deit­ies, all with their ‘sphere of influ­ence’ and pos­i­tion on the moral align­ment sys­tem, reli­gion and faith is intim­ately tied up with con­crete magical powers to the sys­tem of divine magic, har­nessed by priests and druids, among oth­ers char­ac­ter classes. One of the rewards for faith in D&D is power, the abil­ity to reli­ably cast magic spells that affect the world phys­ic­ally.

If this sounds mundane, that’s because it is. Although it is of course up to each indi­vidual Dun­geon Mas­ter to decide the ulti­mate extent of a deity’s power, in prac­tice the gods in D&D are basic­ally just a bunch of big bosses, or ‘powers’, as they are often called. Serve and suck up to them enough, and they’ll entrust you with a tiny bit of that power. How­ever, since all of this is spelled out in rules, the dif­fer­ence is one of degree, not of kind. There are rule­books that list the pre­cise stats and powers for the avatars of many deit­ies, and by doing so, what it takes to kill those.

Ah, but those are just avatars,” you say, “the deit­ies them­selves are tran­scend­ent and eternal, far bey­ond mor­tal ken.” Not really, when it comes down to it. The his­tory of the For­got­ten Realms set­ting of D&D tells of quite a few gods that were per­man­ently killed by other gods, as well as mor­tals that have some­how attained divine status. The ulti­mate proof is revealed to the planeswalk­ers who travel to the Astral Plane, the end­less void of sil­ver where the corpses of dead gods float for all etern­ity.

The corpse of the dead god Myrkul in Nev­er­winter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer

All this mundan­ity is not a bad thing. We are speak­ing of games, after all, and it is in the nature of most games to express things in con­crete rules that have a bear­ing on whatever genre the game wants to be. Reli­gion in fantasy RPGs is mostly about polit­ics and con­crete magic, because that is what most RPGs them­selves are about. Occa­sion­ally, an oddball set­ting like Plan­es­cape comes along that does things a little dif­fer­ently in some respects, but I’ll get to that later.

One other elab­or­ate but very abstrac­ted rep­res­ent­a­tion of reli­gion that I’ve found in recent times is that in the his­tor­ical strategy game Civil­iz­a­tion V and its expan­sion Gods & Kings. No mat­ter what civil­iz­a­tion in the game you play, you will even­tu­ally be able to found a ‘pan­theon’, which can sub­sequently be elab­or­ated into a reli­gion by a Great Prophet. Reli­gions in Civ V can grant a num­ber of bene­fits in the game, almost all tied up with the more basic resources used: gold, pro­duc­tion, sci­ence, and hap­pi­ness. In other words, a reli­gion is an enhan­cing cul­tural struc­ture that can make people more happy, more pro­duct­ive, etc. There are really no down­sides to hav­ing a reli­gion in your civil­iz­a­tion, except that it might take up some resources that could be spent dir­ectly on other things. Com­bined with the inter­change­ab­il­ity of faiths, beliefs, eth­nic groups, and reli­gion names, the rep­res­ent­a­tion of reli­gion inCiv V seems pos­it­ive and mostly inof­fens­ive. There may be a hint of his­tor­icism in the way that reli­gions ‘evolve’ from highly local nature-based pan­theons to prophet-led organ­ised reli­gions that are far more power­ful, but then again, that line of ‘pro­gress’ through increased power is the cent­ral mech­an­ism of the entire game-as-strategy-game, and I sup­pose we can hardly fault the game for being itself, and there is prob­ably a grain of his­tor­ical truth in there as well.

What struck me far more was the total absence of God from the reli­gions of Civ V. The concept of reli­gion is entirely stripped down to its socio-eco­nomic work­ings, and while there are tech­no­logy steps called ‘theo­logy’ and ‘philo­sophy’ neither are actu­ally rep­res­en­ted in any mean­ing­ful way. Again, this is obvi­ous given the game’s design, and it is not a cri­ti­cism. How­ever, it does high­light the cent­ral prob­lem that I want to grapple with in this art­icle: how can we rep­res­ent reli­gion in a game, and go bey­ond its mundane or even pro­fane aspects? Can a game go bey­ond reli­gion-as-polit­ics, reli­gion-as-magic, and reli­gion-as-power? In other words, can a game rep­res­ent the aspects of reli­gion that can­not be expressed as abstract num­bers?

What I’m try­ing to get at here is best described using the word holy or sac­red, as Rudolf Otto does in his fam­ous theo­lo­gical work Das Hei­lige [The Idea of the Holy]. For him, the holy is a mys­tery that can’t be com­pre­hen­ded by rational means, some­thing that inspires a feel­ing of awe that we can’t explain. It is a mys­tery that ter­ri­fies us and fas­cin­ates us at the same time. As the term indic­ates, this feel­ing of holi­ness need not be an unam­bigu­ously pos­it­ive exper­i­ence. In fact, true holi­ness is bey­ond hap­pi­ness or fear in the mundane sense.

In my view, these feel­ings can be related to the exper­i­ence of a par­tic­u­lar God, or the one God, if you believe in one, but also to abstrac­tions like the forces of nature. Indeed, if we look at massively import­ant (to humans) phe­nom­ena such as fire or water, it is clear that these can be and have been exper­i­enced as mys­ter­ies, and ones that can be both harm­ful and bene­fi­cial. If we accept this idea of there being some­thing wholly non-rational and inef­fable to the idea of the sac­red, then the ques­tion is: are there ways in which we can rep­res­ent this idea using the lan­guage of a com­puter, which by its very nature can only be rational?

The safest route, because it is cross-medial, is simply that of rep­res­ent­a­tion and nar­rat­ive. We can use words to approach the idea of the sac­red, just like nov­els or poems can. For one of the most well-known and best examples, we travel to the future, and to outer space. Bill Coberly and, shortly after, Jordan Rivas made sim­ilar obser­va­tions of how the uni­verse of the Mass Effect tri­logy is torn between being the stage for a Love­craf­t­ian kind of inef­fable cos­mic hor­ror (one pos­sible mani­fest­a­tion of the sac­red) on the one hand, and a human-cent­ric power fantasy on the other. The prot­ag­on­ist Com­mander Shep­ard is faced with (mostly) incom­pre­hens­ible forces that threaten sen­tient life in the galaxy with extinc­tion, but at the same time, the games are all about over­com­ing that threat.

Through the Reap­ers, the writers of Mass Effect added a force into their uni­verse that (at first) is bey­ond mor­tal com­pre­hen­sion. Humans don’t know where they’re from, and neither do the other races that make up galactic civil­iz­a­tion. All they know is that the Reap­ers are massively power­ful and threat­en­ing. Near the end of the first game of the series, Com­mander Shep­ard has a con­ver­sa­tion with Sov­er­eign, the van­guard of the Reap­ers, where the lat­ter expli­citly tells Shep­ard that the Reap­ers are far bey­ond the under­stand­ing of humans. As Rivas points out, this con­ver­sa­tion is already the first sign that the Reap­ers are in fact just mor­tal creatures them­selves (albeit very power­ful ones), for a true Love­craf­t­ian God is silent, a holy mys­tery that is bey­ond words. And indeed, only a few scenes later, Sov­er­eign is even­tu­ally defeated in a massive battle of space­ships that forms the cli­max of the game. From this point on, there is really no doubt about the mundan­ity of the Reap­ers. The only ques­tion left is: will galactic civil­isa­tion be able to muster enough forces to defeat a whole fleet of Sov­er­eigns? We’re back to Minsc logic again: sure we can kill it, we just need a big­ger sword.

Dur­ing the third Mass Effect game, the scale gets pushed back a tiny bit when Shep­ard chases Leviathan, a mys­ter­i­ous being that may be more power­ful than the Reap­ers them­selves. How­ever, as Coberly’s piece shows, Leviathan too is sus­cept­ible to the mor­tal influ­ences of Shep­ard and the implac­able tour de force that is at the heart of the game tri­logy. Even a mem­ber of the race that cre­ated the massively power­ful Reap­ers in the first place is able to be swayed by a human’s tongue. So, in the end, everything in Mass Effect is explained, because it needs to be manip­u­lated in order to bring the story to a sat­is­fact­ory con­clu­sion. The tre­mend­ous cos­mo­lo­gical ques­tions are not posed in the end, and what I feel might be the most power­ful reli­gious moment in the games is related to the more indi­vidual holi­ness of death, and to eth­ics: Shep­ard and Kolyat pray­ing at Thane’s deathbed.

At the rep­res­ent­a­tional level, then, we are left with sub­ver­ted mani­fest­a­tions of godly power, or of the vague reli­gious lean­ings of par­tic­u­lar char­ac­ters that are sin­cere, but insig­ni­fic­ant at the level of a game’s internal uni­verse and cos­mo­logy.

I admit that all this is based on a curs­ory exper­i­ence of the his­tory of video games (what I’ve played and read), and I would be very happy to receive com­ments or even rebukes that show me examples of cases where games do tackle the issues that I’ve described here. I’d like to end with a final example of my own where things are head­ing in the dir­ec­tion that I envi­sion, and some spec­u­la­tions about what else may be pos­sible.

To start with, I’d like to reit­er­ate my love for the Plan­es­cape cam­paign set­ting for D&D. To my know­ledge, few (or even no) other fantasy game series have so boldly pushed for philo­soph­ical, eth­ical, and reli­gious con­tent as this one. It takes the older D&D eth­ical align­ment divi­sion (law­ful versus chaotic, good versus evil) to new depths, and adds to it vari­ous philo­soph­ic­ally aligned fac­tions. Too much to sum­mar­ise here, but I still love it. What I really want to get to is one of the most power­ful fig­ures in the his­tory of D&D and one that comes closest to what I’m try­ing to get at in this art­icle: The Lady of Pain.

The Lady of Pain

The Lady is an enigma. She is the ruler of Sigil, the City of Doors. In Sigil portals to any world in the mul­ti­verse can be found, but only the Lady holds sway there. The Gods can not enter Sigil, and they have no power there. No one knows where she came from or what she is, but she appears to have abso­lute power in Sigil. For all intents and pur­poses, she is a God­dess, but any­one who act­ively wor­ships her incurs her wrath, and is forever lost inside one of her mazes, or simply lacer­ated to death by her blades. Simply put, she actu­ally is bey­ond all cer­tain under­stand­ing in the con­text of Plan­es­cape, and noth­ing in the D&D uni­verse has power over her, except per­haps the city of Sigil itself, which some believe is her prison.

This almost per­fect inef­fabil­ity comes at a price, though: as a Dun­geon Mas­ter one can never involve someone as enig­matic as the Lady in a game too deeply without explain­ing too much, and thereby over­step­ping the bound­ar­ies of the set­ting in which the Lady is sup­posed to be bey­ond all reason. In the clas­sic video game adap­tion Plan­es­cape: Tor­ment, her role is cor­res­pond­ingly mar­ginal: she put the prot­ag­on­ist in a maze at one point, and will kill him if he wor­ships or offends her, but that’s it. For all her inef­fabil­ity, she must remain at the side­lines to avoid becom­ing too con­crete, too caught up in the mundane rules of a game.

I’m not sure if there’s a way out of this dilemma. Per­haps its very unat­tain­ab­il­ity in rational or con­crete terms is at the heart of what makes some­thing holy. Pess­im­ist­ic­ally, this would mean that games as rep­res­ent­a­tion can only ever approx­im­ate dir­ectly chan­nel­ing the true feel­ing of holi­ness, unless it makes use of argu­ably external means like poetry, sound, or visual art. Optim­ist­ic­ally, how­ever, per­haps there are a few aspects of games as games that man­age to estab­lish a con­nec­tion, how­ever fleet­ing, with some­thing tran­scend­ent.

Maybe it’s the flow of a suc­cess­ful Super Hexagon run, that pro­cess that goes way too fast for rational thought, that taps into your deeper brain func­tion­ings as you embody a little tri­angle try­ing to steer its way out of an inex­or­able revolving prison of walls.

Maybe it’s the feel­ing in From Dust, where you are are a God with lim­ited power over nature, the abil­ity to move vast quant­it­ies of soil and water, but in which you are con­stantly at the mercy of the prim­or­dial forces that are behind all that nature.

Maybe it’s the real­isa­tion that for the char­ac­ters of a game, there is some­thing called fate, an unavoid­able future or mul­ti­tude of futures set in code by cre­at­ors, and incarn­ated by play­ers who pos­sess those char­ac­ters. Life paths that make little sense from inside the game world, but which seem tailored towards the whims of higher beings. “As flies to wan­ton boys, are we to the gods, — They kill us for their sport.”

Maybe I’m totally on the wrong track, being an incor­ri­gible self-mys­ta­gogue. Maybe I’m onto some­thing, and there are sev­eral ways of put­ting the Deus in the Mach­ina, instead of always pulling it out. If so, I hope we will see attempts to do so.