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.
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 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.