Of late I’ve been playing quite a bit of From Dust, a quirky little indie puzzler which pits the player against the forces of nature itself. The player assumes the role of the Breath, god-protector of a primitive tribe known only as the Men, called into being by the songs of the tribe to stand as guardian between its fragile charges and the manifold dangers of the natural world. The Breath can only interact with the world in a few ways, by lifting or dropping water, lava or sand to avert such catastrophes as tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, though certain levels will allow the brief usage of more spectacular abilities, like a brief impression of Moses parting the waves. As physics-based puzzlers go, it’s rather good, requiring quick thinking and measured calculation in equal measure. If a river is dammed, the water must go somewhere, but the constant fluctuations of the natural world (volcanoes do not necessarily erupt into the same channels twice, sands shift and settle and erode) mean the player is never quite sure when or where they may be required. The game is fun, if a little impersonal – as the Breath, there is almost zero interaction with the lesser beings, though this makes tough decisions easier. Perhaps a few of the Men will die when a lava flow is re-routed, but if the village is saved then the net result is beneficial. This degree of disconnection is of particular interest amidst a genre packed with games which emphasize the importance of a symbiotic relationship between god and man – it’s rare to find a ‘god game’ in which the needs and desires of humanity are ignored beyond the most basic level, that of survival.
Being raised in a part of the world which has been historically (and in many ways still is) dominated by the various flavours of Christianity, the deity with whom I am most familiar is the rather confused love-and-peace/blood-and-thunder fellow of the Bible, and what strikes me about god games is just how greatly the presentation of the supernatural differs from the presentation my culture attempts to instill in me. The God of Christianity is supposedly possessed of limitless power and boundless knowledge, capable of doing literally anything he/she/it might feel like, and yet (depending on who you talk to and whether or not you credit Him with the murderous rage many of His followers like to attribute to Him) he/she/it prefers to remain inactive and invisible. The gods in these video games are comparatively much more powerful than their human underlings, yet this power is often simply an extension of ordinary human ability; the lifting of heavier things, the ability to perceive a wider area, the power to kill on a whim. While they may appear all-powerful to the beings they hold themselves above, the reality is that they operate under strict limitations. Probably the most famous (or infamous, depending on how betrayed you personally felt by Peter Molyneux’s exaggerations) example of the god game is Lionhead Studios’ Black & White, a grand adventure of significantly greater depth than From Dust, which grants the player a much wider range of options than simple manipulation of elements yet still falls far short of what someone of my culture might associate with God. Despite more in-depth systems, moral choices, and a far greater deal of meddling in the lives of worshippers, the god of Black & White is still heavily restricted.
These games put the gods into a box. The various deities who act as bodiless avatars for players are capable of feats which would be impossible for an ordinary human, but rarely does this extend beyond simple interactions with the physical world. Objects can be manipulated, picked up and thrown or carried from one place to another. Miracles (or spells, or powers) are certainly supernatural in origin but entirely natural in effect, whether they involve to summoning rain for the faithful or hurling fire at the unbeliever. Worshippers and followers can be told what to do, but they cannot be compelled without resorting to the threat or reality of physical harm. God games retain the traditional concept of a god as being “above” humanity but strip it of all metaphysical meaning, leaving the deity as little more than a bigger version of the humble follower. Players cannot give commandments to worshippers (even when such would be eminently useful, as in From Dust where a simple ‘thou shalt not build thy village at the base of an active volcano, thou bloody fools would save a lot of hassle.) Nor can they damn them to an afterlife of pointy things and ceaseless cruelty. While a human’s soul is within the body it is under the dominion of the deity, but once that human dies the soul leaves that jurisdiction and goes who-knows-where, giving the impression that the deity assumed by its worshippers to be all-powerful is little more than a caretaker. Despite being able to impress with showy physical feats, on a spiritual level the player-gods are as incapable of decisive action as the humans are.
As an atheist, I find all of this intriguing. I wonder, did anyone sit down to consider their own understanding of God before making these games? After all, these two examples can be viewed as commentaries on the nature and necessity of religion: in From Dust the Breath is created by the Men to aid them in their quest for survival amidst an incredibly hostile world, and Black & White’s opening sequence shows the god of that game being called into being by the fervent prayers of humans in need. In neither case is the god pre-existing, never claimed to be a creator – they are invented by societies which feel the need for them. The obvious insinuation is that is that people create gods, rather than the other way around, to benefit themselves. From these parallel beginnings the two games part ways and the nature of the human/deity relationship branches.
From Dust’s Breath functions as servant and steward to its tribe, an omniscient presence ready to respond to disaster and alter nature in whatever fashion will help the Men. It does not seem to require nor desire worship, instead being apparently content to fulfill the function it was created for and ease the lives of the Men. In Black & White, the opposite occurs: from the very moment the player enters the tutorial island, the god begins the process of warping the lives of the tribe around itself. The player-as-god learns a variety of ways to help the tribespeople, introducing a moral choice system whereby kindness and cruelty are both offered as acceptable methods of problem solving. What’s key is that the choices are made by the god rather than the humans. It is the god’s agenda which is served by every action, even if said action provides benefit to the humans. Contrast this with From Dust where it is the tribe who desire to re-populate lands before moving to the next, and the purpose of the god is to facilitate their desires. Conversely, Black & White gradually builds to the point where the god is dominant over every aspect of the tribe’s physical life; the god decides what structures will be built and where, the god decides when the faithful will be called to pray at the temple, the god even selects breeding pairs and orders them to hump like bunny rabbits.
The humble Breath is required for the survival of the Men, diligently fending off disasters they would otherwise be incapable of coping with. The god of Black & White exerts control over the lives of its followers and determines the progression of their society, but the most obvious benefactor of these actions is the god, not the people. The god says ‘Build a house here!’ and uproots the trees required for the wood, selecting humans and assigning them the profession of carpenter. Yet when the god became manifest, there was already a village of houses. The god says ‘You shall produce children!’ and orders a man and a woman (whose will in this matter is seemingly unimportant) to start shagging regardless of whether or not they are already parents or spouses to others. Think back to the very event that called the god into being, however; two parents fearfully begging the universe to save their child. Clearly humanity has already worked out the process of making babies, and doesn’t need a supernatural matchmaker to push them into it.
Nothing the god of Black & White does is anything the humans could not do for themselves. Even those miraculous powers, so useful for impressing the citizenry of nearby villages, tend merely to hasten natural functions. The player can perform a rain miracle to grow crops faster, but if ignored those crops will still grow in the fullness of time. What the god of Black & White does is present the image of necessity to the villagers while actually being extraneous to their day-to-day survival. The reason for the difference in attitude between the deities is neatly explained by their requirements – the Breath is self-sufficient, whereas the Black & White god derives power and influence from the number of worshippers it lays claim to. In the latter, even a benevolent god is primarily serving their own ends, growing in stature with every helpful deed.
What does this say when compared to our real-world notions of religion? The self-centred god which needs us to survive, who feeds and grows on worship, is the one which will attempt to dominate our lives under a pretense of caring for us. The god which is a force of nature does not require our love or worship, but is content to help us out of some moral duty. If we view these two games as commentary on the nature of real-world faith, they appear as a harsh critique of much modern religion, of those faiths which follow gods who impose themselves into the lives of followers and place great emphasis on the belief that piety is our duty. From Dust suggests that a truly great god, one who cared for us and used its incredible powers to aid us, would not be so petty as to desire worship. Protection of those weaker than the self is the true reward. The god which desires adulation and unswerving obedience is one which is only attempting to draw power to itself, with any benefit to its followers being either coincidental or as a cynical method of manipulating humanity into further servitude. We have a word for that kind of relationship, and that word is ‘parasitic’.
The OED states that a parasite “lives at the expense of another, or of society in general”. Black & White holds true for both. The individual human must surrender his/her will unto the god, and everything he/she does is according to the desires of same. The society revolves entirely around the desires of the god, with all aspects being rigidly controlled. As we’ve already discussed, there is nothing given in return which could not be achieved in the absence of god. Of the two games, Black & White is also the one which shares most similarities with the predominant religious institutions of the world, those which excuse any action or inaction on the part of their deity by reaffirming that deity’s inherent superiority and our own lowly inability to understand that being’s motives. Knowing nothing about the theistic tendencies (or lack thereof) of the games’ creators it would be folly to assume that the message is as militantly atheist as ‘God is a parasite on humanity’, but a critical reading certainly indicates a negative attitude towards traditional belief structures.
So what of From Dust? The driving motivation of the Breath is altruistic rather than selfish, with the Men never being called upon to worship or accept their rightful place as servants to a “superior” being. Indeed, the opposite is closer to the truth – the Breath chooses, and choice it is, to serve and protect. Unlike the god of Black & White the continuing existence of the Breath is not dependent on keeping followers alive, meaning that there is no vestige of self-preservation in its actions. The Breath is entirely capable of destroying the Men, by dumping red-hot lava on a village or by simple indifference to impending disaster, but chooses not to. Absent the framework of religion to provide adulation, the Breath makes the decision to help the Men with no reward other than gratitude, and yet that gratitude is seemingly enough. The Breath is not the parasite-god of Black & White. The relationship between Men and their god is not even a symbiotic one, as the benefits of the relationship are entirely the province of the tribe. The Breath is something else, some kind of parallel to a parasite which will only give but never take. Is the game saying that this is what God is, or that this is what God should be?