Gods & Parasites 21

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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?


Tom Dawson

About Tom Dawson

Tom Dawson is, in no particular order; a two-time Olympic bronze medallist (synchronised swimming), ancestrally Atlantean, a compulsive liar, the Green Lantern of space sector 2814 and the inventor of the cordless drill. His fondest wish is that someday he’ll get paid for writing stuff like this.