Sanctifying Games


This month, the Ontological Geek has a theme: reli­gion and/or the­ol­o­gy in games. We have a great bunch of arti­cles lined up, from the very per­son­al to the deeply the­o­ret­i­cal, from both reg­u­lar OntoGeek con­trib­u­tors and sev­er­al guest writ­ers. We’d love to hear from you with your thoughts on speci­fic arti­cles and the month as a whole – com­ment freely and e-mail us at editor@ontologicalgeek.com!

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.

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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 in Civ 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.

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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.


Oscar Strik

About Oscar Strik

Oscar Strik is editor-in-chief of The Ontological Geek. He is also a linguist from the Netherlands. He occasionally writes in other places, such as his own blog Sub Specie. You can read his innermost secrets on Twitter @oscarstrik.