Upon the Face of the Waters

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!

And the earth was with­out form, and void; and dark­ness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

- Genesis 1:2, King James ver­sion

When in the begin­ning Elohim cre­at­ed heav­en and earth, the earth was tohu va bohu, dark­ness was upon the face of tehom, and the ruach elo­him vibrat­ing upon the face of the waters…

- Catherine Keller’s trans­la­tion, from The Face of the Deep

I love the way that Keller describes the cre­ation. Both her trans­la­tion of the orig­i­nal Hebrew and the King James are explic­it about an oft-overlooked detail: that the cre­ation is not ex nihi­lo, out of noth­ing. Instead, at the begin­ning is the Deep, the Abyss, the Tehom, and over those pri­mor­dial waters hov­ers the god of cre­ation. These waters are chaos incar­nate – there are no bound­aries in the water, no order. Darkness serves a sim­i­lar pur­pose by swal­low­ing up all dis­tinc­tions and ren­der­ing every­thing form­less. But the god of cre­ation estab­lish­es sta­bil­i­ty – light and land – and stores the waters behind the fir­ma­ment, cre­at­ing the sky. It’s an evoca­tive story.

I like this ver­sion of the story because its god seems more a crafts­men, and I can empathize with that. I’ve craft­ed worlds before, as a dun­geon mas­ter and writer, and I enter new worlds each time I down­load a new game. All of these have their own meta­physics, rules and bound­aries.

Authors only gen­er­ate the impe­tus for the world, but when we encounter art as readers/viewers/etc., we mold our own under­stand­ing of the expe­ri­ence. In games most of all, we inter­act with the rules and bound­aries we dis­cov­er. We are always co-creators with the art that we encounter, but nowhere is this more evi­dent than in a game that depends on our inter­ac­tion with it. I’d like to specif­i­cal­ly talk about implied set­ting, how it enables us to be co-creators, and, in reflec­tion, what games like these can teach us.

Dark Souls

I’ve writ­ten at length about the min­i­mal­ism in Dark Souls and how it enhances the game, but I’d like to repro­duce it here; for this dis­cus­sion, Dark Souls is a great exam­ple of how restraint, and allow­ing some spaces to remain unfilled and some details unex­plained can enhance the over­all expe­ri­ence of a world.

Dark Souls’ nar­ra­tive is a study in co-creation. There’s no cohe­sive, fully-presented myth like that in most fan­ta­sy games, and non-player char­ac­ters don’t recite the his­to­ry of their world to you. We under­stand that this world is crum­bling around the heads of the gods, but beyond that our place in the world is dimly under­stood. Once we’re plen­ty of hours in, far enough to have rung two bells and awok­en the pri­mor­dial ser­pent, we are set on a path. We are, of course, the Chosen Undead that will Set Things Right; this much could be assumed. But the rest of the world is strung upon the old bones of the ancient world. There’s his­to­ry in Lordran, not parceled out via audio logs and books, but ingrained in the liv­ing world, for us to make as much or as lit­tle of as we care to. It’s a min­i­mal­is­tic approach that serves the game well – this remains a world for­ev­er beyond us, and its dis­tance and mys­tery make it simul­ta­ne­ous­ly com­pelling and ter­ri­fy­ing. We can gen­er­ate the­o­ries about the rest of the world, but they will always be ten­u­ous and unsub­stan­ti­at­ed. Lordran is not a place that allows itself to be known.

Primordial Serpent Dark Souls

Because of that, Lordran feels more like the real world than any other fan­ta­sy video game set­ting I’ve ever encoun­tered. It remains mys­te­ri­ous and beyond my under­stand­ing through­out. It has its own cre­ation myth, but also includes two ancient beings with oppos­ing under­stand­ings of how it relates to me and how I should behave in the world. Most play­ers won’t even encounter the sec­ond pri­mor­dial ser­pent, but it is so impor­tant that he’s there. It shows the cracks in even what the game tells us out­right. Just like the real world, Lordran shifts under­neath our fin­ger­tips, and the truth of it eludes us. It feels vital and majes­tic and ter­ri­ble because of it.

Thirty Flights of Loving

Thirty Flights is all about impli­ca­tion rather than expli­ca­tion. What the game is is a col­lec­tion of scenes. But every­thing in those scenes point­ed out­ward, toward some­thing else. There’s no dia­logue, no words shared – the play­er isn’t told any­thing. The lan­guage of Thirty Flights is action, archi­tec­ture, color, and the expres­sions and move­ments of the cube peo­ple around you. These ele­ments com­bine into a tale, but one that the play­er is forced to own. It relies, in fact, on the play­er’s need to make the indi­vid­ual ele­ments cohere. It means that the nar­ra­tive that is strung between these scenes is as much the play­er’s as Brendan Chung’s.

Thirty Flights

This is a prod­uct of Thirty Flights’ restraint. Each indi­vid­ual scene is loaded with envi­ron­men­tal infor­ma­tion; shapes, col­ors and actions are all height­ened, since there’s noth­ing else to dis­tract from them. The game relies on human­i­ty’s inher­ent need for order – we slip into plac­ing every scene in its prop­er chrono­log­i­cal order with­out even think­ing about. The game isn’t explic­it about what hap­pens, but I have a very clear idea of who its char­ac­ters are, what went down, and what it means with­in the world. It neat­ly strikes cer­tain genre tones, and I imme­di­ate­ly fall into iron­ing out the story in my own head.

Thirty Flights does­n’t have the obvi­ous depth of the other games list­ed here, but it accom­plish­es so much in its ten min­utes (and with­out any dia­logue!) that it must sure­ly be the most effi­cient. It’s more spark than sub­stance, but that’s kind of what makes it cool. We pro­vide the sub­stance.

Lady Blackbird

Lady Blackbird, a table­top role-playing game by One Seven Design, is a mas­ter­ful exam­ple of implied set­ting. For the pur­pos­es of under­stand­ing what I’m talk­ing about, go and down­load it now: it’s free and love­ly. If you like it, kind­ly buy the cre­ator a beer.

The set­ting of the game is encap­su­lat­ed in that ini­tial, first-page write-up, and in the names of abil­i­ties and mechan­ics. That’s pret­ty much it. The love­ly thing is that those ele­ments can be spun in numer­ous ways at the table. Take Cyrus Vance’s “Warp-Blood,” which allows him to tele­port once a round. Beyond the usual ques­tions (To where can I tele­port? What does it look like? What does it feel like?), there’s no addi­tion­al con­text. The game expects the play­ers to fill it in as they go along. Is being warp-blooded a mat­ter of lin­eage? Was Vance exper­i­ment­ed on? Was he part of a cabal of mag­i­cal ne’er-do-wells in the ser­vice of an insid­i­ous extra­pla­nar force? The name “Warp-blood” begs for expo­si­tion, but the game wise­ly does­n’t front-load that. After all, the play­er will feel much clev­er­er when he gen­er­ates some con­text for that abil­i­ty on the fly. Or maybe he won’t; in that case he won’t have to worry about the set­ting’s already-established cult of warp-bloods that he was­n’t going to be inter­est­ed in any­way.

There’s more implied set­ting run­ning in thick veins through­out the entire game. It’s a phe­nom­e­nal piece of work.

Given a cer­tain foun­da­tion, an archi­tect will plan a build­ing dif­fer­ent­ly. Figuring out what to build on the foun­da­tion of words that Lady Blackbird offers is a huge part of the game. The role of the game-master in that is sim­ply to ask ques­tions; she rest­less­ly inter­ro­gates the play­ers, prod­ding them into plac­ing stone after stone until every­body steps back and there’s a total­ly unique castle/summer-home/RV of a set­ting. In an inter­est­ing twist, the role of the game-master is as a sort of rapid-paced cura­tor of ideas.

Lady Blackbird works by offer­ing specifics and then expect­ing us to deter­mine how they fit togeth­er. The absolute exten­sion of that design phi­los­o­phy is in Ghost/Echo by the same devel­op­ers, which you can find here. It’s an incred­i­ble imag­i­na­tive game in and of itself, com­bin­ing the actions of world-building around the actions of the char­ac­ters. The world grows as it is need­ed, which is to say that it’s incred­i­bly hon­est about it’s role as arti­fice, and this is what makes it so attrac­tive. The sys­tem is rad­i­cal­ly effi­cient and coop­er­a­tive. It’s noth­ing less than you and your friends sit­ting down to smooth out the details of a world through the lens of char­ac­ters you’re emo­tion­al­ly invest­ed in, and the value of that lens should­n’t be under­stat­ed.

Burning Wheel

Unlike Lady Blackbird, Burning Wheel does­n’t offer those specifics. It offers a large, Tolkien-influenced looks at the Middle Ages, but with a scope gen­er­al­ly more local than Tolkien’s epic. The set­ting of “fan­ta­sy” is excep­tion­al­ly broad, though; it’s a vast pool to Lady Blackbird’s foun­da­tion. Or, well, I like to com­pare Burning Wheel to stand­ing in a dark room.

Before I jump into char­ac­ter cre­ation, the play­ers and I define the bound­aries of the room – basic set­ting, that sort of thing. I might say “I want a church inqui­si­tion.” They say “Investigating mole-men?” I agree. Great, there’s a church, and it has power, and we have themes of faith and exclu­sion and per­se­cu­tion and race if we want them. Great! So we have this room, dim as it may be, and even vague ideas of its con­tents.

Character cre­ation in Burning Wheel is called “char­ac­ter burn­ing,” which is just fan­tas­tic. It’s an odd title, which pro­vokes thought. It implies Joan-of-Arc style mar­tyr­dom. It con­nects with the unique qual­i­ties of its char­ac­ter cre­ator: its char­ac­ters all arrive a bit weath­ered, scorched from the flames of their lives so far, prod­ucts of the forge of the past. These are all cool and accu­rate. But this is how I pre­fer to read it: the char­ac­ters cast the light that illu­mi­nates the rest of the story. They’re the ones that bring rel­e­vant set­ting details into stark relief; they’re the ones that cast the deep­est shad­ows. Characters are a bon­fire in the cen­ter of the room, and at the behest of the play­ers that fire spreads. The world is illu­mi­nat­ed between the GM and the play­er, and depend­ing on how the dice fall. Like in Lady Blackbird, the set­ting is effi­cient in a way that video games can’t be. It also pre­cludes the pos­si­bil­i­ty of nasty infor­ma­tion dumps.

A prop­er­ly run Burning Wheel game is seduc­tive. There’s every­thing out there in the dark – com­pli­ca­tions, pos­si­bil­i­ties, mys­tery. The unre­vealed is Tehomic poten­tial. As the light shines out, the world hard­ens and becomes known, but leave a place for a while and, while the char­ac­ters are turned away from a region, a char­ac­ter, a dream, then the shad­ows can grow over it once more and it becomes ever more the prop­er­ty of poten­tial, ready to be changed. That shift­ing play between the formed and unformed, the illu­mi­nat­ed and shad­owed, is at the core of a Burning Wheel game. A char­ac­ter’s beliefs deter­mine where the light will shine, which is to say what the play­er and GM will focus on cre­at­ing imme­di­ate­ly. It’s an act of cre­ation that oper­ates on a deep­er level than Lady Blackbird, since it also involves the cre­ation of bound­ary. The whole-sale mar­riage of con­cepts is at play in the set­ting, like evi­denced in the game I just start­ed run­ning, which can be found here.

Games, Meet Metaphysics

So these games play with their worlds, and offer us a hand in their cre­ation – of what use it that to our rela­tion­ship with reli­gious, or non-religious meta­physics?

I’d argue that it encour­ages us to take our­selves less seri­ous­ly. Play is a beau­ti­ful thing – it implies a loose­ness and a joy that our search­es for truth are often lack­ing. The game makes us cre­ators our­selves, and in the process of won­der­ing at what our own minds and the minds of our friends have pro­duced, we con­nect again with the same sort of awe that is the birth­place of all reli­gion.

Similarly, as our com­mu­nal sto­ries hard­en into facts, we are remind­ed of how actu­al meta­physics come to exist. Our sto­ries of how the world was and is are told and retold and re-spun until they become sys­tems of thought, hard­en­ing into a com­pre­hen­sive lat­tice­work of log­i­cal expla­na­tions cov­er­ing every­thing under the sun. But meta­physics can very quick­ly become truths, which obscures their human ori­gins. Without a con­stant reminder that the world as we know it is a social con­struct, we can for­get. Religious meta­physics fre­quent­ly take this a step fur­ther, stat­ing not just that “this is the way the world is” but, in fact, “this is in agree­ment with divine law, a order at the heart of the uni­verse.”

I’ll admit to being biased. I grew up as a Southern Baptist, and am now an athe­ist, and a big part of that tran­si­tion was rec­og­niz­ing the human hands at work behind the reli­gious edi­fice I’d encoun­tered as absolute truth. I then went on to get a Master’s in Theological Research, so if any­thing I was just more fas­ci­nat­ed by the under­ly­ing frame­work of com­pre­hen­sive meta­physics. I’ve always found work­ing parts to be just as beau­ti­ful, if not more so, than the whole. Games offer meta­physics a great ser­vice: they under­mine them, and remind us that there are always, always more per­spec­tives for which to account.

Additionally, games can offer a great start­ing point for enter­ing and explor­ing new sys­tems of thought. When we sub­mit our­selves to a new role in a new world our sym­pa­thies shift. Our judg­ments are tem­porar­i­ly sti­fled. For min­utes or hours, we expe­ri­ence what it is to be some­body else. So not only do games allow us to loosen our grip on the world-as-we-know-it, they allow us to enter the world-as-others-know-it. We access this in a pro­ce­dur­al, expe­ri­en­tial way that can bypass our usual bar­ri­ers.

Fear and Creation

As I write this, I’ve got a lot of thoughts buzzing through my head. This topic is pret­ty much rock­et fuel to my star-forged heart-engine, and I’m very excit­ed to share this with you. As I’m writ­ing, I’m also lis­ten­ing to the #1ReasonToBe GDC panel and feel­ing charged. It’s a clear sign that change is final­ly occur­ring with­in my favorite sub­cul­ture. Games are pow­er­ful, and by break­ing down the walls that still exist in gamer cul­ture, they are sure to grow and become even more influ­en­tial and hope­ful.

But this has been a real­ly hard week. I live in Boston, and I’ve spent the last week con­flict­ed, scared, sad­dened, and fre­quent­ly devoid of hope. My city, the city that I love, was wound­ed. It has been sur­re­al and tense, espe­cial­ly when it cul­mi­nat­ed in the man­hunt that shut all of Boston down. While all of that was hard, noth­ing was more trag­ic than the hate that seeped into pub­lic view on Twitter as the iden­ti­ties of the sus­pects was revealed. I could­n’t avoid the dis­gust­ing mix­ture of reli­gious hatred, racism, and igno­rance as America revealed just how bro­ken and angry and aim­less­ly vin­dic­tive it could be. Two days after the bomb­ing, an inno­cent Palestinian woman was assault­ed just ten min­utes away from where I live. More is sure to fol­low. Terror will fol­low ter­ror.

I under­stand the urges of these peo­ple. When the Tehomic waters surge in, and the chaos (so com­mon in other parts of the world) hits our home, our fear has us clutch­ing at what­ev­er firm thing we can grasp. For many Americans, that means a clear nar­ra­tive of Good and Evil, one demar­cat­ed by reli­gious and racial lines for ease of use. I was a Southern Baptist; I am now an athe­ist. There are peo­ple in both groups whose under­stand­ing of the world caus­es them to firm­ly entrench them­selves against inno­cent, thought­ful, human indi­vid­u­als. But I know that meta­physics can change. I know that games have a role to play in help­ing our soci­ety grow – games can chal­lenge us.

It’s no acci­dent that, in the chaos of the past week, I threw myself into craft­ing worlds for upcom­ing Burning Wheel games and ran a cou­ple dif­fer­ent role-playing games with peo­ple I care about. Fictional meta­physics have always offered me order and sense when none can be found in real life. Games, and my own acts of cre­ation along­side them, are the clos­est thing I have to a reli­gious prac­tice. It is like prayer for me. It calms me, leav­ing me more com­fort­able with uncer­tain­ty and mys­tery, and enables me to exam­ine my rela­tion­ship with the rest of the world. I’ve ulti­mate­ly found that, in order to leave myself open to the new, the mys­te­ri­ous, to the Others that I have yet to encounter, and to pro­tect myself from the crash­ing waves of uncer­tain­ty, the only thing I can do is cre­ate and recre­ate, over and over again.

Matthew Schanuel

About Matthew Schanuel

Matthew Schanuel lives in Boston, Mass. He's a beer aficionado, a game player (and designer!), an academic-in-exile, a DM, and, most recently, an employee of a financial non-profit. He draws the comic Embers at night over at http://embers-at-night.tumblr.com/