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 firstname.lastname@example.org!
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.