Friday, January 4, 2013

Where Faith Meets Fun and Fantasy

Where Faith Meets Fun and Fantasy

By Michael Feir

As a game developer and a believer, I've taken a keen interest in where these two important spheres of my life intersect. Hoping to create a game which helps bridge the gap between people and faith, I've been wrestling with two key issues for quite some time. One of these is how much of an overt factor religion should be in the fantasy world I'm creating for Enchantment's Twilight. In tandem with that issue is how to go about representing the force that one or more god-like beings may exert over the events in the game's story. Too much influence can render a game broken since players feel too HELPLESS AND INCONSEQUENTIAL. Why strive for victory if some god can just will the needed circumstances into being? On the other hand, too little influence renders supposedly super powerful beings mere tools for clever players to make use of. Who needs to gather all that treasure to be able to afford good armour if Zeus can just fry one's adversaries with a few bolts of lightning? It's a very tricky balance with dangers of detracting from the experience or giving offence to people of faith. Striking that balance rewards both the players and the game designer with a more richly woven experience. It also provides a ready agency for injecting control over situations at crucial points.

It is certainly possible to create a fantasy world for a game or story without directly involving religion. Tolkien, a devout Christian, chose this approach in his Lord of the Rings books and still packed them with undeniably Christian values. When creating good fantasy, it is vital to maintain internal logic and consistency. Basic questions normally answered via religions must still be addressed in some fashion in order to have fantasy which hangs together and is meaningful.

Representing our Christian God or a pantheon of gods such as the Hindu, Roman, or Greek ones in a game is very problematic. Even more so, in fact, than in a fantasy novel. In a story, the author retains full control of events. The whole idea of a game, on the other hand, is that its players shape the outcome through their own decisions, luck and skill. The whole point of games is that they are interactive experiences.

As a player, I've experienced two different approaches to simulating god-like entities in games. In most computer role-playing games, gods are essentially treated like vending machines. Pray or sacrifice to this god and you'll get that reward. Lets say I've come across a magic hat on the floor of a cavern I'm exploring. I decide to try it on hoping it will bestow a magical advantage upon me. Instead, it makes my fingers slippery and sticks fast to my head. For it is a cursed hat of fumbling fingers! Picking up anything is hard and takes time but there are precious diamonds scattered throughout the cavern. I'm naturally averse to leaving any behind. Spending precious moments gathering up all the diamonds I can carry allows the goblin hoard that pursues me to enter the cavern! I am discovered and now badly out-numbered! I flee to the cavern's far extremity where I come across an altar to Blorn, the god of second chances. As the goblins close in on me, I draw my enchanted sword. I take heart as this gives them a moment's fearful pause ... until it falls from my hand! Drat that cursed hat! Perhaps, there's a lesson about greed to be learned here. If I hadn't spent so much time gathering every diamond I could see, the goblins wouldn't have caught up with me. That gives me a notion. I throw down a good portion of the diamonds onto the altar and pray to Blorn. There's a clap of thunder and the diamonds on the altar are consumed in a shaft of brilliance. The cursed hat falls from atop my penitent pate. I can now retrieve my sword and make my escape with a small quantity of the diamonds.

The above is a basic example of the most common way in which god-like beings are featured. Consequences tend to be immediate and well defined. This approach has the advantage of being simple to plan out and program. You can dress it up with spectacular effects and grandeur, but one can't ultimately escape the profound hollowness of this approach. The rules are simply too apparent to the player. There's none of the wonder, awe, humility, uncertainty and fear that actual worshipers would experience. This is why such games almost never use deities who are still actually being worshipped today. Real religions that have stood the test of time tend not to limit their gods to such basic immediate reactions. Actual belief tends to weave a rich and deep tapestry into one's life far more complex than mere action and reaction.

King of Dragon Pass is a game for the iPHONE and other Apple devices which attempts to address this common shortcoming. This game puts you in charge of a clan on a fantasy world with many gods and spirits to contend with. You need to pick and choose which ones to worship and sacrifice cattle or goods to. Unlike the vending machine model, there is no certainty here at all. You can't easily quantify how effective a given blessing is or predict when or what the result of rituals will be. This uncertainty creates some of that missing experience of mystery and awe. As the player, you definitely have to pay careful attention to mythological detail and tread with caution if you want your clan to prosper. King of Dragon Pass has something like three novels worth of text. There is hand-painted artwork, music and sound to help bring the player deeper into the experience. However, despite all that, Orlanth and his fellow gods are ultimately just very powerful and unpredictable game elements to be used or ignored at one's own peril. However, thanks to this richly detailed background, the game isn't reduced to mere number crunching. You can't help starting to care about your clan and the fictitious people who comprise it. The game teaches valuable lessons regarding leadership, responsibility, the benefits of practicing faith on an individual and societal level, and more.

Far from weakening my faith, playing King of Dragon Pass has given me a sense of deep gratitude that there is just one true God and that he loves us without conditions. We need not know a thousand different rituals to keep in his good graces. For us, asking his forgiveness and accepting his son as our Savior is sufficient. Exploring alternative world views can let us appreciate our own faith all the more.

The original vision God gave me of Enchantment's Twilight definitely depicted aspects of religion. I remember priests and places of worship. Characters seemed to have a sense of supernatural forces larger than themselves being active in their universe. While I'm confident that God wants me to incorporate some sort of religion into the game, I'm very uncertain how he would have me proceed in that area. However, if past experience is anything to go by, this will eventually be revealed to me. It's another thread in a very large and complex tapestry. God has given me some indication through the respectful great care he has taken with me. He has given me plenty of gentle nudges or taps on the shoulder, but has always allowed me to find my own unique path and pace to his truth. That spirit of wonder, reverence, and compassion over all is the one in which I approach bringing the vision of a grand interactive epic God has given me a glimpse of into being.

1 comment:

Sara M Hillis said...

Well, I found this a very engaging read, and I think you raise some valid and interesting questions. I for one think that most game designers and fantasy writers use the polytheistic approach both to personify natural or magical forces and to take people away from what they might be used to in their own lives. Who, they ask, would want to read a book or play a game involving how much someone should tithe to their local church, for instance? Still, I think there is a responsible and enriching way to use these gods or spirits. They can provide archetypes of man's ideals and ambitions, and they can also hint at, however distantly, another level of life than that in which we live every day. I know that my faith would not have been the same kind of faith without exposure to these fantastical worlds of wonder.