A New Guest Contributor Arrives!
Seriously, though, let’s introduce my friend. M. Joshua Cauller is an art director/designer with extensive experience in a variety of media, including web design, film, and print. A self-proclaimed multi-disciplinary creative professional, he also likes to write, which he does frequently at Love Subverts. Due to this background, he has quite an interest in video games (and did, at one point, want to be a game designer). Without further ado, here’s Cauller talking about Mass Effect (a game series with which I’ve only dabbled).
A Mass Effect Missionary
When I started playing the first Mass Effect, I set out to be a good guy. Or in my case, good girl (I like to play RPGs through the female option). Since Mass Effect gives the player the option to play under the Paragon or Renegade play style, I figured that playing as a good guy would be darn close to playing the game as Jesus. I had no idea how far from the truth this was. Also, I was also quite surprised how close to the the truth this was.
How I couldn’t play Mass Effect as Jesus:
First of all, the Paragon options were obvious. ”Be a nice Shepard” is probably a better title for this play type. You’re certainly not Jesus. Jesus was way more interesting than this ”nice” option. This is just simply what any normal human being would choose. Stop folks from shooting others. Try to solve things peacefully. Be kind and friendly. Like I said, kinda boring.
How I could play Mass Effect as Jesus:
Secondly, the player is set up to be a Christ-like character in the Mass Effect universe. Mass Effect’s customizable protagonist goes by their last name, ”Shepard.” The name is similar (Jesus is called the Good Shepard). Shepard gets a core group of followers (about twelve). He (or she) dies and gets resurrected in Mass Effect 2. And Shepard saves the whole known universe in Mass Effect 3. Sorry if I spoiled the ending for you. Wait. I’m not sorry. You probably knew that. But seriously, by the third game, it’s obvious that the game is some kind of “Messiah Simulation.”
Before I get to the details on that, let me back up.
Mass Effect for the Uninitiated (Mass Effect 1-3)
I knew that playing the first Mass Effect would keep me under water for a long time. It was everything that captures my imagination and attention: a thoroughly-fleshed-out world that is full of mystery, interesting people, and exploration.
By the time I came up for air, I found myself in a thrilling world of greater believability than any other RPG that I remembered playing. It still felt a lot like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. But it was better-crafted. It felt like it was somebody’s baby.
There was a tiny bit of weirdness. The aliens felt more human than the humans. The combat felt too loose for me to play on the harder difficulties. But I didn’t care. There was a world I was completely curious about. And I felt like my place in that world mattered.
It didn’t feel like I was the savior of the world. But it did feel like I was unearthing a bunch of lies that needed to have the truth shined-on.
The second Mass Effect was like a drug. When I played it for the first time, I couldn’t stop. I was given the gift of three feet of snow that week. That snow meant I was able to play through much of the experience without the interruptions of work. And I felt like it was glorious. But when the credits rolled, and I played it a second time, I suddenly realized: the game was reduced to a ”find new follower, go to their location, talk, shoot, boss, acquire new follower” format. It felt like Mass Effect 1’s world of discovery was almost forgotten. It wasn’t about unearthing an insidious plot and trying to shine light on it. It was just about stockpiling (hired) guns.
That’s not entirely true, mind you. There was that big question about who the Illusive Man was. And why a strange alien race seems to be abducting whole human colonies. But honestly, that didn’t have the same curtain of intrigue as the first game. The biggest difference was that the shooting felt more natural this time around. The whole combat system felt sharp. And the RPG elements were faster and simpler, making it easier to become a tool of destruction. It’s a big dose of steroids and adrenaline.
The ME drug was back and in full-effect with Mass Effect 3. The mystery element was back, as was the unexpected unfolding of events throughout. I found myself truly wondering the whole way through it, ”How are we going to win this?” The sense of the stakes was well-built. In fact, the whole ride through the third game epitomizes why I play games. The gameplay was excellent: an excellent medley of risk vs reward. And then, after what was definitely one of the hardest sections of any game I’ve played, the crescendo: the point where all of the hard work comes to a final point of victory. And in that victory, you’re reverently crowned, ”The Shepard.”
I walked away from the game feeling a sense of completeness.
But I didn’t feel like a Messiah to the galaxy.
I mean, I knew that was the role that I was entrusted with. But it still didn’t feel like that meant anything.
The Failings of Any Messiah Sim
If Mass Effect is a Messiah Sim, there’s a major issue. Namely, that anybody who plays the game can experience it. The idea of simulating being the Messiah is the concept of being ”the One.” That appeal is lost the moment you start getting together with your buddy and discussing what you both like about being ”the One.”
Moreover, Mass Effect 3 kind of brought me to a feeling of emptiness. Many other people felt the same thing when they finished the game. People complained about the ending of Mass Effect 3 – so much so that Bioware redid the whole thing. But many people still felt dissatisfied. I think I know why: Messiah Sims are dissatisfying. Our hearts aren’t wired for them.
I agree that our hearts are wired with a thirst for justice. We object when we see injustice. And if we’re brave, we do something about it. This is the story of most adventure fiction. We like rooting for the good guys. We like being the good guys. But does it work when we’re hailed as heroes?
Think about all of your heroes. The real ones. Have they let you down? If they’re human, they will. Jesus is human. He’s also God. That’s why he doesn’t let us down. One big issue with playing a Messiah sim is that we know we’ll let people down. We might find ourselves between a rock and a hard place: or between letting one entire race die (in Mass Effect’s case). I’m sure that Jesus would know some way to make things work for the good of all. That seems to be how he does things. Or he helps us suffer though the hard stuff. I am convinced, however, that he doesn’t ever oblige us to sin.
Jesus has called us to be his representatives in the world. That means that God gets all the glory. Like him, we’re to point to our Father in Heaven in acknowledgment in all we do. Like Billy Graham says, ”Do what you will, but don’t take God’s glory.”
So when you save the whole universe in Mass Effect? I don’t believe any man is worth of that kind of Glory. That’s for God. A man (or woman) wouldn’t be able to handle that. And as such, the decision and the weight thereof seems rightfully artificial.
Who does Jesus want us to be in the world?
The scriptures declare that God wants us to be revealed as his heirs (huios). Romans states that all creation groans for the revealing of the sons of God. We’re biologically his children. But he wants us to come under his Son’s sonship and be revealed as His disciples: learned students who aspire to live and function like their master.
There’s been a ton of speculation about what it means to come under a master and aim to become just like him. But no matter how you craft it, we can confirm that we’re not to grasp for God’s glory. That’s his alone. And if we take glory for ourselves, it pollutes us with pride, arrogance and misappropriated superiority. This is why finishing the Messiah Sim is dissatisfying. The game tries to tell you, ”Look at how awesome you are!” and you walk away like, ”Okay, but I’m just as awesome as all the thousands of other people who completed this game!” The sentiment is lost.
One thing we all can agree on is that our relationship with Jesus affects our whole life for the better. We just have to figure out what that means exactly – and in practice!
Is it possible to “WWJD” any videogame?
There’s a fundamental design flaw behind the idea of trying to play a role playing game as a faithful disciple of Jesus: you’re at the mercy of the game designers.
Yes, in Mass Effect, you can choose whether to be a ”good guy” or a ”bad guy.” But the decisions don’t really amount to anything other than, ”do I come across as a jerk or a nice guy.” And anybody who knows anything about Jesus knows that he’s cannot be reduced to being a ”nice guy.” Sometimes, Jesus isn’t a nice guy. Sometimes he gets angry at his disciples for not having faith. Sometimes he calls terrible religious leaders ”sons of hell.” And sometimes he’s simply not polite to Gentile women. Moreover, Jesus goes way beyond being nice. He heals the sick, raises the dead and forgives adulteresses.
You don’t see options like that coming up in Mass Effect’s decision-making.
Regardless of what we can or cannot do in a game by design, there’s the resolute question that ends any of our experiences: how does my relationship with Jesus affect this?
Should our posture as Christians affect our gameplay?
Recently, IGN put out an article deriding the values of morality in a game world, declaring such things irrelevant. I disagree with that article whole-heartedly. There’s one big difference with a Christian and a non-christian: a Christian is not under the assumption that they can do anything to their heart and it doesn’t matter. Your heart belongs to Jesus. And everything that you let in it, affects your relationship with Him. And while a lot of this could open the question of whether or not we should be playing M-rated game,. I believe the greater issue is: what kind of decisions do we make when we’re confronted with brokenness? Soiling your conscience by doing things that grieve the Holy Spirit is a strict no-no. But choosing the things that would bring hope and redemption to a world that has none? I think that’s the kind of thing with which I want to fill my imagination!
While Mass Effect doesn’t necessarily give us the option to make decisions like Jesus, I do believe that it is a step forward for game design and decision making experiences. But I’m looking forward to seeing things get even better in the near future!