Moral Simplicity Versus Pessimistic Complexity

I think people who dig straight gameplay and depend on THAT for immersion, are different from folks who want the story/world to immerse them and have the gameplay compliment those 2. I think that the “story game” will likely have it’s own genre.

More talking about the divide (not in a bad way) I see with gamers recently. Example would be the first Bioshock. Lots of people LOVED Bioshock and raved about the atmosphere and story etc. However, there were a lot of folks who didn’t like it at all and said ‘this game isn’t fun to play! It’s repetitive and there’s barely any action’. So it seems there are gamers who want just pure gameplay, and there are gamers who want an immersed experience and wan the gameplay to only assist with the overall story. Not saying one is better than the other, it’s just interesting to note.

Justin Fox, developer of ReElise

Let’s talk about this recent divide.

I would consider myself part of the “gameplay” sector. I like the way games play, and I enjoy their mechanics. If they could use those mechanics to convey a story – the one which you carve out using the developer’s intended methods to inhabit that character – then I am fine with that. Usually people call such games “power fantasies” due to them making you the primary actor in the virtual world. The whole intent, then, is to place you, the player, in the mode of being a fantastically powerful being, a hero with the power to change things.

So what, exactly, strikes you as “wrong” about this particular idea? Stories and tales emerged out of cultures for generations as a source of entertainment and difference in the lives of what we might call “ordinary” people. Kids enjoy, and still do, playing the traditional roles of cowboys and (American) Indians, or being the swashbuckling Errol Flynn who saves the damsel in distress (please laugh with me), or even the noble and generous thief. These did not “pervert” the youth any more than entertainment could at any point in time – they were enjoyed because they were difference. Stories, especially adventure stories, provide some ineffable, intangible benefit to us even now through whatever medium you happen to prefer.

I read adventurous novels when I was a child; it’s hard to imagine my childhood without the Redwall series. How, exactly, could you figure out what an abbey was, or why anthropomorphic creatures liked to drink October Ale and eat pies, or why rats and mice went to war? Whatever the case, Jacques’ relatively formulaic series always made sure to draw a bold line between good and evil; no shades of gray existed, and the few that did happened to good character losing their resolve. Like any great tales, they overcome adversity and challenge to right the wrongs and save the day. You don’t want these stories to end – and they don’t, because we keep writing the same old stories over and over again, thus bringing their delights to new generations. Books, movies, video games, and other such mediums attempt to enrapture us in their world while saying something about our world. The simplest narratives turn out the best, simply because a moral common sense stands like a rigid iron rod in their very construction.

Video games for the popular audience, then, feel like the natural extension of those tales. They set us as the hero, and they task us with the destruction of a villain. They had little time for storytelling devices from “literature”; they were more akin to Golden Age comic books or (in the early 20th century) “penny dreadfuls”, a nickname for children’s novels and books that provided much the same context. They weren’t “literature” by modern standards or even by contemporary standards, but they brought us a side of life we already knew, communicated in a different way. Young children ruled over the video game industry for the longest time, and so video game companies responded accordingly, at least on the console front. Even gory fare like Mortal Kombat and Primal Rage (think Godzilla and King Kong with fatalities) fit into the same simplistic good/evil dynamics.

Primal Rage Screenshot

Primal Rage was such an odd game, really.

We can call this “immersion” – it’s just an entry-way into a different world for a time. It’s neither good nor bad, really, yet usually it contains our current social mores, or even our attitude towards life in general. Does it show us as optimists willing to fight for what’s right? Idealists willing to make a stand? Or does it show us a pessimist who can’t get everything they want, and certainly cannot figure out right from wrong? That’s where the immersion starts to diverge.

And by that, along with a Christian upbringing, video games of the idealistic vein (not that there was much else at the time) injected my young psyche with a strong sense of moral justice and purity. Certain things were right, and certain things were wrong; I do not compromise on truth. Certainly, I err on concepts and ideas over time – that’s part of the effort, struggle, and fun, see – but overarching principles apply anywhere and everywhere. This is where our current debates about…well, most anything, tend to fail. We focus on particulars without analyzing their basis. We get too wrapped up in fearing offense, and free speech always gives us a back door in case we make mistakes. We’re not willing to stand up for “truth” or make a vow against evil things, simply because we know our whims might take our convictions elsewhere.

Cue the modern video game market. Now that the median age look around thirty-five or so, the market followed suit in appealing to adults. Not just adults – well-off adults who spend thousands of dollars on high priced technology. The first adopters, if you will, control the market, and they represent a particularly atheistic and cynical outlook. In fact, just to show how much things change in a half-century, nearly 3 percent of Americans checked the “None” box when asked by the U.S. Census for their religious affiliation. Contrast that to now, where it rose to almost 20%. Many of them exist in the “elite” status of culture, heavily influencing the rest of our society through their machinations. That they control most educational resources, in both public schools and colleges, should show you why our entertainment preferences changed.

The Last of Us Screenshot

Now post-apocalyptic scenarios seem so prevalent, and now I get it.

So now, the video game market shifts to game like Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us as the heights of our medium. They focus on the story and the narrative rather than the mechanics. One becomes a sidecar to the other, inevitably, as a development company decides both which will sell more AND which one works more effectively with the ideas they want to express. And, in both of those, I’d call the message decidedly negative and pessimist. We no longer find heroes to emulate and inspire us – we bring those heroes down to our level so that we do not have to do much, in the end, to live up to an ideal. Hence the power of the cynical “Nones: who taught us of literature, of good storytelling, and what we should expect from our cultural products as a whole.

If they want to dismiss my penchant for the simple stuff as “vulgar” and “common”, fine by me; I’d rather exist in that world then in theirs. I think a Christian should reject their notions of narrative and structure. The Bible should, in its own way, constrain our notions of what exist as healthy media products to consume. That doesn’t mean “no sin at all in our stuff”, but it does mean representing it as proper. It does mean showing a real good and a real evil, and not just the wishy-washy modern notions we attach to those words. They are not expressions of like/dislike; they are real things, and we should identify them as such. And the stories and tales – the fictions – of the common man are a far cry for what passes as “literature” in any medium today. As Chesterton might say to our modern era:

Literature and fiction are two entirely different things. Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity…In this matter, as in all such matters, we lose our bearings entirely by speaking of the “lower classes” when we mean humanity minus ourselves. This trivial romantic literature is not especially plebeian: it is simply human. The philanthropist can never forget classes and callings. He says, with a modest swagger, “I have invited twenty-five factory hands to tea.” If he said, “I have invited twenty five chartered accountants to tea,” every one would see the humour of so simple a classification. but this is what we have done with this lumberland of foolish writing: we have probed, as if it were some monstrous new disease, what is, in fact, nothing but the foolish and valiant heart of man. Ordinary men will always be sentimentalists: for a sentimentalist is simply a man who has feelings and does not trouble to invent a new way of expressing them. These common and current publications have nothing essentially evil about them. They express the sanguine and heroic truisms on which civilisation is built; for it is clear that unless civilisation is built on truisms, it is not built at all. Clearly, there could be no safety for a society in which the remark by the Chief Justice that murder was wrong was regarded as an original and dazzling epigram.

We, instead, focus on the questions. We point out the failure of these simple stories, only to question our own morals and ideas of good and evil in a much more harrowing, and dangerous, way. We criticize these paragons of virtue – humanity minus myself. I think to myself “I’ve always heard Philippians 4 being used for us to focus on avoiding sin in our particular media. But what if that wasn’t it? What if it’s the point of these stories, narrative, and ideas that become what is excellence in Christian thought?” To show the verse:

8 Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. 9 The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

That is exactly my point. What do I find praiseworthy about a bleak, dark, and depressing world? What do I see in God within it, other than what I inject into it under my own pretenses? Authorial intent counts for a lot; you don’t see me recommending Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral. It represents the complete contrarian view to me, a rejection of God and peeling away the layers of self only to find nothing in the end. The answer stood in front of the narrator, but gets rejected outright. How can we expect other media not to reach a similar conclusion to its stories?

I refuse to let the literature of the Nones usurp the stories of the common man, the Bible. One sees progress; the other saw things as they were. And something always gets left behind with “progress”, even in our stories.

The present age is the very contrary to what are commonly called the dark ages; and together with the faults of those ages we have lost their virtues. I say their virtues; for even the errors then prevalent, a persecuting spirit, for instance, fear of religious inquiry, bigotry, these were, after all, but perversions and excesses of real virtues, such as zeal and reverence and we, instead of limiting and purifying them, have taken them away root and branch. Why? Because we have not acted from a love of the Truth, but from the influence of the Age.

John Henry Newman, “The Religion of the Day

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.