Video Game Simulation and Christian Imagination (Part 2)

Part One Lies Here. Please Read It!

Any game with dialogue trees and story decisions shows this well; by replicating the abstract idea of “choice” as represented by BioWare, players feel engaged in a pseudo-realistic science fiction/fantasy world. They find themselves attached to characters and interested in the world precisely because that information’s offered to the player throughout. It’s part of the wonderful magic trick that modern games use in placing YOU at the center of all things. Suddenly, your actions become important in the grand scheme, and the illusion of choice allows you to feel the gravity of a sequence of decisions.

Mass Effect Dialogue Tree

But, on the other side, this tips the postmodernist hand; video games rely on the player’s interpretation and suspension of disbelief to work. The more they try to replicate some portion of reality, the more likely they will fail precisely due to interpretation. This explains a lot of dissatisfaction with “endings” and “stories” in video games. Simply put, they are quite different than films and books in this respect. Not many people feel the need for a complete and total narrative fulfillment by the end of the game. It explains backlogs, why most of us own so many game that we will never truly play to completion or even break out of its shrink wrap. It also explains my friend Ryan, who owns tons of video games yet rarely plays them.

And it also explains my own predilections. Rarely does a game captivate me by story; rather, the rules and systems behind it usually provide an impetus for completion or continual play. It’s not all that strange when you see that most games weren’t closed systems. They repeat in an endless loop. There isn’t an end to chess, any more than there’s an end to Go, because these games exist to be played over and over again. Most great games place an urge in a player to experience it again. I find that modern games don’t do this very well, as the “cinematic protagonist trope” fails to engage for the millionth time. I suppose it also makes the case why people hate certain games all the more for bucking those conventions, even in the realization that they’re not all that fulfilling in the context of a game.

Over and over again, I’m confronted with the reality that video games can’t simulate reality. Not that well, anyway. Perhaps they simulate aspects of that reality in mechanical form, but they will always lack in the long run. That’s because mechanics are mechanics, and rules are rules. Unless we try to compartmentalize reality, as if it had traditional “rules” like that of human-formed games, then we can’t succeed at that venture. The rules of narrative will always follow that of its designers, and someone gets left out in the cold.

Let us go into the abstract and remove all these narrative preconceptions. Where did games arise in the first place, anyway? Did they really exist to simulate reality, or present narrative formulations? No other form of game attempted this venture, quite honestly. I guess we could call Dungeons & Dragons an early prototype, but the game’s adventures did not carry narrative import – they only represented the imagination of the dungeon master. What unique experience could he create for the players? Would our heroes make it? Sure, you could view these as self-empowerment fantasies, but the rules and systems under them ensure that the “game” portion remains paramount. Look in any D&D rule book and you’ll see a list of abstractions and numbers that determine the flow of the game.

On the other hand, they usually provided reams of lore and story that fleshed out an imaginary world without forcing some preconceived narrative. That’s what made roleplaying exciting – the creators provided you with a host of tools, and then let you craft something amazing and personal out of it. The more academic sounding term for this is “expressing yourself through the ludic language of the game”. Video games tend to constrain, while other games tend to free. It’s strange that open worlds contributed more to the feeling gamers had about the lack of freedom in their games than anything else. Then, once developers started filling them with things to do (or, in the case of Grand Theft Auto IV, removing things to do for the narrative’s sake), they became a glorified version of a mission select.

Unlimited Saga Battle Scene

In effect, all these elements on top of the rules merely create an abstract construction of real things. They get more complicated, but in the end they’re limited in their capacity to open imagination and to free the player to do what they wish. Akitoshi Kawazu, talking about his game UNLIMITED:SaGa, makes the same point a little more elegantly:

If you increase the level of reality and complicate the game, it becomes a kind of reality simulation. However, originally games were putting a knife into the flank of reality. Usually somewhere there is a deformed thing or a symbolized thing has been implemented – Isn’t that what you call a game? Where to cut from the reality, where to symbolize, is the game design part. However, as far as UNLIMITED:SaGa is concerned, we said let’s tackle the basics of game design once again. We didn’t try to emphasize the realistic details, but rather symbolize, and cut out the parts we didn’t need. We thought, let’s dare to do a “not express” thing and we calmly sticked to that route.

Regardless of whether or not you think of Kawazu as a madman or not (some of his games might make you go crazy, that’s for sure), he hits the nail on the head. The systems of our games are now surrounded by a lack of symbolism. They go out of their way to replicate everything, poorly, rather than focusing on what to implement and what to cut. Game design, as someone somewhere probably said, is all about what to leave out rather than what to leave in, and perhaps this is what we’re missing. Our video games transformed from systems to imperfect (and sinful) reflections of our world, or how we look at it, and this disconnect makes many modern game wholly uninteresting to me. Their constraints limit their relevance.

But I am not one to resist the ideas of constraints – rather, I want to point out that the player cannot create the constraints. This is why the video game fails, and will always fail, to represent true freedom. Freedom, paradoxically, requires the freedom to choose something in deference to other things; when we choose something, we immediately constrain ourselves and become less free. That is the freedom we are missing here, and that is why so many people become angry at Mass Effect 3, or Dragon Age II. It isn’t that they hate a bad ending; it’s that they were not allowed to make that choice of a good or bad ending. The illusion dissappeared like a vapor, and they were left with that ultimate conclusion: what a waste of time that was!

I wager that Christianity lifts us from these constraints and makes us into new creations. A new creation sees the constant feedback loop of action and depression, but does not waver in the face of it. The Bible contains so much imagery and so much fodder for imagination that a Christian cannot live otherwise. We must use imagination to see our faith in true color; how else could we understand the resurrection of the dead, or the idea of spiritual realms, or the idea of a world reborn into God’s original image? All of it requires us to look at the world in a different light, and see it in the positive. Things are looking up, as they might say. The wicked will not prosper, and injustices will cease; what appears to be their victory actually reveals their doom. We Christians must look with fresh eyes upon the wonder and horror of our world and not see darkness, but the pinprick of light.

That faculty of imagination needs room to grow and prosper under a Christian mindset, a mind renewed to think of regrowth, not entropy. Games can be played and played again, for there’s always new things to learn and new nuances to discover. There isn’t a set beginning and a set end; it goes on for eternity. Jesus challenges us to look at the world in this way, not in the way of the world. The Beautitudes show us the realm of the actual, not just the ideal; this is how things should be, but also how things are because of Christ. Life’s an open system, not a closed feedback loop. Imagination’s a good thing, and derivativeness isn’t becoming of our Christian communion.

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.