I’m at GDC, and a number of talks, events, and random encounters have caused me to think deeply about the kind of game experiences I want to create. Notably, this was the last year for the Game Design Challenge, an annual GDC event where top game designers are given a difficult and evocative topic to design for. This year, the topic was “Humanity’s Last Game,” an idea which brings to mind the inevitability of death, and what may come after. Last year, the designers were tasked with designing a game that is also a religion.
One pressure that the GDC community exerts (especially the indie scene, of which I aspire to be a part) is the desire for authenticity. Surrounded by indie culture, games seem like a stale and shallow inspiration for other games. I have a lot of sympathy with this viewpoint, at least until the game industry generates a Tarantino. Besides, I like so many kinds of game -- linear, systemic, abstract, realistic -- that as a source of inspiration, past games offer mostly confusion.
I find myself thinking in the intersection of these two ideas: personal experience and spirituality. My first twitch is to say “what spirituality?” I am an atheist, now. A bad one. I’m the kind of atheist that thinks everyone who believes in the supernatural is at least a little bit crazy. But I was crazy once.
I was raised in the Eastern Orthodox church. If I were to write a book about the world’s religions, I would need only one line for Eastern Orthodoxy, and it would say, “mostly harmless.” They don’t pay taxes, but they’re a somewhat charitable. They do proselytise abroad, but they also help the developing world. They baptize infants, but don’t reject science. They don’t allow female priests, but have no other institutional inequality that I can think of.
I was a true believer, in the Stan Lee sense of the phrase. I taught sunday school, gave student sermons, attended church camp and championed the Christian worldview against critics among my peers.
Gods make great stories. They set the stage for clashes between beings of unlimited power, but who rely on a relatable human character to accomplish the heroic. Christians may believe, with full internal consistency, that they are soldiers in a war against evil. A war which threatens every sentient being in the universe, but in which they personally play a crucial role. Almost equally heroic is the iconoclastic atheism of writers like Nietzsche. “God is Dead” sounds at least as bombastic as “Jesus Saves.” But my atheism is not nearly so valiant as this.
For me, my religion was like the plastic bag you take a goldfish home in. It was pretty flexible, but I came to realize how superfluous a deity was. There is nothing left that needs a god to explain its behavior or its origin. My bag sprung a leak, and gradually, over a period of years, my faith leaked out. I began to see what damage religion was doing to the world, and while I wasn’t looking, my goldfish, my God, had died.
Narrative games are usually played in a religious mindset. There is a great struggle taking place, and you must play a crucial role in defeating the evil. You are granted, by the game, miraculous powers to help you accomplish your quest. You may even need to kill a god, but doing so only reinforces the grandiose fantasy you're in.
There is a different class of game, often called “systemic” or “mechanical” which are commonly associated with reason. These games are materialist, but in a way that never addresses the broader questions that religious games claim. WHY am I trying to beat this person in Chess? Maybe they are the good guy, and I should help them win.
Perhaps what I could contribute is another kind. A game about the transition from a believer to a nonbeliever. A game where the player is asked to give up their epic mission and their extraordinary powers in exchange for the superpower of making free choices, and of being one human among many.
Here’s how I think the game would play: God would give the player an epic mission to complete, probably to destroy or kill something (even though that’s usually wrong -- he’ll say -- just this once it’s OK). From a first person perspective, the player would slay various supernatural monsters. Each mission would grant the player new powers, and challenges would, of course, grow in difficulty over time. Powers would be automatically equipped in all available power slots, so gaining a new power means gaining a new slot, etc.
Missions would never involve other people, only demons and seraphims and whatever other mythology we’d decide to bring in. But sometimes, while the player is on a mission, she would see the shadowy figure of another human being. The ghost would say “reject your power!” And for some players, that would be the end of it, because it’s so hard to do so. Some players might figure out that they’re supposed to unequip one of their powers so they have an empty slot. The game might even threaten them as they start a mission with an empty slot.
Missions would be designed very linearly, or hub-and-spoke, with a Fable-style navigation-helper.
But if she empties some of her slots, the swirling demons will begin to fade, and the player will begin to see the figure a bit more clearly. If the player veers away from the direction the mission is incentivising, she may even find new powers. Powers like “empathy,” and “creativity,” if equipped, will help the material world become more and more visible. With speech equipped, the player is able to interact with people through dialogue trees.
Without any epic supernatural powers, the demons become invisible, and the player will see, instead, the scene of a car accident. A dark haired woman will ask if your cellphone battery has any power. there are people trapped in the overturned car. If you pull them to safety, the game ends, and you are the winner.
That’s what I imagine a game about becoming an atheist to be like.