Posted by: kafaw | October 28, 2008

Response to The Escapist: “Heathens by Design”

This week at The Escapist Magazine is god game week, featuring several articles about god-like gameplay elements and what makes them fun, one example being what tvtropes.org has canonically wiki’d as “videogame cruelty potential.”  Yeah, it always cracked me up when I hit the nuke button in Lemmings, and all the little guys chirped “uh oh!” before randomly popping themselves and half the level into flying pixels.

One article, however, tried to think outside the box, and not unexpectedly the result was, much like when saying the phrase “think outside the box,” truly cringeworthy:

For all his magical items, heroic deeds and self-sacrifice, Mario knows – simply knows – that there is no external, mystical force shaping events and willing to intervene on his behalf. There’s the player, of course, but once he boots up the system and grabs the controller, the player and Mario are one and the same. Mario, and Mario alone, is the only person who can save the Princess, defeat Bowser and restore order to the land. No invisible, benevolent overlord. No God. And he likes it that way.

Sliding without abandon: somewhere, either God or Miyamoto is laughing at me

Okay, what?  There is no god in the Mushroom Kingdom because there is never any divine intervention?  Because God himself doesn’t come down and save the Princess and give Mario a day off?  How many times have you ever been screwed over by a Mario game in a way that just made you want to rage “NOT FAIR,” or been saved by a mushroom right when you needed it?  How many times have you been running and jumping in a Mario game, having no idea what you are doing, yet somehow you keep landing the jumps and avoiding the traps simply because you kept going without stopping?  What about extra lives?  Continues?  Power-ups dropping from the sky in Super Mario World?  I would call all these things “luck,” except that word is just as naively mystical as “fate” or “destiny” or any of those other words spewed out by spiritual loonies.  It is all a coincidence!

Alright already, so the beauty of Mario is that you are never stuck in an impossible situation, and the game design naturally rewards you for being ballsy–at least when it isn’t being evil (see The Lost Levels).  Maybe the Escapist writer realized halfway through his article how crappy his first argument was and moved onto another, saying that every game occurs in an atheistic universe because “every game gives the player some degree of control over their environment.”  Hey, I’m going to sit there jumping in place for the whole game because I have FREE WILL and fuck the princess there is no god he don’t tell me shit meeehh.  And wait, does this mean every non-interactive form of art is totally theistic because the reader has no control?

The article goes on to say that Portal and Bioshock are examples of games that outright embrace atheism because they involve a struggle against a figurative god character, but I get the feeling that the Escapist author Anthony Burch might not understand what a, well, author is.  Like every good piece of philosophical bullshit, we really need to drag Plato into this.

I think writing has this strange feature, which makes it like painting.  The offspring of painting stand there as if alive, but if you ask them something, they preserve a quite solemn silence.  Similarly with written words: you might think that they spoke as if they had some thought in their heads, but if you ever ask them any of the things they say out of a desire to learn, they point to just one thing, the same thing each time.

"Looks like a goddamn religious icon!"
“Looks like a goddamn religious icon!”

Um, okay, so… words and paintings aren’t actually alive?  Wow and we’re still reading this guy 2300 years later because why?  But I guess there is a point, and that is: it’s a game.  It is just words or code or paint or whatever.  Video games are a rare breed of media that actually give the player the illusion of control, but you don’t have true freedom in a game.  You can only do what the author has said you can do–unless you hack it or something, which is like the equivalent of rewriting the very fabric of time and space.

The author is God, and when you read a book, you can pretend to talk to him; when you play a game, you are still pretending, it’s just a better simulation of interactive communication.  Portal is a game which explicitly places the author in the position of the antagonist, as GLaDOS is basically the creator of the whole game and everything you experience; it’s all there just to test you.  Fighting GLaDOS is fighting the people who made the game.  On the other hand, Metal Gear Solid 2 crushes the fourth wall with a huge flaming turd in order to make fun of you, its fans, and probably its dead mom also.  You better believe there is a “god” in that game.  And He hates you, very very much.

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Responses

  1. Mario is a pretty existential mother-fucker I ‘spose… that’s why he is a plumber after all, right?

    there needs to be more adventurous spiritual games, regarding the beginning of that last paragraph. sure, there’s games like Black & White, or I’ve even seen one that is GTA styled, but involves blessing mobs of heathens/zombies/sinners with your holy powers, but they are so hokey and opposing and unoriginal, obviously appealing to gamers who need to be saved, or to the same audience that believes D&D is the devil’s workings.

    I’m talking about full-blown technological fanaticism and worship, by communicating to God(s?) through the use of modern technology as aiding tool or direct means of it. the whole ordeal – controllers guiding the painting, so to speak, yes, but a videogame designed as an intermediary of God’s message: seizure-inducing colors and hypnotic sound waves, a la possession, the holy spirit of input / output in a loop of feedback. man using machine to find god and god using machine to find man.

    (but, then I guess it’s all just really about the money, isn’t it?)

    ah, shit – have you ever read Snow Crash?

  2. A game like what you’re thinking of would probably need to be always changing. Like, an input/output loop that actually responds intelligently to the input. There is a cool screensaver called electric sheep which connects all computers running it, having them work together to create abstract animations, a “collective android dream.” Users can vote on animations that they like, influencing the design of the computers. Not a game… but maybe along the lines you’re thinking of?

    Games like GTA are neat because you can go so far off the beaten path and still get interesting responses from the game, responses the creators may have never expected. It is interesting to think of to what degree they are the author of your experience.

    Aaron, if you are out there, we really need you to bring some Godel Escher Bach into this!

    That book Snow Crash sounds amazing every time I hear about it and I have no idea why I haven’t read it yet.

  3. nah, I think a game could rather simply deliver what some could call a religious experience. it’s all just a matter of where it’s coming from and who is labeling it. look at Pokemon’s Saturday morning mass. maybe we’re just a few decades behind on this type of thing, at least in America.

    I have electric sheep, but it’s rather disappointing. Maybe I did something wrong, but I only get two different animations, and there’s really no thinking going on with it. Milkdrop visualization is sadly more impressive.

    Games like GTA are great, but I miss the days of the GameShark hacks. Now THAT’s divine intervention! The possibilities were amazing – you could create such new interesting ways to play the game by hacking it’s code and adding something strange or beneficial, or just fundamentally altering a main element of the game, giving you a whole new approach to an old set of standards and systems.

    In a very LAME roundabout way, this guy on SA was talking about something similar. He was playing GTA IV again, after beating it, and decided to play it non-violently. He didn’t steal cars, he tried to earn them, and keep them, and take care of them (I’m guessing he followed traffic laws – what a dope!) and he would use his fists only in confrontations, unless it required a firefight, in which case he said he tried to shoot non-lethal hits in the limbs and such.

    Hmm… I would play a Ghandi game. Or perhaps, a Buddha game, where you can sit by a stream and contemplate the tensions of stringed instruments in relation to the balance of good and evil in the universe. Leveling up would involve your life spirit transcending physical bodies. Heh.

    Yeah, I want to read Godel Escher Bash, however I am reading several other lofty books at the moment that I need to finish first: Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, The Doors of Perception and Heaven & Hell by Aldous Huxley, and The Secret History of the World as Laid Down by the Secret Societies by Mark Booth, and of course Shirky and Sagan literature.


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