Using Faith as a Game Mechanic

Aug 24, 16  | posted by Joel Castro (1242)

An old post about my thoughts on faith in gaming

One thing I’ve always noticed about video games – most particularly in the Fantasy genre – is that they often use a plethora of religious imagery and mythology within their worlds. It’s not unexpected. Religion is home to some of greatest pieces of work, provides unique forms of symbolism, and always has fascinating stories to try and ape from. Some would disagree, but you can’t deny there’s a beauty to a lot of the tales and beliefs of the world’s religions.

With video games, they usually try to mimic the storytelling and symbolism of religions, adding their own variations here and there so as not to confuse people about what message they’re implying about certain religions. Even the most popular video game franchises use religion to great effect. Halo often references Norse and Christian mythology in their world. God of War is a re-imagining of the beliefs of the ancient Greeks. Dragon Age features the Chant of Light, a tweaked parallel to Christianity. Square Enix’s Final Fantasy series takes on many religions as well, including Buddhism, Hinduism, and even (yet again) Christianity.

However, there’s one aspect of religion that many games fail to explore properly, or even at all in some cases. That would be the faith inherent in all religions. It is the beliefs we hold even when evidence isn’t tangible to our natural human senses. It’s the one thing that an individual holding certain beliefs clings to in times of great strife. It’s what binds us as human beings to explore the world, and by extension, ourselves. It is the fundamental systems of belief that people share that’s called faith, whether it’s by an individual or a group, whether it’s through scientific discovery – taking a theory on little more than faith and proving that faith to be as close to true as possible before the next discovery either tweaks it or proves it wrong – or through a belief in a higher power: the source of religion in general.

I understand there’s a lot of hostility within the gaming community with regards to religion and faith. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t the case. Look up the number of religious groups demonizing video games throughout the years to see what I’m talking about. But in reality, it’s kind of silly to be arguing about faith among believers and skeptics. And even still, those arguments, both external and internal, need to be explored in gaming a lot more.

Let’s use an example for a minute. Let’s say that, in a fantasy game, you have a scholar who studies magic. She’s fascinated by magic’s mere existence in her world, and studies all she can about it. She goes to a magical college and has become a respected scholar on the subject, and by all rights should be considered a priest of magic. Now imagine her being able to do all this without the natural or even latent ability to cast a single spell, and that knowledge bugs her. She can see the proof in observing her students and her friends. Every time someone lights a candle with a snap, or being able to heal a would with only a wave of their fingers, she knows it exists. She knows what it means to be responsible with such a power, and yet she knows nothing of holding that responsibility in a practical sense. This causes her to have doubt in what she’s doing, or maybe even causes her to be so envious that she tries anything to be able to wield such power, even at a great cost.

If she’s a character you come to know in a game, we can use this as a game mechanic. She might be a character who gives you tomes on how to cast spells, and yet her written spells don’t seem to have the same strength as those who can summon that power on their own. Let’s say that, in the sense of the game, her spells always work because she studied the proper technique on how to cast it, and will always hit the target dead on. However, the power the spell does have doesn’t have the same punch as a wizard who gives you more powerful versions of the same spell, but at the cost of only being able to hit seven times out of fifteen attempts, so to speak. Why not give her a story to fit that scenario? She asks to come on adventures to see spells in action, or maybe she stops giving you spell books for a while because she’s realizing there’s little point to producing an accurate, but largely ineffective spell if others can do the job better.

Or how about something even more game-like. For my non-gaming readers, I apologize for going technical on you, but I’ll explain this as best I can. Let’s say I make a game and decide to make a faith/skepticism meter. This is similar to a good/evil karma meter that’s found in many games, but with a few tweaks. This meter fluctuates through many different means. Conversations with people about religion or faith, for example, can help make the bar go one way or another. It’s how it works in most games. But there’s a catch. What if the more of one side you take, the more your dialogue changes, and not always so simply. If you decide to show faith to the game’s religion, you’ll constantly be called out on your beliefs when terrible things keep happening, causing your answers to either remain confident – thus causing skeptical non-player characters to give you more grief – or to have a tiny bit of doubt that can sway you in the other direction. What if an in-game event crippled their belief system and shattered their faith entirely? Their in-game abilities would then suffer, such as a reduction in accuracy, or being paralyzed at the beginning of a fight against demons for a short period of time as they try to reconcile their crushed beliefs, just for one example.

On the other side of the spectrum, there’s the skeptic who doesn’t believe that magic (as an example) is a fix for everything, even if they wield it themselves. Maybe their dialogue focuses on taking down the optimists who can’t seem to understand the dangers of their world. They probably believe that the existence of such a force may still not presuppose a creator of magic – a god if you will – that granted their world such a responsibility. Maybe through in-game acts, they learn that their power is meant to help, thus making them more confident in their abilities, and giving them better stats to deal more damage to enemies or to better handle conversations that don’t agree with their world view. But because of this, this character begins to doubt his previous beliefs, even calling themselves a hypocrite in the face of evidence contrary to their opinion. Would they break? Would they continue to fight because it’s all they know how to do? Will they somehow embark on a journey that finally leads them to faith?

These are things that can be explored in games much more easily than a film or book could. Why is that? It’s simple: due to the interactive nature of the medium, you can live those moments of struggle. You can feel the crippling pain of someone losing faith, or the boundless, yet desperate hope of someone searching for faith. You can see the consequences in the character’s abilities, dialogue, and even their actions. This is probably the simplest way I could have put this rather controversial subject together, and there are many others would probably have a much more in-depth opinion on faith than I do – I may be a Christian, but that only boils down to my core beliefs, not my deeper knowledge about the subject overall. It’s just something to consider when wanting to make video games become more respectable in the eyes of the world, and might even help further our medium out of the depths of “mere entertainment” and into the realm of actually study and social analysis like other pieces of media.

That or I’ll have people ranting at me about the topic of religion, saying that I don’t know a thing about what I’m talking about. Because that’s always an option, right? Anyways, that’s all I have to say for now. Later, everyone.


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2130 days 13 hours ago

Posted by elheber

Have you played Undertale yet?

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2130 days 11 hours ago

Posted by Joel Castro

Not yet, unfortunately. Hoping to balance my finances before I even think about buying another game. That, and I'm progressing further towards my Air Force goals. Gaming might not be on my radar too much these coming months. I've deliberately avoided Undertale spoilers like the plague though, just because I wanna experience it fresh.

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