Questions of Faith: What is Religion's Role in Games?

Unsurprisingly, many game developers and publishers would rather stick a fork in a live power outlet than discuss religion in games, much less write it into a game with a role more complex than archetypal good-vs.-evil belief sets.

But GameSpy's Julian Murdoch went in search of truth on the subject, despite the stonewalling and no-commentary this effort was certain to receive. Some luminaries in the field are eager to take up the subject - notably Peter Molyneux, creator of the god-sim Populous, and Ken Levine, whose Irrational Games made BioShock, whose dystopic objectivist society is introduced with the memorable banner "No Gods or Kings, Only Man."


Games run a couple risks that literature and cinema would not seem to share. One, that as a form of interactive recreation, its consumers come to a game in search of fun and may not care to ponder such weighty subjects. And two, because of that role, no matter how seriously the matter is treated, it's still a game, and making that out of a faith's iconography or belief structure is bound to offend someone. There seems to be little percentage in grounding a game's message in any actual faith - and far less in making judgments of one, specifically.

That does not mean its time will never come, and as Murdoch's reporting shows, there are some willing to bring it into the discussion.

God's PR Problem: The Role of Religion in Videogames [GameSpy, Jan. 13]

[...] Dante's Inferno has received substantial attention for the religious context of its story — a re-imagined journey of poet-turned-crusader Dante Aleghieri into Hell to recover his lost love Beatrice — but most of that attention was self-generated. EA's PR team deliberately played up the "sins" of each circle of Hell in their media outreach, going so far as to stage mock protests from faux fundamentalists outside last year's Electronic Entertainment Expo.

But, oddly enough, it doesn't seem that the game itself is actually looking to make a point about religion at all. "It's dealing with religious imagery and symbolism and context," explains [Visceral Games' Jonathan] Knight. "But it [takes place] a long, long time ago. It doesn't presume to make any judgments about today, or about belief." I detect a note of sadness in his voice as he says this; it's clear that he sees a real opportunity for games to directly explore such issues.

I ask him what questions he wants to tackle, and where he thinks games can take us. "What happens when you die?" asks Knight. "What's the higher purpose? What is God's plan for us?" he asks. "It's pervasive. Some properties do it loosely, or abstracted, or metaphorically. Some folks get a little closer to the third rail. But it's always there."

That third rail turns out to be very hard to touch. Sure, Fable II features good and bad churches, but they're largely stereotypes, played for comic effect. Games as old and revered as the Gabriel Knight series were set into religious contexts, and organized churches are a common trope of many Japanese RPGs. But is there enough of a payoff for a designer to really dig deep into the issues of belief?

Yes and no, according to 2K Boston's Creative Director Ken Levine, designer of BioShock and Thief: The Dark Project, two games which tackled the nature of belief head-on. "I think it's very tough to find a right and a wrong choice in life, so I tend to be drawn to shades of gray," Levine says. In BioShock, protagonist Andrew Ryan builds a city based on his belief system — one that denies God and worships man. In Ryan's underwater city of Rapture, the number-one item smuggled from the surface seems to be bibles, which litter the poorer districts of the city like People Magazine in a dentist's office. "As things get worse, people tend to go even further into their belief systems, rather than question them," Levine remarks. "I think that's interesting."

In Thief: The Dark Project (a game on which Levine served primarily as the story designer), he set a traditional, Christian-like church (the Hammerites) against a church based around a living, breathing prophet (the Trickster). "With an organized religion, there's the question — what actually happened? Virgin birth or not? Resurrection or not? But when you have an actual god walking around, it's harder to define canon; he just is. It was an interesting set of forces to put against each other — the primal force, and the organized force."

But are games the right place for these explorations? Lionhead's Molyneux certainly thinks so. "For me, faith is a real and tangible thing," he explains. "I think, like any form of entertainment or any form of fiction, games can drive towards faith. If people walk away from the game and think more deeply about things, and faith is one of those things, that would be brilliant." [...]

- Julian Murdoch

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