Nocturne, among other things, has got me thinking about the way religion and theology are addressed in games, or at least in the JRPGs that I’ve gorged on like so many tongue-numbing pieces of sour candy through the years of my youth.
For indeed, JRPGs in particular are infamous for a lot of theological shenanigans, a lot of which indicates a less than positive view: deicide and corrupt religious institutions have been used as story tropes to the point of coming across as passe.
The first question is why there’s even an interest in broaching the topic to begin with. And I think that question can be partially answered by examining the early days of the genre.
The baseline structure of the typical Dungeons & Dragons inspired fantasy adventure is some riff on save the princess/save the kingdom/defeat the evil warlock. And a lot of the earliest computer RPGs, western and eastern, didn’t stray too far from that template.
The original Final Fantasy, although utterly shameless in its appropriation of the D&D bestiary and in its attempt to cash in on the success of Dragon Quest, was more ambitious. Saving the princess was the very first thing that you did, after which you found yourself in a quest to defeat four eldtritch fiends, and after that, you found yourself travelling back in time 1000 years and foiling a (rather nonsensical) plot to control the world by manipulating time.
The game continually raised the scale until it started to impinge upon the heady realm of metaphysics. There’s only so far you can expand things before you start considering multiple dimensions, time travel, higher planes of existence, etc. And villains accordingly get upscaled to the point where you’re no longer fighting against an evil king but rather some sort of spiritual entity taking the form of an evil king and so forth.
(although it is interesting to note that from a literary perspective this process seems to have happened in reverse: Melkor and Sauron began life in Tolkien’s Legendarium as fallen angels whose battles with the Valar and the Elves often happened on an unfathomable scale. But by the time of The Lord of the Rings, Sauron is diminished to the point of more or less being an evil warlock. He still is canonically a fallen angel, but the reader is given little indication of his real backstory. And the stakes have been considerably lowered to the fate of one of Arda’s continents. And, of course, due to Tolkien’s publication history, LOTR winds up being the story that casts the genre in amber)
The point that I am trying to get at in somewhat prolix fashion is that if you’re going to keep making your story bigger and badder you’re going to eventually impinge upon the realm of the gods. So it’s almost inevitable that a subgenre which is obsessed with epic, long-form fantasy storytelling will eventually start getting metaphysical. And the more ambitious titles would be willing to broach subject matter that comes closer to real beliefs and theology. And tackling capital G God is just irresistible.
And this is where what I call the problem of the demiurge comes in. For once a game decides to include a monotheistic deity in its cast, whether it explicitly identifies him as the Abrahamic God (as in Shin Megami Tensei and Xenosaga) or not (like in Breath of Fire), it almost inevitably portrays him as a demiurge, rather than the God of classical theism.
With regard to the demiurge, I am an atheist. I find myself in agreement with many atheist critiques, because they tend to be critiques of the demiurge, rather than God. Even if a being like the demiurge existed, I wouldn’t think it morally sound to worship it.
I should probably clarify what I mean by ‘demiurge’, and for that I will turn to David Bentley Hart’s book, The Experience of God:
As it happens, the god with whom most modern popular atheism usually concerns itself is one we might call a “demiurge” (demiougos): a Greek term that originally meant a kind of public technician or artisan but that came to mean a particular kind of divine “world-maker” or cosmic craftsman. In Plato’s Timaeus, the demiurge is a benevolent intermediary between the realm of eternal forms and the realm of mutability; he looks to the ideal universe – the eternal paredigm of the cosmos – and then fashions lower reality in as close a conformity to the higher as the intractable resources of material nature allow. He is, therefore, not the source of the existence of all things but rather only the Intelligent Designer and causal agent of the world of space and time, working upon materials that lie outside and below him, under the guidance of divine principles that lie outside and above him. He is an immensely wise and powerful being, but he is also finite and dependent upon a larger reality of which he is only a part. Later Platonism interpreted the demiurge in a variety of ways, and in various schools of Gnosticism in late antiquity he reappeared as an incompetent or malevolent cosmic despot, either ignorant or jealous of the true God beyond this cosmos; but none of that is important here. Suffice it to say that the demiurge is a maker, but not a creator in the theological sense: he is an imposer of order, but not the infinite ocean of being that gives existence to all reality ex nihilo. And he is a god who made the universe “back then,” at some specific point in time, as a discrete event within the course of cosmic events, rather than the God whose creative act is an eternal gift of being to the whole of space and time, sustaining all things in existence at every moment.
The demiurge, then, is a being who just happens to be at the top of the food chain. We may conceive of it as being powerful and wise in ways that are unfathomable to us, but the difference is always one of degree rather than kind. Most secular conceptions of God are variations on this notion. The old atheist canard about, “who made God?” is completely applicable to the demiurge, since it’s not obvious that the demiurge must exist, and it doesn’t really suffice as any sort of ultimate explanation in and of itself. We could imagine, for instance, that the demiurge is actually an alien from another universe whose race is so powerful that they have the ability to create their own pocket universes and rule over it.
Compounded with this is what is commonly called divine command theory. To extremely oversimplify things: William of Ockham, both in a misguided attempt at underlining the sovereignty of God, and because his own nominalistic metaphysics required it, posited that nothing is good and evil in and of itself, but only because God has commanded or forbidden it. To love God and neighbour is good because God has commanded it, but he could just as easily have commanded us to hate God and neighbour.
The upshot of taking this annoyingly recalcitrant idea seriously is that it paints God as an arbitrary dictator who gets his way only because he has the power to enforce it.
All this is theological balderdash, but it also sketches out the caricature of God that pop culture has absorbed. And it is easy to see how God could be construed as a particularly dramatic villain.
It’s also the only way, short of an incarnation, that you can drag God into the dramatis personae. It doesn’t make sense for the classical theistic, “infinite ocean of being” to have a dramatic arc, or to be one character among many. In Tolkien’s work, for example, God exists as Eru Illuvatar, but he stands outside of the drama, which is itself the unfolding of his providence. A demiurge, however, as one (supremely powerful) being among many, can act like a cosmic Batman, scheming and manipulating things from inside the story according to his own ends. And we can imagine a powered up RPG party ultimately punching him out.
The point of all this blathering, I suppose, is that the genre’s interest in religion, aside from often being bad theology, strikes me as rather small. It’s hack fantasy with a religious paintjob, and I often feel more embarrassed for the developers than offended. Usually, the games which wind up touching upon religious matters in an interesting way are the ones that do it inadvertently (and I think the same holds true for a lot of books and movies). At the same time, it does come from a place of storytelling ambition, and I’d be interested in seeing something interesting done with it – where are the Inklings of the game development world?