Back when I was in college, I took a class on fantasy literature. One of the big discussions I can remember having in class was about whether fantasy literature was “didactic;” that is, whether it teaches us something. The general consensus was that whether or not it is intended to be didactic, fantasy reflects the worldview of its creator and ultimately proposes ideas to be thought about. Whether or not you accept those ideas is your decision.
Video games are the same way. Some video games are clearly created with a powerful message in mind. Others are created purely for players to enjoy the experience of the game. But whether the game is intended to or not, it sends a message about the world that the player has to face. How the player reacts to that message is totally up to them. But the fact remains that video games are an art form, and art is by nature full of ideas and didactic.
The United States is in a bit of a political pickle right now. The news is full of tragedy after tragedy, and with an election coming up we’ve got at least two big voices who think that their ideas are the only right way to combat these tragedies. Everyone is taking sides on matters of race and religion. Blue lives versus black lives, poor versus rich, Christian versus Muslim, second amendment versus gun control, “us” versus “them.” We’re divided right now, and those divisions are at their clearest when a new tragedy appears in the news.
As an avid gamer since childhood, it would be ridiculous for me to claim that video games have not shaped my worldview. Any time I pick up a controller, I’m faced with ideas. And I have to accept those ideas or reject them, but either way I must confront them. The more I read people’s arguments about the issues of the day, the more I find myself reflecting on the games that shaped my own ideas on the subject. So today, I thought I’d talk about some games that have shaped my worldview and what those games would challenge us to think about in our current time of turmoil.
I’m just going to go ahead and warn you now – THIS TOPIC IS GOING TO INVOLVE SPOILERS. If you see a game in my list that you intend to play, best to skip to the next one.
inFamous and inFamous 2
The first two games in the inFamous series tell the story of Cole MacGrath, a bike courier who delivers a package that changes not only his life, but the direction of human evolution. In that package was the Ray Sphere. Part bomb and part science experiment, the Ray Sphere destroyed countless lives in order to give Cole the power to control electricity. Cole has to make decisions about how to use that power, about the kind of reputation he wants to have when it comes to the way he applies his abilities.
By the end of the first game, Cole has learned the reason he was given these powers: he’s a weapon. He’s the weapon that the manipulative Kessler wants to point at a coming calamity called The Beast. By making Cole the strongest he could be, Kessler hopes to prevent the Beast from ruining the world. His intentions are pure, sure, but all kinds of lives are sacrificed on the altar of his ambition. And when the time comes for Cole to be the weapon that destroys the Beast, things don’t go as planned.
inFamous 2 begins with Cole trying – and failing – to defeat the Beast. After that he flees to a fictional version of New Orleans, where a group of religious zealots have begun a fascist regime dedicated to ending conduits – people with powers like Cole. Once again, Cole has to make impossible decisions, following a path where public perception labels him as either “good” or “evil.” The path of good forces him to turn against his own people, his fellow conduits, in order to save humankind. The path of evil forces him to destroy humanity so that conduits may live on. The final decision of the game results in the genocide of an entire people group – and you have to make that choice. It’s an impossible choice, one that isn’t quite satisfying because no matter what you choose, it ends in the destruction of an entire “race.”
The inFamous games have a powerful theme of choice. Are your choices really “good” or “evil?” Or do people just assign those labels to them? Ultimately, there is no “right” path in the game, and I think that says something pretty powerful. Anytime an ideology becomes extreme, the path it leads to will not be a righteous one. The choices that lie at the end will only be destructive.
Questions to Ponder: Can any problem be solved simply by having the biggest weapon? Are there truly good or evil choices? Is it right to hurt other people to further your agenda and ideology?
This game is probably the poster child for being didactic. Undertale tells the story of a child who falls from above into the underground world of monsters. The child is taken in by a caring monster called Toriel, but because the child wants to return home, the child leaves Toriel’s care to explore the monster kingdom. When playing Undertale, you as the player have the option to fight or befriend the monsters you face. And while you can always choose your own path, there are very clear consequences for choosing violence rather than peace.
The moment you take the life of a single monster, you’re locked out of the best possible path. Whether that life is a boss character or a random encounter. The lore of the world is steeped in human violence, and humans are represented as being far more monstrous than the monsters are. After all, their souls can survive without things like love and compassion. The more lives you take, the higher your LOVE (Level Of ViolencE), the more desensitized you become to the value of life itself.
Here’s the thing, though – it’s hard to be peaceful. You can’t just mindlessly click buttons. You have to think about what the monster is like, what it feels and what it wants. You have to learn about it, experiment with different ways of communicating, and meet it halfway. And when you do that, you don’t gain experience, you don’t gain levels, your stats never get any better. So as enemies become more and more powerful, it becomes that much harder to stand your ground and try to reach out. And sometimes, no matter what you do, you can’t dissuade someone from fighting you. Sometimes you just have to take the hits until your persistent refusal to fight finally begins to make a difference.
The game communicates this message by challenging our traditional expectations of roleplaying games. A random encounter pops up and what do you do? Click the attack button, of course. That’s how all the games go. But if you do things a certain way just because that’s “how it’s always been,” that doesn’t make the thing right. We learn patterns of violence as a lifestyle and so we don’t question it when it happens, and only by challenging those conventions can we see an alternate and ultimately better path. Will you be a human, or will you be a monster? And remember, those terms don’t mean what you think they do.
Questions to Ponder: What ideas or practices do we follow just because “that’s how it has always been?” Should we begin to challenge those ideas? Does violence ever truly solve a problem? How can we begin to converse with our enemies rather than raise our fists against them?
Tales of Symphonia
Tales of Symphonia is the kind of game that is going to be REALLY difficult to explain, not only because the plot is detailed (and somewhat convoluted) but because I have not played it in quite some time. However, there are lots of strong ideas in this game that I think are really relevant, so I’m going to do my best to at least hit the high points.
Lloyd Irving is a brash young man who was raised in a dinky village. The town is tormented by half-elves (called Desians) and is also home to the Chosen of Mana, who will one day go on the journey of Regeneration and save the world from the Desians. When her time comes, Lloyd manages to accompany her on that journey to protect her and to get revenge on the Desians for killing his mother.
Things are not as straightforward as they appear, though. Turns out that Lloyd’s best friend, Genis, and his mentor, Raine, are both half-elves. They may not be Desians, but their race makes them enemies to any human who has suffered at Desian hands. And the journey of Regeneration that the Chosen must undergo? Turns out it is a lie crafted by a religious faction known as Cruxis to brainwash an innocent girl into becoming a vessel for their broken goddess. And completing the ritual has another side effect – while it restores the mana of Sylvarant, the homeland of Lloyd, it steals the mana from the land of Tethe’alla and leaves it to be ruined by the Desians. Oh, and the Desians? Turns out that particular faction of half-elves is part of Cruxis as well.
Tales of Symphonia really challenges the idea that any one group is inherently good or evil. While the Cruxis faction of the Church of Martel is corrupt, there are good believers too, particularly the naive but pure Chosen of Mana. And while the Desian extremists are the most recognizable group of half-elves, they don’t represent all half-elves. Most of them live normal, productive lives, but Desians give them a bad name. Every religious group or race is capable of having a faction of people who are really serving their own ends. These extremists don’t represent their faith or their ethnicity, but people fall easily into the dangerous belief that they do. While it’s easy to hate all half-elves because of the Desians, or to despise Martel’s church because of the corruption of Cruxis, it is not right to lump all of them together. Through it all, Lloyd remains loyal to his friends and family and doesn’t let the evil actions of specific groups color his impression of entire races or belief systems.
Questions to Ponder: Are there people in this world that represent the worst of their faith or race? Should other members of those belief systems or nationalities be blamed for the actions of a small few? How can we learn to differentiate between a corrupt faction and the much larger people group that the faction supposedly “represents?”
Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance
The “radiance” games of the Fire Emblem series were my first experiences with the world of Fire Emblem, and they began my love for this incredible series. And the powerful theme of race that permeates them is one that definitely impacts our world today.
There are two main races in the world of Tellius – the beorc (what we would call humans) and the laguz (humanoids with animal features that can become animals or even dragons). These two races have been at odds since the land’s inception, and the wars between them create much of the lore of Tellius while also driving the story forward. Each race has taken their turn at being the master of the other, but in the time that the games take place the laguz were only very recently liberated from beorc slavery and able to form their own nations. The hostility between the two races is so extreme that just seeing each other can lead to bloodshed.
Ike, the main character of the game, grew up so sheltered that he didn’t even know what laguz were. When he encounters them for the first time, he refers to them as “sub-humans,” a terrible racial slur but unfortunately the only name he knows them by. He quickly befriends the laguz due to his respect for their culture and his refusal to treat them any differently than his fellow beorc. His friendship with the laguz is a shining beacon of hope that brings many allies to his side in his battles against the evil king of Daein.
One of the most poignant sections of the game occurs in the country of Begnion. In a place called Serenes Forest, the lovely heron laguz sang magical songs that kept the land healthy and green. The Serenes Forest bordered the capital city, and it was there that the Apostle – thought to be the voice of the goddess – ruled. Senators conspiring to rule the theocracy slayed the Apostle and blamed her death on the Serenes herons. While these laguz were totally peaceful and had no standing army, the racism of the beorc people drove them to believe the lies of the senate and to torch the entire forest. Once a beautiful symbol of unity and tolerance, the burned forest became an ugly scar that showed exactly where racism leads – destruction.
A few herons did manage to survive that massacre. One of whom was Reyson, the prince of the heron laguz and a powerful wielder of magical song. It was within his power to sing a song capable of destroying all the beorc living near the forest, unleashing vengeance on behalf of his entire clan. But Ike, with the help of Reyson’s long-lost sister Leanne, helped Reyson to see that destroying beorc in return for destroying laguz would only continue the cycle of racism that killed the herons in the first place. Instead, Reyson restores the forest and befriends the new Apostle, creating a tentative peace between the remaining heron laguz and the beorc of Begnion.
One of my absolute favorite quotes from the game comes in the narration following this chapter: “hatred breeds hatred, and if the cycle of grief and anger is not broken, it will continue for time without end.” There’s a powerful truth here, this idea that only forgiveness can truly bridge the gap between two sides that have hurt each other. When has bloodshed and revenge ever truly solved a problem? The most effective creators of change in our world have been those who, instead of taking revenge, chose the path of peace. The only true antidote to hatred is to stop hating. Only that allows the gap between sides to close and for real conversations about peace to happen.
Questions to Ponder: Is it right for someone who feels oppressed or threatened to lash out or seek revenge? Is it easy to forgive someone you feel has harmed you or your people in some way? How can two different races come together to have a civilized talk about creating true peace between them?
All of this is building up to a thought I had earlier today: retaliation can make a point, but it can never make a change. When it comes to our political ideals, we like to have the last laugh. We like our “opponents” to get their comeuppance. But at the end of the day, making a point doesn’t facilitate negotiations or change people’s minds. It fosters hatred and makes people bunker down even tighter, refusing to budge from their view of the issue.
I’m not going to tell you what to believe about gun control. Or about religion. Or about religious extremists. Or where you should stand on black lives and blue lives. But here’s what I will tell you: if you continue to hate those who think differently from you, none of these issues will ever be solved. You’ll go back and forth, maybe sometimes feeling like you have the “upper hand.” But hatred breeds hatred. Bloodshed leads to more bloodshed. If we want to start eliminating the tragedies from our news stories, if we want to really affect change in this country – in this world – and create real peace, we have to let go of hatred. We have to step across party lines and take a minute to actually hear the other side. To know what they are concerned about. Because when we do, when we begin to see other people as people and not just as “them,” that’s when discussion about real change can start happening.
The US seems a little lost right now. But maybe if we play some video games, we can find a little clarity.