Deadly Designer Sins: Religion
Religion in video games is a mix of interesting ideas and failed designs. The idea of religion, its design and often the idea behind each faith or god is very “Western”. By that I am referring to using Christianity as a base for any other faith. In the vast majority of games the way temples look will not differ at all from medieval style churches or cathedrals. Often, the gods who are represented by the churches feel generic, and are created to fit the story, rather than the world. Very often if there is a god in a game, it is certain that he or she will somehow act “down on earth” one way or another. Either their servants will have god-like powers, or the gods will take personal action in the happening of the men. Usually the “Evil” gods will take a more active role, than the “Good” gods. Now, let us look at this at an entirely different angle. How should religions be designed for games?
The first step when you consider making a religion for your story, game or just for fun the number one question is how did the faith come into existence? It is easy to create a generic medieval fantasy setting and throw in a few random gods, present for agriculture, death, war, etc. That is the simple way to do it, but since we want to do things properly, let us consider a number of things, from our real life examples.
In the beginning different cultures had multiple gods or spirits. These were often responsible for numerous different roles. What we fail to understand is how do these spirits show up in the first place. Let us assume a very backward culture, which lives off farming and has only just begun to move into the “copper era”. A terrible flood destroys almost all the food and housing. If you did not know that the flood might had been caused by unnatural weather conditions you could reach the conclusion that the river was angry with the people and decided to punish them. This personification of a force of nature is still unwittingly done from time to time today (even if in a joking manner). We speak of Mother Nature as if every earth quake, every flood and every hurricane was one entity. Although we all know these events are understood, imagine if you didn’t. Imagine, that one year there is a storm so powerful that it feels like the sky was falling on your head. You could reach the conclusion that the sky is angry with you. As such, “creating” a god could be a result of an event, combined with not understanding what caused it. The moment you know what causes floods you won’t give a sacrifice made of fruit to the river, so that it does not flood you.
Acknowledging this, if the people do not have contact with a specific event they might not make a god dedicated to it. For example, a group of people living next to the sea might have a god responsible for fishing, but not one for flooding (unless there are Tsunamis). Often there are gods responsible for specific actions: hunting, farming or smithing for example. The White Stag is one “symbol” which was often present, and hunts for the white stag were organised in the middle ages, since it was such a rare and very symbolical sight. The transfer from Polytheism (multiple gods) to Monotheism (single god) is always something gradual. When the faith in multiple spirits or gods fades away due to technology and discovery certain phenomenon will never be fully explained, especially Death, the After-life and Life itself. There are countless interpretations of what happens, so I shall not restrict you in your imagination, but often what the After-Life looks like would shape some behaviours of the culture, what is considered acceptable and not. Those more pious would more closely follow the religious doctrine, but it is not a rule.
We might ask ourselves, why add religion to a game? Can’t a culture function without a faith of some sort? A perfectly atheistic culture? The simplest possible answer is “No”, and I do not say so because I am a dedicated christian, but because there is no culture which did not follow a faith. Although some groups might act more atheistic than others, it is unlikely that a whole country will abandon all faiths. Taking out religion as a whole out of a game allows for simplicity. You focus on the parts of the game which are important, and only mention the elements which are optional. On the other hand, if faith or religion is meant to play a bigger role in a game, it has to be well thought out.
I had a talk with a group of friends about religion in games, and at some point we started discussing Fable. In Fable 1 religion is not something that controls the world, however there are two temples, one dedicated to Skorm and one to Avo. The interesting part is that these gods do not actually exist, but the temples were built on focus points of Evil and Good thoughts. As such, the temple of Skorm is filled with what one might call “Negative Energy” while Avo with “Positive Energy”. It does not explain how can these focus points create rewards for the player, but it is an interesting idea. Then we moved onto Fable 3, and here religion is gone entirely. There is no mention of Avo or Skorm, and as one of my friends stated, the Fable 3 world felt somewhat fake and empty because of it.
How popular a religion is, how much influence it has and its structure depends on how important the faith is to the people. A culture which is highly militaristic would give higher praise to a god of war, while a calm farming community would focus on the “earth”. No matter whether the gods are real “creatures”, or omnipresent entities, their word has to spread somehow. Depending on the setting, the followers of the gods could get direct orders from their god to perform a specific action, or to spread his or her “word”. In other cases it could be pure dedication that makes people spread their faith in a god.
Very often, the specific rituals of a faith will be influenced by the local culture and vice versa. Often, Christian influence in Africa or Asia did not leave only a religious mark, but also a cultural one. It is rare and impossible for a culture to be changed completely due to a faith. Most often, specific elements of a faith will be added or mixed with the culture, creating a hybrid of older traditions with a new perspective.
Although religion is a much more complex topic than what I can possibly explain here, I wanted you, the reader, to obtain an idea of what I imagine the brainstorming behind a faith should be. Starting from the origin and cause of the rise of the faith, to its later expansion and cultural influence (or how culture influenced it). If you ever need a real life example, take any of the currently dominant faiths and trail down their origins. Notice how religion changed with time, and how we currently live with it. In a Fantasy setting, the story might be different, but it is no less important to realise why would an “Evil” God be popular in some areas.With a vast world, do not be afraid of creating local versions of a faith. Look at how many different branches appeared from the “original” Christian Dogma, and how different, yet similar, they all are.
As a last word of warning, it might be hard to lose your “Western” perception of religion. Explore the different faiths and cultures all around the world more closely, to find your inspiration. Who knows, you might be the next Video Game Tolkien?
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Alex “WriterX” Bielski