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God and Nintendo

On the significance of video games.


My first memory of Dragon Warrior III (Dragon Quest III in Japan) is of watching a friend play on some gloomy afternoon near the end of college. I remember becoming mesmerized by the repetitive yet elegant gameplay, the heraldically simple NES sprites marching purposefully across a vibrant luminous CRT landscape. In retrospect, it’s easy to see this as symbolic. I was on the verge of graduating, with no realistic career goals and a degree I wasn’t sure I wanted after all and a fragile network of friends, that was just about to fall apart completely. I was about to be tossed (or so it seemed) from the edenic climes of the artificially long American childhood, land of schedules and extracurriculars and walkable distances, into the outside world of traffic and one-bedroom apartments and toil, anxious toil. I was newly awake to the necessity of much I had thus far taken for granted: of order, of purpose, of repetition — in short, of ritual. And this explains something of what I saw in a game that formerly would have held little interest for me. A basic summary of Dragon Warrior III is as follows: the hero and his companions are given a monomythic quest to defeat a nebulous villain, a stand-in for evil itself; within this quest, however, are a series of smaller, more immediate goals, typically revolving around braving some dungeon or crossing perilous countryside to reach a new town, all the while fending off ambushes from steadily more threatening monsters. The main drama of the game is in gauging how far from safety one may venture into a brutal unknown and still make it back in one piece. There’s a musical structure to the gameplay: the short measures of individual battles, similar but not the same, fitting into the longer phrases of leaving a town, the archetypal safe haven, and returning to it—and then, on a grander scale, the slow crescendo of quest after quest, all miniatures of the singular Quest, leading up to a finale that reprises and completes all that came before. Put another way, it’s a kind of fractal, the same drama playing out on multiple scales, slotting like days into weeks into liturgical years into the whole cosmic march toward the eschaton, wherein our hero, having never fainted or grown weary of doing good, will do final battle with the Arch-Fiend, the very emblem of evil. There’s something lifelike and yet numinous about this, like the way the canonical hours and liturgical seasons elevate each day and year into a microcosm of a whole human life and indeed the life of the entire universe, everything that is and ever was, ordering every moment toward our first and final end. (It’s surely no coincidence that I was undergoing the beginnings of a religious conversion at the time I first encountered the game.) This sense of ritual extends even to something so quotidian as the progress-saving mechanism, a designedly cumbersome process of finding and speaking to a king or other official. This rote act becomes tactile, semiotic, as much a part of the rhythm of play as the game itself might be in a player’s life; a slow breath of sabbatical order within a chaos of random battle, with dragons and slimes or with loneliness and the uncertainty of wage slavery. As a child I recall having trouble understanding in what sense a game like this entailed “role-playing.” I wasn’t into Japanese role-playing games, which I thought too turn-based, too rigid and predetermined. Instead I was fascinated by western games, such as Baldur’s Gate and The Elder Scrolls, with their promises of explosive real-time action (!) in a world I could shape and mold (!!) and in which I could make Real Moral Choices (!!!). Even if somehow I always ended up playing the same anxious-to-please do-gooder, it was my choosing, I thought, that gave the games meaning. I wanted freedom, and this was freedom. After all, the player in Dragon Warrior III and similar games has no power to shape the story but is instead coerced into a heroic role and in many cases powerless to deviate from it. By contrast, western RPGs (Skyrim or Fallout, for example) enshrine this sort of agency; their players are like gods, discerning good and evil. At their best the western RPG may convey a sense of moral weight, constructing costly (and, of course, contrived) dilemmas, but the sense of freedom they embody is Nietzschean, that of a disembodied will forcing itself upon the world around it, unencumbered by any notion of vice or virtue. As a result, these games have often left me feeling like a cipher to myself, perhaps a hero, perhaps a villain; a maker of weightless decisions that might shape the world, but never the self. In Dragon Warrior III and other JRPGs of its generation, however, there’s a different kind of freedom on display. This is a freedom bound by duty, the freedom of having a certain and unwavering goal: to uphold the good and reject evil. This is an ideal of freedom more in line with Saint Augustine than with Nietzsche. And it is freedom indeed: the good may be a fixed point, but it would be a mistake to say that this fact leaves a player with no choice. There is one crucial choice: to play, or not to play. It’s even a trope in such games to make this choice explicit, the first quest-giver asking the player to accept the quest, even though, should they refuse, there would be no game. And in the case of Dragon Warrior III, the choice is renewed, in a sense, every time the player saves their game and is asked a crucial question: “Do you wish to continue?” But this isn’t all; once one has chosen to play, still, there is freedom. One may proceed daringly or cautiously, quickly or slowly. In fact, despite Dragon Warrior III’s apparent restrictiveness, its fans tend to replay it many times, trying out various party configurations, even going it alone, walking the high and hard path like Saint Anthony in the desert. But of course, the game is best enjoyed as it was intended to be: with a party of four, each hero with his own unique and necessary role, an archetypal community. They hold all things in common. They keep monkish silence, their only vocabulary one of pure action, and a limited one at that: fight, run, hurt, heal, sleep, wake up. Proper ascetics, they don’t even eat. They are able to do only that which accords with their purpose; free to do good all the day long. The role-playing, then, is one of inhabiting a mode of being, like imaginative games I might’ve played in the backyard in childhood, caught up in the sheer abstract romance of knighthood, arctic exploration, whatever. The mode of being, in this case, is that of a heroic struggle against evil, grandiose and yet not without a curious element of drudgery—the endless cycle of random ambush and the treating of wounds, all inching toward a lofty goal, a terrible confrontation, hoping through long weary effort to become worthy of it. There is a near-contradictory tension here between the quotidian and the cosmic, and yet no more so than in life itself. In a mysterious way perhaps this defines our very nature, timebound creatures, our hearts yet set on eternity. Is it silly to read such significance onto a video game, a few hundred kilobytes of machine code and poorly translated English? Perhaps it is. Yet when I try to approach the subject, the vocabulary that comes to mind is always religious. And maybe this is not so inappropriate; maybe there is something intrinsically incarnational about a video game, the way it demands that a player enter into a lower plane of being, accept the strictures of some little universe for the sake of its salvation. Maybe no other medium has quite the same power to habituate its audience—their bodies, their imaginations, their desires—for good or for ill. Maybe these are only faint glimmers of light in the dungeon-dark of a wicked age. Then again, a glimmer may sometimes be enough to keep a traveler going in the dark. Harrison Lemke writes from Texas.

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Harrison Lemke writes from Texas. This essay originally appeared in the Assumption 2020 edition of The Lamp.