jump to navigation

A voice rings out: “Thou hast angered me.” March 14, 2006

Posted by joshg in divine NPCs, polytheism, prayer, retro games.

So lately I’ve been playing this game with a built-in theological simulation system. It’s a fantasy turn-based action-RPG, with the stereotypical fantasy polytheistic worldview. However, this game goes into a lot more depth than your average D&D-style, “my god is a miracle vending machine and I get 8 quarters to spend,” sort of game mechanic.

The game allows you to offer sacrifices to your deity on altars which appear at random throughout the game. Sacrifices of monster corpses are consumed by a burst of flame, granting luck, blessings, or sometimes even weapons of mythic quality! Be careful though, those altars are aligned as either lawful, neutral, or chaotic. If you sacrifice on an altar that doesn’t match your deity’s alignment, you’ll tick them off.

And that matters, because the game keeps track of your deity’s opinion of you. At any time in the game, you can choose to ‘pray’ as an action, and you’d better hope your deity is smiling down on you. If they like you, prayer can get you out of a tight spot by healing you or filling a starving stomach. If you’ve done something worthy of divine wrath, or if you’ve simply been harassing them too often with prayers, you’ll get ignored, or perhaps even punished with a ball and chain!

Those who have been sucked into its addicting (if frustrating) gameplay will already know that I’m referring to Nethack, a very old-school game that’s entirely text-based. (You can get graphical clients for it – I find that the standard Windows graphical client is pretty usable – but it’s still just mapping graphical tiles to what would otherwise be text characters.) The game implements everything you could imagine and then some – throwing random items as weapons, water traps that rust swords and armor, and nearly every fantasy monster you can think of. (Oh, and consider yourself warned – it’s maddeningly hard. Did I mention that you can’t load a previously-saved game when you die?)

So why haven’t newer RPGs implemented some sort of deity-simulator like this? There are some plausible reasons – keeping the game’s interface simple, or too much effort for a low-value feature. But it seems odd for there to never have been an exception to this.

I guess it’s arguable that games with a “good / evil” metric on your behaviour are related, but there’s something deeper than that going on in Nethack. Sure, evil behaviour (cannibalism, murder, etc) will tick off a good deity, so your behaviour factors in. But it’s not just a behaviour meter, since you can buy the gods’ favor with sacrifices. It also reflects some level of personality in this divine being – they don’t like getting hassled with repeated requests for help, and they aren’t above punishing you for it (even when you’re about to get mauled by beasties).

Perhaps more importantly to me, it differentiates prayer from the magic-like working of miracles that is prevalent in fantasy RPGs (both digital and otherwise). Most games just integrate priestly divine deeds into their magic system, and leave divine will out of the picture. Here we have prayer modelled as a request for action, not a cause of action. Naturally, this is a lot easier to do without harming gameplay when prayer is essentially just a last-ditch request for help, rather than a primary course of action. Imagine a World of Warcraft where every Priest character had to follow the morals of their assigned deity, or lose their ability to heal! I can see it now – Troll priests being forced by their minmaxing guild leaders to kill at least 200 fluffy bunnies before they get to join the MC raids.

Anyway, while none of this is reflecting a spiritual reality that I’d actually want to promote, it does present a good case study of how prayer can be integrated into gameplay. The question I’m left wondering, though, is where do you go from here when you want to represent a God who is far more loving, far more just, and far less predictable than the rowdy pantheon of Nethack?

p.s. For the curious programmer, here’s the sourcecode to the divine aspects of Nethack. (The entire game’s source is freely available.) Also, Dylan O’Donnell has spoilers over here, including a list of Nethack’s pantheon.



1. Dan Shiovitz - March 14, 2006

It’s also interesting that Nethack has a bad guy god, Moloch, who’s the one who you have to get the Amulet of Yendor back from. He’s separate from the whole lawful-neutral-chaotic alignment system that pervades the upper half of the dungeon; once you get down into Hell that alignment conflict collapses into a you-vs-Moloch thing, no matter what alignment you are (there are still some differences; one big one is some demon lords will be peaceful to you if you’re chaotic, I think). This continues for the rest of the game, too — regardless of your alignment the endgame is pretty similar — but then right at the end of the game you have your choice of three altars to offer the altar on, and have to decide whether to give it to your own god or not!

2. joshg - March 14, 2006

All details which I couldn’t relate first-hand, since I never live long enough to get even halfway there. =)

3. Chris - August 14, 2007

Simulated divinity? I’m sure that there are a lot of potential ethical bombs waiting to happen here. Of course, kept within the confines and parameters of whatever game they (or just “it”) would seem more dynamic of a feature in a game.

If there were a pantheon, then it would be interesting to see how different deities feel about one another and their respective followers. The deities might actually have a hand in shaping their creation, this way.

Food for thought. However, I just hope this never leads to other territory…

4. joshg - August 15, 2007

What kind of “ethical bombs” do you have in mind?

5. Chris P - August 20, 2007

Hmm, I think this comment is linked to my other. However, it’s really made me consider the concept of healing usage and such in games. I somewhat like the Final Fantasy approach where it is simply another form of magic; White Magic, etc. It really leaves out the whole theological connections, at least in a more direct way. One’s abilities aren’t attached to one’s beliefs or relationship with a particular deity (or whatever).

Such a system may draw more users, or it may detract them. It does tend to potentially make a more compelling experience and game world.

The ethical bombs tend to hover around how one impliments the system by which the deity responds to their worshiper(s). Even a more benevolent deity. It is ethically dangerous, because one might argue that the programmers are really creating circumscribed methods of worship. Only if you do X will the deity do Y. No variation. You will have to write in a heck of a lot of probable ways in which to enact X to satisfy the deity. How strict will the deity be? How loose?

In any case, a player may sit back and say, “This is way too much work. Besides, none of the deities seem to really appeal to me. I sort of like this one, but I have to do all this other crap that doesn’t mean anything. The rewards of faith sure seem to be unreasonable and cumbersome.” Will they be able to appeal to multiple deities? A particular pantheon over another?

Conversely, such a method of use would be legitimate in saying that a process like that seperates the “true believers” from the casual faithful, which is what makes them the monks or clerics or whatever. They work at their faith.

Now, of course, the only further complication is applying it to a real world scenario. Be it God or Allah or Buddah or whatever, simulating a faith’s operations or a deity’s behavior will probably get a lot of people up in arms. They will (quite justifiably) argue that no one has the right to perscribe their personal belief of said deity/religion. They can find such things offensive and lobby against the potential harm it would do to “impressionable” people that play it — such as children or whatever.

Look what they’ve gone through over the whole violence in games issue.

Again, I never said I agree with any of that stuff, just anticipating the potential reactions of others. Just a gut reaction, really.

6. Chris P - August 20, 2007

P.S. In the second paragraph, I was referring to the simulated deity concept, not what I said in the previous paragraph.

7. Brian Pendell - January 23, 2008

Erm.. Hello.

I’m a Christian. A fanatic one, in fact. I lead two Bible studies. I am a weekly church goer. I participate in small group. I regularly witness to unbelievers.

And I have also ascended every single class, race and gender in nethack.

It’s a fun game. I agree that it is in no way a model for spiritual reality, It’s worth playing for the technical knowledge gained from the source code, and for the cultivated problem solving skills. It’s excellent practice for debugging programs .. I’ve done both.

Be that as it may, I’ve tried to write a “Christian” variant using the open source … but that has failed. It will have to be a pre-NT version of the game, back in the time of Abraham and animal sccrifice.

Why? Quite bluntly, because I’ve found it impossible to model a God of grace for game purposes. See, if the game God forgives every evil deeds or answers every prayer as asked, he becomes an ATM machine and it breaks the game balance.

In order for a “god” to participate in this game, that interaction has to be based on specific rules. What he will and will not do. There has to be rewards for good behavior, and punishments for bad behavior. Further, good things can’t simply be given… they have to be earned. Otherwise a player could simply stand at an altar and keep praying until he’d had Grayswandir and silver dragon scale mail showered on him. Then get out of any jam by simply praying.

In order for the game to be at all interesting, there has to be the possibility of the character losing. Which means the game god has to deliberately turn a deaf ear to the character’s prayers.

As I said, this plays will with an old covenent-style system based on rules. The Christian God, with a covenant of Grace, seems impossible to model without at least human-level intelligence. Quite beyond a simple game such as Nethack. Perhaps this is why so many false religions have a system built on rules … rules are something less than humans. But the real God, the God of grace, is greater than humans. Perhaps this is evidence our God is the real God?

Although if anyone has any suggestions for modeling appropriately, I’m willing to listen.


Brian P.

8. joshg - January 24, 2008

Hi Brian, thanks for commenting. I agree that there are no easy answers to the problem (which is part of why this blog has remained a bit stale while I put my energy somewhere else). But I do have a few questions for you that might open up some possibilities:

Maybe the game has to be broken / unbalanced in order to be true to the source? Making the game much easier might carry a message of its own that’s worth expressing.

Does God act like a prayer-answering vending machine in our real-world faith? Do we understand why he answers sometimes and not others? (There are many varying answers to those super-loaded questions within Christianity – some easy to model, some not.)

And, I guess I’ll toss this out there although this is more theology than game design: was the God of the Old Testament really any different than the “Christian” God after Christ? I kind of think that our religious culture is too quick to create an ‘Old Covenant’ divide and let that be the scapegoat for anything that’s hard to wrap our head around in the OT. Perhaps by looking harder for the God of grace and love in the OT, a different understanding of how grace interacted with sacrifices will come to light. (Then you can model it in a nethack clone, and confuse everyone!)

Sorry comments are closed for this entry

%d bloggers like this: