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