That Old Time Pixel Religion June 1, 2006Posted by joshg in fictional mythology, indie games, reincarnation.
I just recently treated myself to Darwinia (almost too conveniently available via Steam), an amazing indie game developed by the self-proclaimed bedroom programmers at Introversion Software. While I had tried it out a year or so ago, I hadn't realized just how strong the religious themes are in the game until I played it through to the end.
In the game, you have entered into a digital world populated by self-aware digital beings known as Darwinians. Their creator, Dr. Sepulveda, has designed a self-contained world where the Darwinians can live, grow, and die, and their digital "souls" are reborn as new Darwinians. However, when you stumble across this pixellated land, it has been infested with a red virus which threatens to destroy the Darwinians and all that Dr. Sepulveda has worked to create. You are quickly put to work helping eliminate the virus and shepherding the Darwinians to safety.
Despite the supposed technological setting of a computer-based AI experiment, the game's plot plays out more like a Tron-inspired religious epic. The Darwinian's digital world is a virtual Eden, where they participate in religious pilgrimages and traditions that keep the system running to bring about reincarnation of past souls. The game is filled with concepts directly out of evolutionary computing (a standard computer science technique for machine learning), but gives them a strong religious flair.
(more after the break, with the mildest of spoilers)
As the game progresses, the religious themes become more and more apparent. They culminate in a beautifully-crafted revelation at the last level, which touches on concepts of sin and a fall from grace. (And I would love to say more, but you really ought to experience it for yourself.)
All of this is done with a style that's both heavy and light-hearted at once. Dr Sepulveda speaks of the impact to the Darwinians, of how they will remember this for generations to come as legend, and questions where this change will lead them in their development. At the same time, the setting is always clearly that of an experiment within the glass bottle of a computer system. The visuals are heavily stylized, drawing on elements of classic gaming as well as the obvious influence of Tron's glowing-lines picture of life inside the computer. The effect is to draw you down into their world, like a more powerful being looking down from above, where you can see the seriousness of consequences within their world while simultaneously knowing how limited and small that world really is. In that sense, perhaps this game does a better job of allowing you to experience playing God than "god games" such as Black and White and Populous.
Darwinia is an excellent example of how one can take real religious themes and issues, and rework them into a metaphorical or abstract game setting without losing their impact. While Darwinia doesn't strike me as having a particular religious message itself, it manages to touch on the core themes and concepts of most major religions in a safe, artificial setting. The setting, and the treatment they give those themes, gives the player a safe space to reflect on those concepts without having their buttons pushed through direct references to real-world religions.* As well, the religious and spiritual themes are tightly woven into the gameplay itself – the game has an economy of digital souls that forms part of the core mechanic of the game.
All in all, it's a fantastic game from any angle, whether you care about religious games or not. If you're willing to try out something that doesn't neatly fall into a genre and pushes some creative boundaries, I highly recommend it.
*(This isn't to say that I think games shouldn't directly speak about a real religion. However, I do think that games which are more innovative in how they speak on faith are more likely to have a real impact on their audience, especially when the aim is to communicate something emergently through gameplay rather than through static content outside the core gameplay.)