Pop Culture Primer: Video Games
Video games allow me to live through characters and stories in a way no other medium can. I connect with many of my favorite games on a spiritual, moral, and theological level because they apply to life in a unique way, whether it’s through their plotlines or the mechanics of the game. Jesus was aware of just how powerful stories are; it’s why he spoke in parables and referenced the culture (fishing, farming) of his time. Video games provide a way to glean wisdom from experiencing story: by wearing someone else’s shoes, exploring issues of morality, and seeing the consequences your choices can have. Below is a list of five role-playing video games that hold deep meaning for those who have ears to hear and eyes to see.
5. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (2013)
In Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, two boys search for a cure to heal their sick father. They embark upon a quest through a gorgeous landscape—mountains, rivers, troll-inhabited countryside, snow-dusted hills glowing with northern lights, crumbling castles, and a battlefield strewn with slain giants.
The player controls both brothers separately, one with each analog stick on the controller or set of keys on the keyboard. It’s jarring at first to navigate these two different characters because my gamer brain has been wired to work solo. The game continually introduces new ways for the pair to work together, such as when they’re tied to each other by a rope and swing from ledge to ledge, using each other as anchors.
Despite the fact that the two brothers don’t speak a recognizable word throughout the entire game, I had no trouble following the plot and forming a connection to the characters. They interact with objects and the people around them, and do so differently. When they come across a woman sweeping outside her home, for instance, the little brother does a trick with the broom while the older brother uses it to help her with the chore.
The game is filled with opportunities to help other people, from rescuing a lonely troll’s mate to cutting the noose of a man attempting suicide. These individual acts are made even more significant because they’re done in the face of the looming fate of the boys’ father.
“All life-changing love toward people with serious needs is a substitutional sacrifice,” writes Timothy Keller in The Reason for God. “If you become personally involved with them, in some way, their weaknesses flow toward you as your strengths flow toward them.”
Lending others our strength and taking on their weaknesses is something Christians are called to do, because it’s what Jesus did for us. “How can God be a God of love if he does not become personally involved in suffering the same violence, oppression, grief, weakness, and pain that we experience?” Keller asks.
Brothers demonstrates this sacrificial love as the boys face constant danger for the sake of others. A few scenes, especially the part where they navigate through a giants’ battlefield and get lured into a spider’s lair, face dark realities, and the ending is particularly bittersweet. This game is an obvious demonstration that sacrifice and love go hand in hand—a lesson that I’m not soon to forget.
4. Final Fantasy IX (2000)
Final Fantasy IX is about a bandit named Zidane who gets caught up with a runaway princess in a plot to merge two worlds. The story deals a lot with identity; one of the main characters, Vivi, was created by humans as a magic-wielding servant. He is self-aware, unlike others of his kind. When he meets others like him, he is distressed at their soulless actions; they simply do the bidding of their creator without thought.
Vivi constantly questions the meaning of his existence and where he comes from. “I have to find out who I am…I’m scared...what if I’m not even human?” he asks at one point. “I don’t think I really understand what it means to live or to die. Where do we come from? Do we go back there when we die?”
Zidane also struggles with identity, becoming depressed when he discovers he, too, is a human-made creation. Though his defining characteristic is being there for his friends and helping those in need (one of his combat abilities even involves taking damage in the place of another character), he pushes his companions away when they try to help him at a point of emotional crisis.
Both Vivi and Zidane eventually come to the understanding that they are not defined by their origin. Though Zidane was made for a destructive purpose, he becomes something new when he chooses to save the world instead of destroy it.
I’m reminded that our past is not important when we find our identity in Christ. “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ,” wrote Paul in his letter to the Galatians. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Jesus accepts us no matter who we are or what we have done; in gratitude, we emulate mercy and love, doing our best to model him. Zidane even demonstrates those Christ-like traits at the end of the game by forgiving the very enemy who had been trying to kill him.
Our past is not important when we find our identity in Christ.
3. Mass Effect (2007)
If there’s another series that demonstrates how our choices affect who we are, it’s Mass Effect. Players make decisions throughout the game that impact their morality, measured by “Paragon” and “Renegade” points. Generally, choices that are more merciful and loving grant Paragon points and decisions that are more cutthroat win you Renegade points. Unlike other role-playing games, this is not a sliding scale; doing something good doesn’t negate the bad. People will still be afraid of you if you’ve been merciless in the past, even if you try to “make up for it” with a gentle gesture.
Sometimes the decisions you have to make are not clear-cut. Is it the “right” choice in Mass Effect, for example, to destroy the Rachni Queen—an insectoid creature that controls its brood through a telepathic link—or to let her go? On the one hand, the rachni are incredibly dangerous and her children have killed a lot of innocent people. On the other hand, the Rachni queen reveals that scientists entrapped her and were using the rachni creatures for an experiment. This means that she is not responsible for the deaths her children caused, and that destroying her would mean the genocide of an entire species.
You have to decide based on the information you have—much like in real life, where things aren’t always black and white. The choices presented to you in Mass Effect are great sounding boards for discussing real-life morality. While the goal of the game remains the same—to save the galaxy from the artificial intelligence attempting to destroy it—the moral options bring up the question: does how you go about achieving a noble goal matter?
For Christians, the answer is a resounding yes—God cares about how we do things. Consider the story of Moses striking the rock. God told him to speak to the rock, but Moses hit it instead (having earlier done so to great success). Because of his lack of trust and obedience, Moses was forbidden to enter the Promised Land alongside the Israelites. It wasn’t only the water that was important, or even arriving at the new land. How he got there mattered. And we see this exemplified in the gameplay of Mass Effect, as relationships crumble or are strengthened depending on our choices.
2. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (2000)
The Legend of Zelda is a series that I love mainly for its gameplay; I enjoy solving puzzles, exploring maps, and experiencing real-time action. But I also love Majora’s Mask, the sixth installment in the series, for its story. The game explores some dark themes that speak to loneliness and the human desire for community.
Searching for a missing friend, Link is dropped into a place called Termina—a land parallel to the Hyrule of the previous game, Ocarina of Time. He meets many familiar faces (it’s a parallel world, after all), but none of them know who he is, further emphasizing his loneliness after losing his horse and his friends.
This theme of isolation is repeated through various characters he meets, but is most powerfully demonstrated by the Skull Kid who, frustrated and angry because of loneliness, acts out by stealing Majora’s Mask and initiating disaster.
God is always with us, and we can find comfort in that, but he also made us to be in community with each other. We can forgive each other’s faults and be the answer to loneliness. The Skull Kid takes Majora’s Mask to hide behind because he’s been hurt by friends who abandoned him; he felt outcast by society and his attempt to spread his misery was a cry for help. He’s a reminder that loneliness is sometimes self-inflicted, a mask we put on because we can’t forgive ourselves.
As Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” The key message of the Skull Kid’s story is that loneliness doesn’t have to overcome us, and that true friends forgive each other. Reaching out to someone else with acceptance can seem like a small thing, but sometimes doing so can make a huge difference in that person’s life and prevent disaster. (Perhaps not on the level of a moon falling on the world and destroying it, but you never know.)
God is always with us, but he also made us to be in community with each other.
1. Undertale (2015)
Undertale has some of the most interesting mechanics of any game I’ve ever played. You find yourself, a human child, dropped into the Underground—a place where monsters live since being banished from the world above. After a talking flower tries to murder you, you meet a goat-like creature named Toriel who kindly offers to teach you about the world you’ve fallen into. She wants to adopt you and take care of you in mother-like fashion, but you eventually leave her house because you want to get back to the surface.
Toriel tries to stop you when you leave, for your own protection. You are confronted with a combat sequence and have two options: “Fight” or “Mercy.” The first time I played Undertale, I didn’t know what I was doing and I accidentally killed her. Whoops. Reload, try again. The second time I managed to get past her without killing her.
Immediately after, I crossed paths with the flower again. “I know what you did,” it says. “You murdered her. And then you went back, because you regretted it.”
Undertale is programmed to remember your actions despite save and reload functions. It plays with your preconceptions of how a video game works, of choices and their consequences.
You can play through the entire game as a pacifist, not harming a single monster but befriending them instead. You can also play the game by killing everything. The scenes drastically change if you choose this route; villages empty of all life as word of a rampaging, murderous human spreads. Creatures who had, on a pacifist playthrough, offered you friendship and love now look at you with fear and hate. If you kill them all, there is no going back. The game remembers.
We can’t go back to a save point in real life; our choices have meaning. If we do something evil, even if we regret it later, we can’t undo the consequences of that decision. That is why forgiveness is such a powerful thing; without it, we’re lost. Undertale defines that loss very clearly; the game never lets you go back to your original innocence. This stands in stark contrast to what Christ offers: a way to be cleared of all we’ve done wrong. He is “faithful and just and will forgive us our sins.” This is such a relief when we know we deserve punishment. At the end of the pacifist run in Undertale, you have the opportunity to forgive the character who has caused you and everyone else so much pain. He even admits there’s no excuse for what he’s done, and he shows genuine regret for his actions. At the end of a genocide run, you simply destroy him. While that type of destruction is what we deserve, Christ offers us grace instead. And for that we are glad to show him eternal gratitude
Editor’s note: You can download the entire Pop Culture Primer ebook here.