As the author of a book about Christianity and video games, I’m naturally interested in how game makers choose to represent religion. So when I read what was supposedly a review of Cults and Daggers, but was really a poignant, troubling and beautifully written reflection on author Nathan Grayson’s loss of faith, I had to play this game. And now I wish I hadn’t.
It’s not because my faith has been shaken. Rather, Cults and Daggers has further convinced me of how incredibly hard it is to fit the experience of religion into a game. The problem is that whatever you do with the game’s story or artwork, a game has to be a system of rules. A game, in other words, is always a machine. It can be more, but it can never be less.
This isn’t necessarily a problem. Machines can be interesting or even fun. And there are many things in the universe that are systematic: the cycle of evaporation and precipitation; the bureaucracy of our governments; my youngest daughter’s predictable attempts to put off bed time every evening. But there’s a lot of stuff that isn’t systematic, such as friendship, romantic love or religious experience. The very essence of a true relationship - with a person or God - has a degree of unpredictability.
When a game tries to capture the unsystematic in a system, it can only really catch the externals, the measurable parts. This is what happens in Cults and Daggers. The game has a very interesting premise: the player is guiding the establishment of a new religion in the era between the death of Buddha and the birth of Christ. The player’s new faith, however, is in direct competition with other new religions, as well as the malevolent forces of the old gods.
Gameplay consists of assigning disciples a limited set of tasks, such as recruiting new disciples, converting nobles (good for power) or the poor masses (good for faith points). You can also hunt and kill the disciples of other religions or go on quests to fight the old gods.
When a game tries to capture the unsystematic in a system, it can only really catch the externals, the measurable parts.
Religions do, in fact, have measurable components: numbers of official adherents, material wealth, organizational structures, official creeds and so on. Even religious action is sometimes quantifiable, as a conversion is frequently accompanied by an official change in membership status. Cults and Daggers captures such things very well.
But this is the dry part of a relationship. It is mom and dad’s last will and testament (the official, measurable part of the relationship) without their warm and vibrant embrace. It is the marriage license without the unforeseen sob at the end of a heated argument and the familiar grin in response to a moldy joke. When hope is measured by a number - as it is in this game - it’s not really hope. This is the tragedy of Cults and Daggers and the even greater tragedy of Grayson’s experience of the church.
In his article on Cults and Daggers, Grayson paints a painfully accurate portrait of the institutions and experiences constructed by the contemporary church - the way it can function as a system first. He talks about the peer pressure to act a certain way and to mouth certain beliefs, as well as the fear of allowing young minds to move in the direction of dangerous and frightening questions. And he’s right. It’s all there. I’ve seen it in the Christian culture I’ve been swimming in all my life.
It breaks my heart that for Grayson, that’s all there ever was - the externals, the measurable stuff, things that can systematized in Cults and Daggers. Because somewhere in this broken mess of the church is God. God Himself, a person, the person, upon whom all personhood is built. That’s what should be at the heart of the Christian faith. The experience of Christ isn’t about conformity to protocols or traditions or ecclesiastical structure or doctrines or moral and ethical principles. Religious experience is the experience of a living relationship: the greatest, most powerful, most life-changing relationship we can have.
I don’t mean to evoke a self-righteous insider’s smirk about how the non-religious don’t get it. Rather, consider this a warning for those of us who act as if the externals are what matter most. When I meet people who have a clear and vibrant relationship with Jesus, I can feel it right away. When I look at so much of my own life, I sometimes think I’m living out some version of Cults and Daggers.