The Guide

If you’ve ever played a Final Fantasy game, you’re probably familiar with the idea of “ultimate weapons.” The holy grail of offense for each member of your party, acquiring an ultimate weapon often entails as much effort as getting through the game, if not more. These weapons are never so much as mentioned within the world of the game; the components necessary for producing them are often random and isolated, seemingly trivial. If no one told you they were there, you’d never even think to seek them out; certainly you’d never succeed in finding them.

Simply put, if you want the ultimate weapon, you’re going to need the strategy guide.

In recent years, buying a strategy guide has acquired a sort of taboo. Though publishers have added incentives (heloooo artbook) to justify the actual expense, most “real” gamers still look down on those who “need a guide” to beat a game. The theory is that if you had the skills you could get through a game without hand-holding, and having used a guide dramatically undermines street cred for your achievements. On top of that, you could have just used GameFAQs. For free. So you really suck.

Well, haters gonna hate. But I imagine if you look at the necessary steps for acquiring the ultimate weapons in, say, Final Fantasy X, you’d agree that, sans guide, it ain’t happening.

See, gamers value autonomy. Shoehorn them down a corridor with only one possible means of progress and they will damn you with words like “linear” and “boring.” Give them open country and they’ll relish the chance for discovery; “open world” and “player choice” ship a lot of product. Nevermind how this is the pure inverse of the punishingly straightforward platformers that gaming calls its progenitors (here’s looking at you, Mario); the modern gamer refuses to be told what to do.

But freedom comes with a cost; if you’re not forced into making the right choices, you will inevitably make a few wrong ones. Whether the game responds by punishing you (LA Noire), by adjusting (Mass Effect), or doesn’t react at all (read: “optional” sidequests), the fact remains that liberty guarantees that you will miss out on at least some of the experiences the game-maker intended you to enjoy.

If you don’t follow a very specific path through the game, you’re going to miss out on something. Sometimes, this is trivial. Other times you won’t realize until hours, days, even years later that you made a really big mistake way back when.

Strategy guides preclude that epiphany at the cost of true freedom. When followed verbatim, they deteriorate the very act of playing; no longer is your experience your own — it is merely a guided tour of someone else’s. For those who choose to follow along anyway, this is an acceptable loss. Playing by the creator’s intended path is ultimately more rewarding than the independence it denies.

Some, of course, treat strategy guides like user’s manuals, consulting them only when they are in a jam and have exhausted all personal knowledge to no avail. They come hoping for someone to point out the obvious mistake in their thinking, the quick fix solution to their momentary trial. As soon as the boss is beaten, the guide goes back on the shelf.

Of course, sometimes the answer isn’t so simple. Perhaps the solution is the use of a weapon or power-up that, while wallowing in your sovereignty, you failed to acquire. And most guides, as they assume you’ve been following their advice all along, don’t bother providing alternative solutions. If you’ve dug yourself a hole and forgot to bring a ladder, it’s up to you to improvise an exit plan.

Oftentimes progress for those who’ve ignored the guide can only be achieved by arduous backtracking to meet the standards prescribed for success. Some will do the bare minimum, others will permanently shift their play-style in an attempt to avoid future pitfalls like this one. In this way the guide is versatile: it portrays the ideal solution and allows the player to choose how closely he or she will follow it. Advancement does not always require complete adherence.

And sometimes, consulting the guide as user manual results in a very simple truth: sorry, dude. You’re screwed.

Many people, Christians and non, have this awful tendency of treating the Bible like a user’s manual. When life is going well, when they’re getting what they want, the Bible stays on a shelf collecting dust, a collector’s item purchased primarily for its aesthetic value. But when hardship hits — job loss, death in the family, stock market crash — people snatch it up and scan it desperately to find out how to get out of jail free. A few Our Fathers and Hail Marys later and, if life brightens up, the manual goes away.

Backsliding or apathetic believers accept that following scripture is the ideal means of living, but they’re too lazy or stubborn to actually do as it says. They cut corners, ignore what’s inconvenient, and try to figure out how little of the Word they have to obey while still, technically, making it from one stage to the next.

But the Bible was not written as a self-help book, a twelve-step (or, for that matter, a ten-step) program to a better life. Cute bumper stickers aside, it was not written as a user’s manual for the human soul. The Bible is a strategy guide, and it’s meant to be followed at all times, in all stages of life. It provides advice on every aspect of this game we call life. The best armor, the most dangerous dungeons, the spiritual bestiary and, yes, the ultimate weapons are all there. In the ultimate meta-statement, the sword of the spirit is also the very book that describes it.

Like dedicated players, we recognize that sacrificing our own control to follow the Creator’s chosen path for our lives is the only way to guarantee the best possible experience. And yeah, haters still gonna hate. But I’ll stick with The Guide anyway.

The Creed

Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.
~Assassin’s Creed

Everything is permissible…but not everything is beneficial.
~Letter from Paul to the Corinthians

Great fiction has a tendency to draw us into its world. Games, books, and films captivate us with their imaginary universes with such strength that we find ourselves wishing, if only for a moment, that we could leave the real world to inhabit theirs. And when fictions overlap with reality in part, we sometimes wish they overlapped in full.

For me, Assassin’s Creed is one such fiction. After hours spent filling the shoes of Ezio and Altair through Desmond Miles, peeling back a conspiratorial veneer to reveal the true machinations behind so much of history, it’s almost disheartening to realize that there is no actual ongoing power struggle between the vast Templar and Assassin brotherhoods. Like many of the NPCs one recruits throughout the last two games, we are bored by a life driven merely by personal needs and desires; we want to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

A couple weeks ago I sent an email to my friend Jonathan regarding the opening of the epistle of James. “I just spent the majority of the last several days playing through Assassin’s Creed Revelations,” I told him.

One of the things I’ve always found really cool about the game is the idea of a brotherhood, an order of people all over the world who subscribe to a core set of beliefs about the world and live every day in an effort to make the world a little bit more like they believe it ought to be. And then I read this verse (N.b. James 1:1-2), addressing the letter to brothers scattered throughout the world, and I realize that’s exactly what my faith could be like (if less secretive). That said, “nothing is true, everything is permitted” is a lot easier to memorize than the apostle’s creed.

Candidly, he replied, “You could memorize 1 Corinthians 10:23 instead.”

Christianity is pretty complicated, but that verse from Paul speaks volumes to the overarching task we are faced with each day. Given freedom, it is up to us to determine which actions are best, which will make us and the world better, which will draw us closer to God and one another. Our end goal is the good of others (see verse 24), but we pursue this goal within the confines of liberty. As Altair says, “Our Creed does not command us to be free. It commands us to be wise.”

Ironically the “Christians” within the Assassin’s Creed universe — the Knights Templar — function in opposition to both the “Muslim” Assassins’ creed and the words of their own saint.  If the true Christian and the Assassin seek wisdom through freedom, the Templars seek freedom through wisdom. The conflict between the two views comes to a head about two-thirds of the way through the main story of Revelations, when Ezio is confronted by an antagonist who tells him “We both strive for the same end, Ezio. Only our methods differ.”

Ezio responds, “Liberty can be messy…but it is priceless.”

The misguided Templars of the AC universe provide a wonderful cautionary tale for modern believers. In our efforts to spread the gospel and reshape society to reflect God’s kingdom, we must never try to force our beliefs on the unwilling. Free will is part of our imago Dei; to suppress or deny it is to deny the face of God.

Indeed, despite the initial disclaimer that has appeared before every Assassin’s Creed title screen that the game is the product of a tapestry of religious cultures and faiths, the titular creed and those who have carried it down through the generations are extraordinarily Christian. Desmond comes to realize that who he is and what he can do are a direct result of the great lineage he is a part of. His greatness is quite literally in his DNA. Without that inheritance his life is meaningless and empty — a fact driven home in the Desmond sequences of Revelations.

Moreover Desmond’s ancestors, while productive in their own age, come to realize that they are merely conduits for a power and a story bigger than themselves; vessels for transmission of a message and a responsibility older than time. Such is the message of the gospel: a creed of love and liberation established before the foundations of the world and transmitted from God via Adam down through the generations to Christ.

It’s rather incredible, I think, that a franchise which could be summed up as “a Muslim terrorist killing Christian leaders in various holy lands” carries beneath all the violence and intrigue a deeply enriching message that affirms, rather than dismisses, a godly worldview. And given the new context, it’s rather thrilling to know we’re invited to be part of the brotherhood.

Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.
Everything is permitted. Not everything is beneficial.

What a creed.

Deus Ex Ludus

Simply put, I intend for Deus Ex Ludus to be a home for intellectual discussion gaming and of the intersection of games and faith (posts leaning exclusively in the faith direction are likely to remain rooted in my personal blog). Typically, when embarking on a new blog (I have, due to failure, a great deal of experience with starting blogs) I will use the first blog merely as a test pattern for formatting. But in this particular case, I am going to one-up myself and include the text of a blog written years ago from which both the general aim and the name of this one are derived.

I think it’s worth mentioning the obvious: times change. This was published four and a half years ago. I was just beginning my collegiate journey, one which would radically reshape my mind, my writing, my faith, and — most pertinently — my ideas of gaming. Nevertheless the clarity I had as a first-semester freshman is striking; striking to me and, perhaps, striking to you too.

Deus Ex Ludus

Every time Square-Enix releases a new game, i’m sure, friends and family members of gamers alike silently curse the gods. Four hours of the child’s absence lead the anxious mother to check in on the whereabouts of her son. He sits with eyes starting to glaze as he stares intently at the glowing screen, plastic device in hand. “What are you playing?” she asks. It takes a moment for him to know he’s been asked a question, another moment to pause. He begs her repeat the inquiry; she acquiesces. “Final Fantasy.”

For a little under a week now i’ve been enraptured by the twelfth installment of said series, much to the chagrin of roommates and peers alike. In what i’d approximate to four days i’ve clocked in over twenty-two hours of gameplay with no sign of stopping in the near future. I’ve heard that simply completing the game takes over forty and that’s if you don’t try to completely level up and get every ultimate weapon and complete all the side quests etcetera etcetera. All told it’s not inconceivable for one to spend one hundred and fifty of those precious sixty-minute blocks before reaching the absolute pinnacle of performance.

At first such a stretch seems absurd–and i’ll allow that such a classification isn’t too shy of truth–and an explanation is in order. How on earth could something even remain interesting for so long? Isn’t it just a lot of running around and killing monsters to level up? Well, yes and no. To be sure, much of the actual gameplay consists of just that, a seemingly endless cycle of killing fiends, restoring health, and killing more fiends. The substance of a game like Final Fantasy, however, lies not in the gameplay necessarily but moreso in the story. If stories can be woven and spun then Square is an artisan without peer. Each game finds a new world, a new plot, and most importantly, new characters. Musical elements and various character types and spell names serve as the only unifying factor between the FF games; for the most part, each game is an entirely new universe to lose oneself in.

And lose myself i have, in much the same was as i did in Final Fantasy X. The land of Ivalice with its warring factions, the young orphans living in the city of Rabanastre which finds itself besieged by the powerful Archadian armies, the deposed princess who finds herself obligated to reclaim the throne but unable to do so by her own devices, the deserts and dungeons of the Ester and Westersands, the plains of Giza and the jungles beyond; in a word enthralling. Every beautiful CG episode has me on the edge of my seat (quite literally, seeing as the other day my chair literally broke beneath me as i played on) wondering anxiously how Vaan and Ashe and Balthier (my favorite) and the rest will make it through these exceptionally dark times in their lives.

People often joke about the paradox of having twelve (and others they don’t know about) “final” fantasies. The answer is relatively simple: the man responsible for the first game was on the brink of ending his career in a company that itself was standing on a last leg. Were the game to fail as miserably as it very well stood to do, Final Fantasy would indeed have been a final thing. When it instead turned the company’s luck in a new direction and saved Squaresoft from an early trip to the crypt, it became the company flagship. Every new installment would thus bear the name Final Fantasy for, theoretically, in a market as ever-changing as ours, every new game could be Square’s last.

It’s been proven that men are, in general, more object-driven than women. This would explain why so many guys play video games in which the target is to beat the game, to solve the problems, to win. We are far less likely to dabble in the sandbox, i would guess, because when there ceases to be any actual end to the game it becomes, to some extent, futile to participate. It just feels good to attain new levels, unlock new spells, be able to afford better equipment. Over time you become an increasingly formidable foe, a force to be reckoned with to use the cliche. And who among us doesn’t want to be a force to be reckoned with?

If you are a Latin scholar, or use google, you may have already deciphered the title of this entry. The idea of “God from the game” or “God in the game” probably strikes you as humorous. “Come on now Adam,” you say, “even you have to admit that you’re reaching when you start trying to prove that video games are good because they can bring you closer to God.”

Do i have to make such a concession? I think not.

The fact is that any and all art is a form of expression. It means something to the creator, and it means something (even if that something is nothing) to those that in one way or another consume the art. Thus, while Squaresoft may not have made Final Fantasy games to exhibit facets of the Christian walk, and while there are sure to be many people who play the games and never have an epiphany, i feel confident nevertheless in saying that the game is fairly good at producing such results.

As i sat under the lights at the fine arts building next to my dorm last night, trying with futility to avoid the rain and the cold, i reflected on the pilgrimage mentality toward life. Much as the FF games that i’ve played represent, life is truly a series of conflicts and characters that take us from place to place as we are hurled by time toward whatever ends we choose to meet. We can choose to improve ourselves in various ways–guarding our minds and our hearts, seeking out and uprooting falseness around us with Truth, witnessing to others in the hope that they will join us in our pilgrimage–and yet in the end we must all face the final Boss, whoever that may be. If you, like me, have the strategy guide, then you can find out ahead of time who that Boss is. You know what He likes, you know what He hates, and you spend your game trying to strengthen yourself accordingly. The last thing anyone wants to do is end up in the Boss’s chamber inadquately equipped to succeed.

There is one difference worth noting though: unlike Squaresoft, there’s not a chance that success in this game will give us an opportunity to make new ones. Indeed, it is appointed unto man to live once, to die once, and then to face the Boss. And so, accordingly, it’s time that i started to level up. It’s time that i start learning the scriptures.

This is my life.
This is my final fantasy.