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Author: Laurence Elliott

Religion in Games

Religion in Games

Religion has provided the inspiration and subject matter for countless books, films and plays for many years, and continues to do so to this day. It makes fundamental claims about philosophy and ethics that have attracted fervent criticism and praise in almost every form and from almost every possible direction in recent years. So with all this in mind, why have we not seen more games that deal directly with the issues surrounding faith and religious belief? Well aside from the fact that, for reasons beyond my comprehension, it is somewhat of a taboo to openly criticise religion intellectually or artistically (an immunity that all other forms of discourse are completely free from), the last ten or so years have shown that mainstream developers will invariably get bombarded with complaints and criticism that is mostly generated by an extremely vocal and hostile minority claiming to represent the views of people of faith worldwide, should they attempt to do so. The ensuing controversy results in developers being forced to tip-toe their way around issues surrounding faith or even avoid engagement with them at all, out of a needless fear of causing ‘offence’.

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The makers of Hitman 2, for instance, were forced to rerelease an altered version of the game after the original sparked controversy over a level in which Sikh guards were being killed within a depiction of the Harmandir Sahib, a Sikh holy site. More recently, Resistance: Fall of Man was protested by the Church of England for including a gun battle in Manchester Cathedral. Legal threats were levelled at Sony by the Church, who demanded a formal apology, a substantial donation and complete withdrawal of the game purely because they considered the depiction of the Cathedral to be ‘desecration’. Thankfully, Sony did not capitulate. The attitude of the media at the time, however, in paying too much in the way of lip service to the ludicrous accusations and demands of the Church has somewhat neutered the industry and helped to discourage many other developers from using explicit religious imagery in their titles. If major producers are getting their wrists slapped for merely depicting religious symbols or using ‘holy sites’ as the setting for certain scenes, then the industry has no hope of engaging with religious faith on a sophisticated level in the same way as cinema or literature.

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Of course these kinds of themes and materials must be dealt with appropriately, and abominations like Ethnic Cleansing and Muslim Massacre only end up contributing to the stigma that games can’t deal with them seriously and objectively. Equally damaging, however, are the ‘religious-games developers’ who attempt to force gratuitous religious messages into their games and essentially proselytise their audience, which merely serves to attract ridicule and ultimately deter other developers from even trying to engage critically with faith. TwoGuysSoftware’s (now known as XcrucifiX) Eternal War: Shadows of Light, for example, is just a poorly disguised recruitment drive that has a deviously brainwashy feel to it. The attempt to involve religion more directly does deserve some credit, but when implemented with such an overtly Christian agenda it not only detracts from the level of enjoyment possible but serves to alienate the mass audience, who are largely unconcerned with the bogus moral values of religion being snuck into their gaming experience.

Where is the middle ground then? On the one hand you have some peripheral developers placing religion at the centre of the experience and essentially creating interactive propaganda, and on the other there are the mainstream developers who are terribly afraid of overtly trespassing on religious subject matter out of fear of incurring a lawsuit. Clearly there is not a market for the former, but there is a serious deficiency in the mainstream industry of genuinely creative, objective and dispassionate exploration of religious issues and the problems they have caused and still cause in today’s world.

Assassin’s Creed is a case in point. Although most would argue that the Crusades were considerably political or territorial in nature, I found it frustrating how the extraordinarily fundamental role of religion in the conflict and its pervasive presence in medieval society was forcibly pushed into the background as to be almost indiscernible. This was particularly damaging for a game which was specifically criticised for its lack of depth and the unconvincing nature of the world it created. Had the developers reflected in the game how religiously charged society was in the 12th century and not treated the issue so sensitively it would have gone some way to alleviating this and adding a certain level of believability to their depictions of Damascus, Acre and Jerusalem, which were, at the time, religious centres of the world.

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With the political, ethical and metaphysical issues surrounding religion becoming more salient since the 9/11 bombings and the rise of ‘New Atheism’, developers are going to find themselves increasingly constrained in the kinds of contemporary issues they are able to engage with creatively if such a hugely significant subject remains untouchable. We have come a long way from the early 90s, where a game with even the slightest religious reference was heavily censored, but until religion is placed back on the table of rational discourse and criticism, video games as a creative medium will continue to be taken less seriously than other forms of entertainment. Authors and filmmakers seem to have a lot more courage when it comes to critically and objectively examining religion and if games developers can follow the example set by people like Salman Rushdie, Geert Wilders or Kevin Smith, it will just be a matter of time before the gaming medium will grow to a similar level of maturity and sophistication, which it undoubtedly has the potential for.

Halo, is it PC you’re looking for?

Halo, is it PC you’re looking for?

“You can write about anything” he said. “Anything?” I said. “Anything” he said. “As long as it is PC related”. Well as much as this post might therefore seem like a defiant “fuck you!” to Chris’ only brief, I nevertheless want to share my recent experience of playing Halo 3 on the Xbox 360 with my fellow PC brethren. Why? Well aside from the fact that I had no internet for two weeks and was slowly becoming a desperate, games-deprived Neanderthal, everything I’d heard or read about Halo beforehand made it out to be the single greatest FPS of all time. Words like ‘innovative’, ‘revolutionary’, ‘flawless’ and ‘perfect’ seem to get thrown around willy-nilly when it comes to Bungie’s poster child and the few friends I have who play it with an almost religious devotion get quite defensive, angry almost, at the mere suggestion that it could possibly be anything other than those things.

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Being the pretentious purist that I am, what I had seen so far really didn’t strike me as that impressive or original and so I spent most of my brief encounters with it turning my nose up and getting frustrated at my ineptitude with the primitive control system. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy a challenge, but after playing a lot of FPS with a mouse and a keyboard, trying to do it with a 360 controller is like trying to run an obstacle course drunk off your tits.

Annoyingly, my housemate is obscenely good, and could probably shoot my bollocks off with his eyes closed. But give me a few hours with a mouse and keyboard and he wouldn’t stand a chance, even with the hundreds upon hundreds of hours he has accumulated online. Aiming with the mouse is, quite simply, better, and being an uncompromising PC gamer means I’ll never be fully comfortable with a controller. Rest assured, I am aware of the fact that this is all relative; everyone playing online is using the same infuriatingly inefficient control method and so is facing the same challenge (I do, however, get a certain amount of amusement, as smug and pompous as this amusement might be, at the sort of things that are considered “awesome moves” in Halo; things that a monkey could probably perform with ease on a PC).

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What can I actually criticise Halo for then?

Well there isn’t actually an awful lot wrong with the gameplay itself, and as the bleak, internetless days went by I found myself (with a certain reluctance I might add) slowly enjoying the multiplayer more and more. But to grant any game the extraordinarily special status that fans and critics have given Halo would demand equally extraordinary design and execution, which Halo simply doesn’t have. It’s a good game, but no better than any number of the great shooters on the PC.

The argument I find myself having with Halo fanboys is a continuous regurgitation of the same old nonsense, and the one thing I seem to hear time and time again goes something like: “But the engine is so robust bla bla bla”. True, the engine is good, great in fact, but a solid engine is no longer a mark of distinction. We are in a technological golden age (at least as far as video games are concerned) where having a decent game engine can no longer be flaunted as a remarkable feature. Call of Duty, Team Fortress, Counter Strike, Battlefield, Quake, Crysis; all of these titles have solid engines that have withstood the test of time. Granted they’re not as good as Halo’s in some respects but they’re certainly good enough to facilitate a balanced multiplayer experience, which, when you think about it, is all you really need. A good engine is not what gamers actively look for in a game anymore; it’s something that should just be there as standard.

There is also an on-going debate about the problem of servers. The lack of third-party, dedicated servers means that players are forced to host every game on their own internet connection (the problems of which I won’t bother reiterating here). I don’t pretend to understand the technical or financial obstacles stopping Microsoft and Bungie from implementing the system used in multiplayer FPS on the PC (although as far as I’m aware there really aren’t any or, at least, many), but when comparisons are drawn by Halo’s own fanboys between it and, say, Call of Duty or Quake, then they immediately place it on the same table of discussion, including the efficiency of matchmaking/server browsing. And Halo’s is mind-bogglingly stupid.

Without any kind of server browser, players search for available games and are automatically grouped according to their current skill level, completely ignoring the highest skill level that certain players may have reached in the past. This results in the most ludicrous match-ups often pitting one side that may have played 5000 games between them against another that could have played as little as 100. The veterans barely even break a sweat, yawning as they effortlessly pummel the opposition, who spend the entire game headbutting their controllers screaming “OMG!!” and “WTF?!?!?” as they are sniped in the face or bludgeoned to death for the gazillionth time. No one finds this fun and it happens to me frustratingly often (because I’m usually on the latter team).

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The lack of a server browser also means you get absolutely no choice over what map is to be played in the match. It is randomly generated and players get to veto just once, after which they have to settle for the alternative, which is also randomly generated. This results in players being forced to compete on some of the most unimaginative maps known to man, with their only options being to play through it regardless, or quit the game, suffer the XP penalty and leave the remaining players to fight it out with unbalanced teams.

It seems odd that a developer as well respected and acclaimed as Bungie have let such glaring errors remain in their principal title and it reflects poorly on the Halo community that the developers have been allowed to get away with some of the most heinous mistakes, mistakes that would have been instantly condemned had it been released on the PC.

I certainly enjoyed playing Halo, but in no way has it revolutionised the genre or competitive FPS in the way it has been lauded as doing- its huge success can be attributed simply to the fact that, with the exception of its flawed matchmaking system, it is the only console FPS that actually gets all the basics pretty much right, nothing more. It stands alone in this respect, and with no decent challenges to its crown, it has had a free ride with fans who are essentially none the wiser. Valve have raised the bar as far as feedback from their community is concerned and Bungie will have to match this if they are to see continued success with current and future titles.

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We’d love to hear about your experiences of Halo 3, and what you think of it from a PC gamer’s perspective. Alternatively, if you would like to criticise my argument, complain about the fact I managed to use the words ‘fuck’, ‘tits’ and ‘bollocks’ in one article, or just tell me that I’m an obstinate little shite, then you can do that too.

Let the commentathon commence!

Mass Effect – Looking Back

Mass Effect – Looking Back

Ok so it’s been out on the PC for over a year now. And on the Xbox 360 even longer. But I only just got round to playing Mass Effect, and speaking as someone who has become gradually disillusioned by the RPG genre, I was completely blown away by what is an absolute creative masterpiece. It’s also the first console port I’ve played that isn’t a total, head-spanking mess.

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Having been weaned on the proverbial teat of Star Trek, Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica, Mass Effect was the ideal vehicle for my re-entry into the fantasy saturated world of RPGs. Not a single mention of an elf, a goblin or a magical spell of any kind, which, when you tot up the ratio of fantasy to non-fantasy RPGs and MMORPGs being released, is actually an incredibly refreshing thing to be faced with.

Although not the primary appeal of the game, I was very excited about getting stuck into the combat, as this was the first RPG in some time whose combat wasn’t semi-turn based, with you and your opponent standing in front of each other taking it turns to click the attack button and bop the other with a big sword. Incidentally, this is also why I have never played a single MMO in my entire life. As narrow minded and ill-informed as it might sound, the whole World of Warcraft phenomenon passed me by entirely because it, and others like it, are completely hinged on this dice-roll combat, which usually results in static battles that are very dull to watch. That may seem like a petty reason not to play a game, but I remember feeling incredibly disappointed, angry almost, at how misleading the cinematic trailer for Warhammer Online was. There was a Dwarf breathing fire on hordes of charging Orcs, an Elf ducking and diving in combat with another Orc, some Priestly looking fellow clashing metal with a tall, angsty looking guy, blocking and parrying attacks, growling some incantation that ignites his hammer into flames as his head gets impaled by a mace. “Great”, I mused, “this really captures the raw and gritty spirit of Warhammer”. Wrong. I later discovered after watching a clip of gameplay footage that, once again, combat consists of you standing in front of your opponent, queuing up attacks and abilities, taking it in turns to hit each other.

The idea behind all this is obviously that the battles are supposed to be representative instead of literal, and the focus is on preparation for them; maximising your chances of victory by gaining the right abilities, items and skills beforehand by doing quests and gaining xp. With so much focus on the preparation, however, the battles themselves seem like foregone conclusions and woefully anti-climactic.

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Mass Effect, on the other hand, manages to maintain this fundamental role playing format whilst integrating an action-based, third-person shooter mechanism. Although not the first to do it, it blends the two together beautifully, and in spite of the occasionally cretinous AI, it makes for a thoroughly enjoyable system that doesn’t undermine the importance of either preparing for the fight or your own personal skill employed in the fight itself. This formula works perfectly, as much like Deus Ex, it rewards adequate preparation as well as good aim, with both being equally important requisites for victory. Squad management took too much of a back seat, however, with very little direction for your comrades actually being required (with the exception of the occasional remedial request, such as moving out of the way of incoming gunfire).

I can hear the WoW fanboys protesting already, and I do realise that I am making a somewhat tenuous comparison here. But there is really little reason for developers to rigidly stick to this dice-rolling mechanism anymore, especially with APB and Dust 514 on the horizon promising to raise the bar and successfully blend action with role-playing in an MMO context. Don’t get me wrong, I was a huge Neverwinter Nights fan- but I enjoyed it in spite of its combat system, and don’t see any reason to grudgingly cling to this for sentimentality’s sake. With this in mind, is a Mass Effect MMO really that difficult to imagine? If implemented in a similar way to EVE, with varying concentrations of AI controlled ‘police’, then it is perfectly feasible, with no changes to the fundamental principles of the game or the addition of the traditional dice roll-combat being required (hint hint Bioware).

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It has been generally agreed that Mass Effect is a great success both critically and financially, but in the year after its release it was still subjected to a continued torrent of criticism, some justified and others not so.

Amongst the most baffling was from Eurogamer’s very own Kristan Reed, where the game was accused of failing to gradually ease the player into the world and prod them in the right direction when things became a little overwhelming . Not only does this show little awareness of science-fiction and of RPGs in general, it criticises the game for something that is actually one of its biggest strengths. Mature players don’t want to be patronised with continuous explanation, exposition or “prodding”. They want to be plunged into the world they are interacting with headfirst and allowed to explore it at their own pace without having the illusion shattered with reminders of what you ‘should’ be doing. That may well turn off the more impatient players, but this isn’t a game about action necessarily- it’s a game about dialogue, narrative and exploration, which Bioware have achieved to near-perfection in almost all of their titles, particularly Mass Effect.

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I would, however, be the first to concede that the Mako is probably the stupidest vehicle ever designed in any game. Ever. Seemingly indestructible, it has a mounted gun that can only aim horizontally as well as having the mind boggling ability to climb almost sheer cliff edges with ease. It does some of the most ridiculous things that not only defy gravity, but tell it to fuck off and give it a big kick in the nuts. The side quests became somewhat repetitive after a while, and the DLC has added little in the way of substantial material. These are forgivable flaws, however, as the fully-fleshed out plot, reactive narrative and diverse, detailed characters redeem it spectacularly, and make it one of the most enjoyable titles I have played in years.

It also has a pretty good sex scene. What more could you want?