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Author: Marty Himmel

The Interactive Nature of Video Games

One of the things I love about video games is their interactive nature. Movies are great to sit back and watch, but the level of investment isn’t the same. When you’re watching a movie, you have no say in what the characters do or how they develop.

Books are similar, with the exception of visuals. The story is there for you, but you’re free to imagine the world and action how you will within the confines of the author’s description. Or lack thereof, in which case, your imagination is even more free to fill in the blanks. Either way, the story happens as intended by the author.

On the surface, video games aren’t much different than movies and books. Keeping with the movie and book analogy, this applies specifically to story driven games. Story driven games have a bit of leeway to them that movies and books don’t. Assuming the game has an end, then there is a clearly defined beginning and end to the story, with a middle that could be mostly linear (BioShock, Final Fantasy XIII) or extremely open (any The Elder Scrolls or Might and Magic game).

The start and end of games will always tell the same story. Even if there are multiple endings, you’re getting a variation on a theme. The middle section is where the interaction really happens.

RPGs are famous for the open middle. As previously stated, any game from The Elder Scrolls or Might and Magic series has a wide open middle. Yes, there are specific quests that have to be done, but otherwise, you’re free to develop your character how you choose, explore the world and see sights that may not be part of the main story line, and do other optional stuff you want. Even the more linear games still give you some agency over how the characters are developed. Final Fantasy XIII is probably the most linear game in the series, but you are still free to develop your characters in the Crystarium system and set their roles.

BioShock, with its mostly linear world, still gives you character choices by choosing to harvest the Little Sisters or save them, and growing your powers by the plasmids you choose. The Grand Theft Auto games give you optional stunts and missions to complete, and if that’s not enough, then the Saints’ Row games take the same formula and go over the top. Dragon Quest Builders takes the open world concept of Minecraft and wraps it in a story, but still gives the player a lot of control over how the towns develop and the characters grow.

In all of these games, there’s a level of interactivity that isn’t possible in any other medium. Not only are you discovering the story, as you would in a movie or book, you’re also actively participating in it. The character doesn’t act unless you do. Unlike a movie, games require active participation to advance the story. This active participation in the story is one of the reasons I love games and prefer them over movies.

The interactive nature – the active participation – is also a great metaphor for life. Your own life requires active participation to advance the story. It requires you to interact with others and complete (or at least attempt) “quests.” It requires you to make choices about how you – your character – will grow.

Life has to be experienced – your story isn’t written yet. There is no walkthrough to say where to go at any given point in life or what the next step is. There is a definite beginning and ending to your story, but the middle is wide open. And it’s that middle section that really makes the story. It’s the middle that is truly memorable in life.

Don’t let your life be like a movie, where you’re just watching everything go by. Where the story just happens, whether you’re invested or not. You’ll miss out on so much that life has to offer.

Let your life be like a video game. One that is interactive. One that has an active participant moving the story forward, with a character that explores and interacts with the surrounding world, and is open to experiences and leveling up. Take part in the wide open middle section of life. Write the best story for your character that you can.

Gears of War 3 – Biblical Parallels of Sacrifice

While the original Gears of War trilogy primarily revolves around the post E-Day war with the Locust, there is a lot of in-depth character development and interaction. Dom Santiago always comes to mind when I think about these games. His is the story of a tragic hero. He endured losing his children on E-Day, his wife’s disappearance and eventual death, and finally gave his own life as an act of sacrifice to save his friends.

Before we dive into Dom’s final scene, let’s go over some events leading up to it (parts of Dom’s backstory are from outside the games). His children died during the emergence of the locust. His wife, Maria, spiraled into depression and lost touch with reality. Maria would often go out looking for their kids, thinking they were still alive. Four years later, Maria disappeared – Dom lost his wife for the first time.

Ten years pass, and during Gears of War 2, Dom finds out Maria is in one of the Locust slave camps. He finds her, but she’s already been “processed” by the Locust. Processing is a form of torture that ends with the victim being lobotomized. Maria is a shell of a person and doesn’t recognize Dom. Rather than let her live like that, Dom kills her, and loses his wife for a second time.

Moving on to Gears of War 3, Dom has clearly been traumatized by the events. However, that doesn’t stop him from helping Marcus and his squad. During one of the firefights with the Locust and Lambent, the squad is severely outnumbered and outmatched. Dom, seeing a way to save everyone else but knowing it would cost his life, chooses the path of sacrifice.

I can’t do the scene justice by trying to describe it, so it’s better to watch it (warning – it’s Gears of War, so there’s some language involved):

Dom saw the one and only way out. He could sacrifice his own life to save his friends or he could watch as they all die at the hands of the enemy. Let that sink in for a moment.

In John 15:13, Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” The Bible talks much of humility and sacrifice. It also talks about how we were trapped in darkness with only one way out. And much like Dom giving his own life to save others, so too did Jesus, who also saw the one and only way out.

Dom had a choice. He could keep going on the path the squad was on, fighting the enemy against impossible odds, eventually leading to death for the entire squad. Or he could give his own life to save the rest of the squad.

In the same way, Jesus had a choice, as evident in the garden at Gethsemane. Jesus’ prayer of “if it is possible, let the cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” points to both the choice he had and the choice he made. His mission, so to speak, was to be the final sacrifice for humanity, to reconcile us back to God. Despite his divinity, Jesus was still human and had to make a choice. Even knowing his whole life was leading to the cross, in the end, he still chose to sacrifice himself for humanity.

Though it was painful in the moment, both for Dom and for his squad, Dom foresaw the other side of his sacrifice. The enemy was defeated and Dom’s squad lived to continue the fight. Jesus also knew this pain and foresight. Though the pain of the cross was excruciating, he foresaw the other side of his sacrifice and the freedom and hope we were given by it. And like Dom giving life to his friends by his death, Jesus gives life to us by his.

Sacrifice is never easy, otherwise it would be a simple gift. It may cost a life, as portrayed by Dom and Jesus. Other times, it doesn’t cost a life, but requires something beyond what we think we can do or give. Sacrifice is painful, but no matter the cost, it is the greatest act of love anyone can do.

Final Fantasy XII – Letting Go of the Past

The main story in Final Fantasy XII could be summed up as the empire is taking over the world and the main party wants revenge. It evolves from there, but the main story isn’t really important for this lesson. Instead of focusing on the main story, I’m going to dive into a couple individual characters from the main party. Looking at the game from the party’s standpoint, a large part of the story deals with the past of each character. More specifically, the events the empire set in motion and how the characters deal with it.

Let’s start with Vaan. His brother was killed by the empire during the invasion. His goal from then on was to take back from the empire whatever he could. Revenge was always on his mind, though oddly enough, it was usually by way of theft. Three of the other characters have similar stories. Ashe was stuck on revenge against the empire for the destruction of Nabudis, the death of her husband (the prince of Nabudis) and father (the king of Dalmasca), and the invasion and occupation of Dalmasca. Basch wanted revenge for the fall of Dalmasca. Balthier was a former judge of the empire, by his father’s doing, yet he wanted no part in what the empire was doing.

Vaan was stuck in the past. He didn’t know how to deal with what had happened with his brother. Ashe and Bosch were stuck on revenge. They didn’t know how to move forward without every path leading to the destruction of the empire. Balthier was haunted by his past as a judge and his father’s transformation. He did everything he could to stay away from the empire, despite what he knew.

They each clung to an event in the past to give them meaning in the present. In each case, it caused more personal harm than it ever helped. I think we, as people, often do the same. It’s easy to dwell on the past because we experienced it. The problem is, we tend to see the past as the trajectory of our future rather than learning from it to make a better future.

There’s a scene where Vaan tells Ashe about what happened and what his views were:

“Hating the empire, getting revenge. It’s all I ever thought about. But I never did anything about it. I mean, I realized there was nothing I could do. It made me feel hollow, alone. And then I’d miss my brother. I’d say stuff like, ‘I’m gonna be a sky pirate,’ or some other stupid thing. Just anything to keep my mind off it. I was just… I was running away.”

This realization is Vaan’s turning point. The experiences leading up to this, with friends at his side, opened his eyes to what he was really feeling and where his life was heading. Immediately following those words, in the same scene, Vaan tells Ashe he’s done running and wants to find purpose and his own answers.

Each of the characters have a similar realization at various points throughout the game. One especially important part is that none of them come to this conclusion alone. It’s through the actions and wisdom of others, along with their own realizations of where the current path leads, that brings them to a point of change. Even Ashe, who holds on to the past and thoughts of revenge for at least 90% of the game, realizes where that would lead her and the personal costs associated with it.

It’s understandable to take time to process events. The death of a loved one, loss of a job or home, a divorce, etc., often leaves a person in a traumatic state. It’s good to take time to deal with the fallout from the event. However, there is a certain point where you need to pick up the pieces of your life and move forward. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck in the past, reliving the pain of bygone events while missing out on the possibilities of the future.

History is a good teacher and we should learn from it, but if you cling to the past, especially painful events of your own past, it will drag you down and prevent you from moving forward. Holding on to the past can be destructive. Life is more than past events – don’t be a slave to them. Live in the present. Move toward the future. Let go of the past.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – Identity

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild portrays Zelda in a very different light compared to the rest of the series, including events that lead to her questioning her very identity. Generally speaking, in previous games, Zelda was hopeful, wise (she does bear the Triforce of Wisdom, after all), and, despite constantly getting kidnapped, could put up a fight. Her character from game to game was fairly predictable.

As you uncover the backstory through discovered memories, Zelda’s identity is slowly found. Of course, she’s the princess of Hyrule – that’s a given. However, the king and the people around her place an incredible burden on her because of a prophecy that make Zelda and Link the saviors of Hyrule.

The first problem Zelda faces is she has no power. Despite visiting various shrines across Hyrule and offering countless prayers, nothing happens and she remains powerless. Because of this, she questions her role in the prophecy, her role in the kingdom, and to a certain extent, her identity.

The second problem is the king and his expectations. He fully expects her to fulfill the prophecy without any regard for herself. Due to his attitude and treatment of Zelda, he pushes her into an anxiety ridden state where she’s constantly pushed to her personal limits – emotionally, mentally, and physically.

The third problem is her own attitude, perceptions, and lack of understanding. While she desperately wants to fulfill the prophecy, she doesn’t quite get that she can’t fulfill it alone. It’s only when Link falls and is knocking on death’s door that Zelda realizes she (and Hyrule) needs Link by her side in order to fulfill the prophecy. The power isn’t hers alone, nor is it Link’s alone.

Image courtesy of gamespot.com

I get all of this. As someone who is incredibly introspective, I often question myself on a variety of points. Why do I do the things I do? Why do I feel the way I do about certain issues? What am I supposed to be doing? What’s my purpose or calling in life? It all comes down to a single question of identity – who am I?

The more I’ve pondered those questions, talked with others, read others’ accounts of their lives, followed Twitter and Facebook feeds, watched movies, and played a variety of narrative driven games, the more I’ve come to realize this is the question everyone is trying to figure out. Who am I? What’s my identity?

Often times, we run into the same issues as Zelda. Not in the sense of a given prophecy, per se, but in the sense that if you don’t make a plan for your life, someone else will. I was a pastor for 7 years because of what someone else thought I should do, rather than it being the call of God. Those 7 years were filled with a lot of doubt and questions about if I was doing the right thing or doing what I was supposed to be doing. I questioned my identity quite often.

I’m a teacher, by God’s gifting and calling, which is something I’ve never doubted. It’s one of the many reasons I write. The pastoral thing wasn’t my calling though – it was someone else’s idea for my life. Someone else made that plan and it sounded right (despite my own questions and doubts), so I just went along with it. The hardest part there is it was close enough to my real gifting and calling that it was easy to mix the two up.

I use my own life and struggles as an example to illustrate the struggles Zelda went through, and more importantly, to let you know that no matter how you question your identity (or when someone else questions it), you’re not alone. This is a common theme in humanity.

Most people spend their entire lives trying to figure out who they are. In a way, we have to. Who we are today isn’t the same as who we were 10 years ago, nor is it who we’ll be in 10 years. Our values change as we grow and learn. How we perceive the world changes as we grow.

As the Bible says, and portrays over and over, we’re created in the image of God. The core of our identity is wrapped up in that statement and who God is – in His characteristics of being loving, compassionate, just, giving, and so on. However, as God is infinitely multifaceted and we aren’t perfect, the rest of our identity is ours to discover over the course of our lives. Those other facets of our identity, such as personal preferences, what brings us joy, what kind of career we’re suited for, etc, are unique to each person. Sure, there are many similarities between people, but no two people are exactly the same.

Here’s the thing to keep in mind. Each part of our identity is only one small part. It’s not the whole of a person. Don’t focus on a person’s failures or the parts you don’t agree with. Ideologies you don’t agree with aren’t the whole identity of another person. Failures don’t define a person’s identity – they are merely the outcome of an action taken or not taken. One act, habit, choice, perception, or value does not make the entirety of a person. Those are a small part of a much greater whole.

Zelda questioned her identity time and again, through failure after perceived failure. It was only in the end, when she realized that her power came from her desire to help and protect others, rather than fulfill some forced duty, that she discovered who she really was and what she was capable of. With that understanding of herself, she was able to save Link, hold Ganon at bay until Link recovered, and defeat Ganon alongside Link.

Don’t be afraid to question yourself – it’s part of the growth process. Don’t be afraid of failures – they don’t define you. Finding your identity is a lifelong journey that won’t come easily or quickly, but it’s worth it. As you discover who you are and what matters to you, your strengths and talents align to who you truly are. In the end, the world will be better for it.

Katamari Damacy – Humor

Katamari Damacy is a ridiculous game that abounds in humor. The story revolves around the King of All Cosmos going on a drunken rampage and destroying part of the cosmos, leaving the Prince to fix the mess. To fix the cosmos, the Prince has to roll up whatever is in his path – tacks, balls, dominoes, cats, sumo wrestlers, cars, houses, etc. The King of All Cosmos then turns the giant clump of things into the various missing stars and the moon.

That brief description should give you an idea of the game’s humor. It’s not a serious game by any stretch of the imagination. It’s playful, which is primarily what the creator, Keita Takahashi, wanted it to be. Even the soundtrack is off the wall and adds to the humor of the game. Seriously, go listen to it if you want some upbeat wacky music. It’s well worth a listen or two. Or so much that you get it stuck in your head for a few days.

The old adage that “laughter is the best medicine” rings true with Katamari Damacy. In the Bible, Proverbs 17:22 says “a joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones.” It’s important to find joy and humor in life, even in times of great sorrow. Remaining in grief or anger – in brokenness – for too long is detrimental to a person’s health and general well being.

Finding humor in a situation often leads to stress relief and a general improvement in one’s mood. Often times at funerals and memorial services, people tell funny stories about the person that passed. Remembering the positive moments and laughing about them helps alleviate the pain of loss. The same holds true in any negative situation. If you can find some humor, no matter how small or insignificant, it helps to deal with the grief and/or anger. It’s not that you forget the pain is there, but that you remember there’s hope and joy on the other side of the pain.

This is a significant lesson in leadership, as well. Being able to laugh, especially at your own faults or mistakes, gives others the freedom to laugh. Giving others the gift of laughter has a lot of productivity benefits. It keeps situational and environmental stress levels down and the general “temperature” cooler. Humor, if done well, can diffuse a lot of situations and mitigate stress.

That self-deprecating humor is exactly what The King of All Cosmos portrays. He messed up the cosmos, admits it, admits that he enjoyed messing it up, and then sends the prince to fix his mess. While the King doesn’t laugh, per se, the humor is there and it tends to incite laughter in the players.

We all need to laugh and give those around us the freedom to laugh, especially when things go wrong. Will we laugh all the time? Of course not. Life is full of serious moments, painful times, and so on. But life is also full of hope and joy.

As in Katamari Damacy, don’t take everything so seriously. Embrace the playful side of life and those hopeful, joyful, and humorous times. Laugh when you can and give the gift of humor to others. You’ll be amazed how that simple gift can be a shining star for someone.