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Celeste – Struggling Together

On the surface, Celeste is about a woman named Madeline, who is bound and determined to climb Mount Celeste. Before continuing, as always with anything written on this site, there are massive spoilers ahead (basically the entire story). At the time of writing, this game has been out for a week and a half, so I figured I’d add this as a special warning.

As the story unfolds, you discover that Madeline deals with anxiety and depression, and is prone to panic attacks. In the second chapter, a part of her is released into the physical world, and she is forced to confront this “evil doppleganger” throughout the rest of the game.

The other part of Madeline is essentially her anxiety and depression given physical form. The other part often talks down to Madeline and those she encounters. She tells Madeline how useless everything is, that she should give up the climb and just go home, and so on. Madeline struggles with this, sometimes appearing to agree, and then in the next moment, refusing to give up.

At one point, Madeline tells the other part of her that she needs to leave her behind. To let her go. At that announcement, the other part explodes with anger, making herself bigger and more powerful, telling Madeline that she can’t just leave her. And to prove the point, the other part drags her down the mountain.

Still not completely deterred, Madeline starts the climb again. She meets the “crazy old woman” from the beginning of the game, who tells Madeline that the answer isn’t in leaving the other part, but talking to her and figuring out what she’s afraid of. Madeline complies and after their next meeting (following a crazy boss fight type of sequence with the raging other part), Madeline accepts the other part and wants to work together with her. The other part, knowing she won’t be abandoned, accepts the offer.

By accepting this other part of her, Madeline’s abilities improve, and the two make it to the peak of Mount Celeste.

By the end of the game, Madeline has accepted her struggles as part of who she is. Once she realizes the fear and anxiety she faces, she is able to move forward and accomplish her goal. She does this not in spite of what she deals with, but in accordance with who she is, flaws and all.

People are inherently flawed. Some deal with anxiety, some with depression, some with anger, some with addiction, everyone deals with fear at various points – the list goes on. In dealing with these various flaws, we need to stop pretending they don’t exist and learn how to effectively deal with them.

When Madeline tried to leave behind the other part of her (ignore the problem), things only got worse. However, when she accepted the other part of her as part of who she is, she was able to face the problems (doubts, fears, etc.) and climb the mountain.

Madeline also needed help from other people to understand how to overcome the issue. The crazy old woman (who maybe wasn’t so crazy) helped Madeline understand the fear she was facing. Theo, another person Madeline meets along the way, is a source of inspiration and encouragement for her.

Much like Madeline, we need other people in our lives to help us work through our issues. Yes, there are certain things others won’t be able to do for us, but they can still be there with us and support us.

By recognizing our own flaws and struggles, we can start the work to improve ourselves and get a better outlook on life. Not on our own, but together.

Dark Souls – Gradual Improvement

The Dark Souls games (including Demon’s Souls) are incredibly hard and rely on the idea of gradual improvement to get through each game. As you collect souls, you can trade them in for various stat points, which also raises your level (one stat point equals one level). The benefits vary based on the chosen stat to increase. A stat may increase your hit points and resistances, your stamina, your damage with a weapon (or ability to even use it), your spell damage, an so on. It doesn’t seem like much at first, but a single level can make a significant difference.

A lot of the difficulty in the Souls games can also be overcome by skill (knowing enemy tells, dodging, etc.), but that also requires gradual improvement. The first time you encounter an enemy, especially bosses, you have no clue what their tells are. It takes time, studying movements, a lot of dodging and/or blocking, learning the terrain, and a few (or several) deaths to really get a grasp on each situation.

Whether it’s through leveling and stat increases, or through improving personal skill, it’s all a process of gradual improvement.

Life works much the same way. In the first couple years of life, a child learns to crawl and walk one step at a time. Crawling starts out slowly, as the child learns balance on hands and knees. Walking involves a lot of falling down while learning to transfer that balance skill to two legs. In a sense, each milestone is a level up, with a certain amount of skill transfer.

As people go through school, including college, they’re increasing knowledge and learning new skills. The same can happen through personal hobbies, though those often leading to the next level of honing a skill. This is also true in the workplace. We become aware of more efficient ways of doing tasks. Or we do a task so often it becomes second nature and requires very little thought.

From the early years, through school, and into the workforce, every part consists of gradual improvement. Even people with natural talent for something still have to work at their given talent to become even better at it. Talent will only take you so far.

Failure is also part of the process. In Dark Souls, failure usually means dying, but you’re learning what doesn’t work. In life, failure at a task doesn’t mean the end of the journey. It means you’ve discovered what doesn’t work, and now you can try something else – you’re still improving by recognizing what doesn’t work.

In regards to creating a commercially viable lightbulb, Thomas Edison is often quoted as saying, “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.” Edison knew if he kept at it long enough, he would gain enough knowledge to create a better lightbulb. He understood the process of gradual improvement.

Gradual improvement is a life long journey. It applies to our lives from the moment of birth until the day we die. In learning about the world around us, both as a child and as an adult, we’re leveling up and improving our skills. When we apply ourselves to our hobbies, relationships, jobs, personal growth, and every other aspect of life, we are improving.

Sometimes, growth happens in leaps and bounds. However, more often than not, the growth comes gradually. The gradual improvement process is usually what results in lasting growth and change. Regardless of the timing of the process, take hold of it and keep pushing forward.

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.

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.