Friday, October 01, 2004


Faith in the Game

"Tempest" was a great video game. It was popular in the heyday of the game arcade; my friends in Hackers Anonymous and I would go over at around midnight and get a bunch of tokens and play until we ran out. Then we'd walk back home through the quiet post-midnight city.

That's the only game that really captured my attention. It was colorful, abstract, and wanted some thinking rather than relying on pure twitchiness. Other games were too repetitive or too goal-oriented, and in later years they became simply ugly.

The same applied to games that ran on PCs, when home computers became popular. Shoot things, blow things up, it wasn't my thing.

Then Cyan introduced Cosmic Osmo, a Hypercard stack in living black-and-white. This fascinated me; it was interactive. Click on things to use them or to move through the worlds. The game showed what could be done, but there was nothing else like it.

Some years later a friend told me he'd gotten something called "Myst," and he didn't like it. Would I be interested?

I gave it a try and didn't stick. Later, when I was in a better mood, I tried it again and this time completed it. It turned out to be my kind of game: beautiful, running at my pace, things to think about and figure out. It was like reading a book except that now I was a character in the book. I was sorry when I finished it.

I was even more sorry when I finished its follow-on, "Riven." This is still the best computer game I've ever played.

It's a small genre, the pure adventure game. You don't get killed, you don't even shoot at things. You wander around and figure things out. A new title comes out occasionally. Lately I've played "RHEM" and "Alida."

RHEM is highly enigmatic. You start out in a railcar and then you have to figure out lots of strange mechanisms. At first I did pretty well but then I hit the wall. I finally found a walk-through on the Web and resorted to that.

A walk-through is written by someone who has played through to the end, and shows all the steps for completing the game. By using one you short-cut the logic of the game. The game has its own logic and you learn this meta-logic as you play by figuring out the simple puzzles and building that into a model of the whole system; you hope that knowledge increases at the same rate as need. The walk-through short-circuits the process of figuring out the meta-knowledge.
The RHEM walk-through showed me why I'd gotten stuck: some devices in the game just weren't working. After that I couldn't trust the game any more and had to use the walk-through for all clues. It wasn't much fun.

The fact that I had to use a walk-through for parts of Alida is all my fault. The writer's logic was more subtle than I expected. This was actually good because it broke up the pattern of meta-logic by which I played the game and thereby took shortcuts. It was more like how puzzles would be set up in the real world. It was still frustrating, and it still short-circuited the gaining of meta-knowledge.

Meta-knowledge deals with epistemology. How do we know what we know, and how do we learn? One I started using the walk-through it was like looking at the test answers in school: right answer, but I couldn't derive them myself so I'd be helpless outside of a controlled situation. It's also like people here in Los Angeles who know only one route to work and if that
route is closed they have no idea what to do.

There is no walk-through for the life of a follower of Jesus. Each day is new.

There's a certain amount of faith involved in the playing of an adventure game. You have to assume that the writer wants you to figure it out; he could easily make it impossible. Once there's a breaking of faith--if the game doesn't work, if you lose the thread of meta-logic--it becomes very frustrating. That's when you have to resort to a walk-through, or you just

"Without faith it is impossible to please Him." I'm not much for faith. Faith is for people who'd rather believe in absurdity than do the serious work finding truth requires. And yet now I'm faced with a variety of situations I can't see beyond. How much faith do I have in God's adventure game? Do trust that He has made it figure-outable? Do I trust that He has left the clues lying around for me to pick up and then take the next step? Do I trust that the goal of the game is anything I care about?

Some years ago I was playing cards with a man who was a student at the same university I was in. I knew he was gay, but this had never mattered. The phone rang and he talked for a time; I heard the word "trick" used a couple of times. After he hung up he said his friend had asked if I was a trick. He'd said no, and I knew he meant it, but still this near brush with being used was so highly disgusting to me that I never saw him again.

I want to be myself. Nothing less. Nothing more. Not a copy of someone else, not someone else's tool. I want the characteristics that I have to matter in some unique way. Now I find that I just don't know much about where I'm going. The Holy Spirit pretty much has to do everything. He does it better than I do. What's left of me?

Singularity. I'm seriously disgruntled right now, but there really is only one way out. Step over the singularity and believe that God made me as I am for a reason.

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