I spent most of my life religious—Christian, to be specific. Semi-recently, however, that small part of me died. Or maybe I killed it myself. I know one thing for sure, though: video games had a hand in it.
I recently started playing Cults and Daggers, a large-scale turn-based strategy game in the mould of games like Civilization or, on the not-quite-as-big-budget side of things, Paradox strategies like Crusader Kings. It brought back a lot of memories, ones I think that I maybe needed to explore—especially given how tied to video games they were.
Cults and Daggers is a game about religion, but it's not a "god game" like Black & White. Rather, it's a game about how a religion works, about the systems that intertwine and co-mingle to take a religion from personal creed to something that can topple kingdoms and change the course of history. You play as the head of a fictional religion in the the time period after Buddha's death but before Christ's birth.
Your goal is to amass "hope" over the course of seven ages by expanding into new territories and gaining followers. All the while, you have to account for the slow re-emergence of maniacal Old Gods. Someone has to take care of them or else the world is doomed.
God might work in mysterious ways, but in Cults and Daggers, it's all on you.
Early in my Cults and Daggers game, I move a disciple across the map. I tell him to preach in a city where no religion has a true foothold. One turn later, he reports success. From nothing, we—the patient, all-seeing Cosmic Owl religion—have created a spark: hope. I can only see a giant world map, but in my head I imagine this simple city's citizens sleeping a little better at night, feeling like somebody's looking out for them. They've got religion now. It's a nice moment. I decide that will be my goal: to have more moments like that.
In real life, nearly two decades of Christianity left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Eventually, I decided it wasn't for me, and I lost my connection to a lot of friends, family, and personal beliefs. I lost my faith not just in Christ, but in the concept of religion as an institution. Maybe in this game, though, it will be different. Maybe I can find something worth salvaging. Not a new belief, necessarily, but a new point of view.
It's then that I remember what started me down this whole in-game path. Before playing, I interviewed Cults and Daggers creator (and Second Life and Sims luminary) Rod Humble. He told me why he made a game about religion in the first place, and why it seemed less cynical than most modern media that tackles the thorny subject of religion.
"I'm not particularly religious myself," he told me during a phone interview, "but I come from a religious background. I wanted to make a game that was very generous and kind to religious belief. I do think that when you look at the documentation of this era, people held these beliefs very sincerely, and it did bring them hope in their lives. It did give their lives meaning. I wanted to reflect that. So it is a positive viewpoint on religion, and I think that's OK. I think it's quite easy to take a potshot at religion, and my intention was for a devout Christian or Jew or Muslim or Buddhist to be able to sit down and enjoy this game. They could say, 'This isn't my religion, but I really enjoyed that process. I found it interesting.'"
Thus, Cults and Daggers' main currency: hope.
In hindsight, I'm surprised at just how much Christianity dominated my early life. It doesn't seem like much in my head, but when I lay it out on paper, it's everywhere. I went to church every Sunday. I attended multiple Christian schools, each of which mixed Christian beliefs with traditional school subjects and regularly held mandatory chapel services. Every Wednesday evening, I went to church choir practice. There were functions all the time, too. Picnics, annual camping trips, pool parties, huge dinner gatherings.
Christianity systematically sank its hooks into my world, and I hardly even noticed because it was just... normal. It was all around me, it was my friends and family, it was in my air. Taking a step back and viewing it now, that's the mark of a good system, I suppose: you don't even notice its moving parts, its grinding gears and gnashing mechanisms, until long after you're out of it.
Even video games got wrapped up in it. I didn't play Christian edutainment games or anything like that, but church is where I met a lot of my friends who also played games. I remember one time, my church hosted a video game themed lock-in (an event where people stayed the night at the building) that was essentially an overnight LAN party. I spent hours teaching and then schooling friends at Super Smash Bros on Nintendo 64, well into the bleary eyed, heavy lidded hours of the night. The church's hallowed halls rang with the sound of shrieking child laughter. They stank of caffeinated beverages and greasy snack food.
I can think of few happier childhood gaming memories. 30 or 40 some-odd people my age packed together, having a rad time with games. Back then, when I primarily played games alone, I didn't even know it was possible for such a thing to happen. I couldn't have conceived of it.
Community. Warm feelings. Belief that I wasn't alone. I suppose that's what hope looks like, huh?
As my game of Cults and Daggers progresses, I realize I'm gonna have to make some choices about what kind of religion I'm building. I want to focus on preaching and bettering communities—keeping cities in good shape, building things like temples—but Rome... er, Hellenistic Greece wasn't built in a day. I try to stick to the straight and narrow, but other religions start out-manoeuvring me. They show up in my cities and begin taking out my disciples and converting my followers. I realise that if I want to get by, I'm gonna have to play dirty.
I guess I'm not surprised. Perhaps I was being naive to think I could get away with not-murder. That's just not how this stuff works, right? But I feel like my methods, my goals will ultimately lead to something better than what the other religions are peddling. So maybe a few lies, a little occult trickery, a spilled drop of blood here or there—maybe those aren't the worst things in the world.
So, I change my plan to allow for a little more… meanness. It won't be permanent, I tell myself. I just have to get a few obstacles out of the way.
My loss of faith was a gradual process. It started with a bang and ended in a resigned whimper. "OK," it may as well have said, as it rolled over to reveal its belly and throat. "I give."
It all began when I was 12 years old and I watched the Tom Cruise movie Minority Report, which was about a dark future in which gruesome crimes are prevented before they happen. Yes, for real. I'm not entirely sure what it was about that movie. I'd had such a sheltered childhood, I guess. It flipped a switch in my brain. I started asking questions. I ended up slipping and sliding down this weird existential track, like, "Is anything real? Is the world a giant computer simulation (thanks, The Matrix)? If so, can there even be a god?"
That ate me up for about a year. I'd come home from school and sit and do nothing except dwell on all these questions. I became depressed. Friends commented that I didn't smile as much anymore. Sometimes my hopelessness would turn into rage, and I'd let it out by yelling at our pets.
But after a while, I was just like, "Fuck it. I'm alive. Maybe that's all that matters." After that, I think my faith in any sort of actual god eroded, little by little, with time. I still clung to faith for a solid eight or nine more years—as a source of safety, connection with my family, and even mental stability—but the seed of doubt was there, and it was growing. The idea of a benevolent god who watched my every move made less and less sense to me.
The doubt made me wary. I didn't want my faith tested anymore. I didn't want my pristine little island turned upside-down by some tsunami of strange new thoughts. I became afraid to engage with things that had obvious anti-religious overtones. I remember getting this huge knot in my stomach when I realised one of my favourite songs early in college basically amounted to a lengthy, eloquent, "Fuck god." I had to do all these mental gymnastics—come up with other interpretations of the words—to make it not mean that. I felt like I was nursing this flickering, wind-worn candle, and it was about to go out. I could feel the heat dying, but I wanted to pretend it was right there, almost singeing the palm of my hand, same as always. I was scared to let it go, but I didn't quite know why.
I looked back on games I'd really enjoyed that had strong (or any) anti-religion overtones. Final Fantasy X. Breath of Fire II. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Diablo. Oh god, what had I done? The guilt. The fear.
When a decent portion of your life has been so intimately intertwined with a religion, viewing the creation of one from such a detached perspective makes for a strange mix of feelings. While I enjoy plotting and planning to take my religion all the way to the top, I feel removed—like I'm not really part of it. I preach, but I don't practice.
I'm a schemer, a strategist. I might be guiding my flock of believers through a world licking its lips at the prospect of devouring them, but I feel kinda like I'm playing any number of other turn-based strategy games. The drama, the feelings, the story—those things unfold in my mind, not on the screen. My brain struggles to accommodate both of those things: the heart and the head. It wants to interface with religion in this new way, but also in the way it's always known.
But perhaps that's for the best. Perhaps it's even by design. Religious experiences are, in some ways, as personal as they are universal. The underlying systems might function similarly—might even lead to similarly dire ends if misused or mismanaged—but the rest is as much behind your eyes as it is in front of them. Viewed in that light, Cults and Daggers' minimal window dressing functions as a strength. Players can layer their own experiences, their own values, on top of the no-frills menus and numbers. They can think more about the religions they practice or preach. Or the ones they used to.
Weirdly, I think Dragon Age: Origins—the first game in BioWare's fantasy RPG mega-series—represented the final, rasping coughs of my Christianity. While the sprawling RPG was certainly critical of religion (albeit by way of a fictitious religion that involved wizards and dragons, which my real world one sadly did not), it was surprisingly even-handed about the topic. I was drawn to that.
Leliana, one of the game's many possible party members, was a devout member of the Chantry. I ended up having my character romance her. There was no contest. For me, at the time, she felt like the only "correct" option. I spoke with her every chance I got. Our voices cut through chilly midnight air as we discussed faith, the nature of it, how much good it had done for her. I was sold. I believed her. I felt like I was part of something, even if only in a video game.
Around that time I ended up dating a girl in real life who was openly Christian, who told me on multiple occasions how much she appreciated that I was too. We had long, romantic talks about saving sex for marriage and how conservative politics weren't that bad. All that time, though, tiny voices were at war in my head. "Is this really what you want? Is this really how you feel? Why are you doing this? Who are you trying to fool?" After a little less than a year, we broke up. It was messy. I haven't spoken to her since.
When it came time to make Dragon Age's end-of-game Ultimate Sacrifice, I couldn't do it. I'd promised Leliana we were gonna go adventuring together after we shut down the underground dragon apocalypse, and that mattered more to me than the notion of some nebulous afterlife. Regular life, here-and-now life, mattered more. Not long after, I decided I was kinda done with the whole religion thing. There were other contributing factors, certainly, but that was a turning point.
In my Cults and Daggers game, I move one of my disciples into a city predominantly occupied by another religion. It's tense. Trying to convert people in broad daylight will likely get my disciple killed, so I decide to take another tack. I delve into occult research behind enemy walls. This has a twofold effect: I gain magic (which I can use for other abilities), and my opponents lose hope.
But I have, in effect—in the micro-drama playing out in the cinema of my mind—taken hope away from people. That feels kinda wrong. On top of that, I'm playing a video game, and my game-playing instincts kick in. I want to win, badly.
Still, I'm not just hurting other religions' disciples now. I'm imposing my will on innocents, manipulating and pressuring them. "It's for the best," I tell myself. "Those other people, they don't know what they're doing. They need to be shown."
I remember my mum once telling me, when I was in school, that she couldn't understand how people got by without faith in some higher power. How could anyone cope with that kind of emptiness, that kind of cold, unfeeling void twisting and writhing at their core? How could they bear being so alone? My dad was never religious—not really. Unsurprisingly, they got divorced when I was pretty young.
My mum's statement—about how awful it would be to not have religion as a sort of internal anchor—stuck with me for years. It was the thing that kept me believing even as I started noticing things I wasn't OK with. Many jokes at my (Lutheran) high school seemed to come at the expense of gay people. Or Muslims. Students were often pressured—sometimes shamelessly—by teachers into adopting certain values over their own. They were looked down upon for asking what were, in hindsight, valid questions. Other students were shamed for stepping out of line by teachers and peers, even if they weren't doing anything explicitly wrong. I began to feel like part of an exclusive club that only wanted you if you were like them, that wanted to reshape you if you weren't. This rule was not absolute, of course, but the ecosystem I existed in made me feel uncomfortable.
But at that point, I was too afraid of finding out what it might be like to exist without faith to try out alternatives. I don't think my mum meant to scar me with her comment or anything. I don't even think she meant for it to pressure me or keep me on some straight-and-narrow religious path. Sometimes, though, systems—religious or not—have a way of becoming insidious even without meaning to. We can plant them, but we can't always control how they'll take root.
"Are you even Christian anymore?" my mum asked me as she was driving me back to my dad's place, where I was staying while visiting my hometown, Dallas, Texas, a couple years ago.
"No, I'm not," I confessed sorrowfully, despite the fact that I wasn't ashamed of it anymore. However, it was one thing to let go of Christianity in my mind, even in my heart. It was something else to say it out loud—to my mum, who I knew only wanted the best for me.
It was an eerily quiet ride, the rest of the way back.
My game of Cults and Daggers has become serious. I am absorbed. Each individual move feels crucial, like I'm tip-toeing across a bed of spikes. I must out-think. I must outmanoeuvre. I cannot, will not lose. My grip on first place is tenuous, but I'm winning. At this point, anything goes. Every slight against my people or my cities is met with quick (though not recklessly so) retribution. The kid gloves are off. What's mine is mine, and I intend to keep it. Fuck everyone else.
There is, for some, a feeling of superiority that comes with "rising above" religion. They boast that they're better than all that superstitious mumbo-jumbo. Their brains have triumphed over tradition, over fear of death, souls—all of that. Their eyes and minds are finally, truly open.
I'm not sure if I reached that point, per se, but my break-up with Christianity was followed by a period of cynicism toward the idea of religion. I thought it bred mean, closed-minded people, that it was—more often than not—a well-disguised tool for manipulation. Or more than that: a Batman-style utility belt of manipulation, bristling with deceptive tools of all shapes and sizes. Some for individuals, others for institutions, others still for entire cultures.
In college I fell in with friends who incessantly quoted people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens—practically worshiped them, honestly. After some probing, they revealed to me that, once upon time, they were extremely religious too. So it goes, I suppose.
That's not the case for everyone. When she was only a little younger, a friend of mine was extremely religious. She told me, recently, that she lost her faith around the same time as me: early twenties. But while I've made my peace with it—laid that part of my life to rest, accepted that life is brief and the world can be really fucking lonely sometimes—it's a bit more complicated for her. She's still mourning, as she put it.
My friend, unlike others, wasn't happy to toss out baby Jesus with the bathwater. She'd just reached a point where she couldn't, in good conscience, believe anymore, so the only logical conclusion was to move on. But that meant she lost a lot—connections to friends, family, community, the notion of a higher power, security. It didn't feel good. It didn't feel like one for the win column. She's been mourning for quite a few years now. She wonders if she'll ever stop.
I'm not sure if I miss it that much, but maybe I didn't want to. Maybe I didn't let myself get sad about the way that moving on from this stuff—even if you think it's not having a great effect on your life and, in many cases, it has the potential to harm or pressure others—creates fissures, fractures in communities. For instance, my mum and I are still mostly cool, but there is a feeling of distance that wasn't there before. Maybe my strong reaction to games like Cults and Daggers is my own way of mourning, of wishing that things could be different.
I've lost my game of Cults and Daggers. There's a secondary mechanic in which someone has to keep the world safe from the vengeful Old Gods, and I was too caught up in spreading my own religion at any cost—too hungry for the win—to stop their reemergence in time. Only now do I realise the true purpose of the Old Gods: they've been put in the game to keep you from getting too greedy as a player. To remind you that—at least, according to Cults and Daggers creator Rod Humble—it's the duty of religion to serve the greater good, sometimes at its own expense. And I think I set out wanting to do that, wanting to realise an idealistic version of my religion, to reconnect with my own past and maybe even mourn it a bit.
But I ended up dooming myself, and maybe I did that on purpose too—at least, subconsciously. I played like a gamer, a human being, instead of some larger benevolent force. I acted out what I now believe my old religion to be, not what I wish it could've been like. It's a sad realisation, but not a damning one. I think my old religion—my old church, my old friends, all of it—was a fundamentally human endeavour. It was fallible; sometimes given to charity, other times greed and selfishness, exclusion and alienation. If you put a bunch of people—even good people—under the same umbrella, they can still do bad things.
In my next game of Cults and Daggers, I will strive to do better, to be better. I suppose that's all I can hope for, from myself, from the institutions I used to believe in. To do better, little by little, each time they try.