Tag Archives: Games

Reaper of Souls — Religion in Diablo 3’s Expansion

2 Oct

As I suggested in an earlier post on the rising religious elements of a-list video game releases, the Reaper of Souls expansion for Diablo 3 is likely to be thorougly saturated with religious content. Today I want to walk through two of ways that will happen: Narrative and Gameplay.

1. Narrative:

Diablo 3 has a rich backstory (supplemented by comics and novels). Humanity lives in a world called Sanctuary between the High Heavens and the Underworld. It was supposed to be a neutral place, but demons use Sanctuary as a staging ground to invade the High Heavens to defeat God’s angels. Diablo, the Lord of Terror, concocts scheme after scheme to rule the three realms. Inevitably, your task is to defeat him.

[Highlight for an interesting Spoiler about Diablo 3: In Diablo 3, Diablo is female.]

In the expansion, Diablo has been cast down from the High Heavens, but the vessel that enabled his rise to power, the black soulstone, has been stolen by Malthael, the former Archangel of Wisdom turned Angel of Death. Here’s the trailer to see that bit of plot in classic Blizzard animation:

I’ve written about Grim Reapers before, and I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to say when the game is released sometime in late winter or early spring of 2014.

2. Gameplay

One of the most discussed pieces of the Reaper of Souls expansion is the new character class that players will have access to: the Crusader. Fans of the series will recall that Diablo 2 had a Paladin class. Here’s the extensive background on that character from the Diablo 2 wiki:

During the mid-twelfth century, after the Church of Zakarum had gained prominence in the East, the Church decreed that the visions of Akarat would be spread throughout the known world in order to redeem the masses. Thus, the Church selected a group of its most charismatic and devoted priests and sent them on a mission to proselytize the people of the West.

Unfortunately, the Church had not prepared these men for the rigors of travel nor the hazards of the world. The priests who survived their missions recounted tales of harsh weather, inadequate supplies, attacks from bandits and even encounters with horrible monsters. To ensure the success of future missions, the Church set about training holy warriors, Paladins, to accompany and safeguard their missionaries. In practice, these “Protectors of the Word” proved to be more successful at converting the native peoples than the Priests that they were assigned to defend. Impressing the locals with daring deeds, powerful weapons, and martial prowess was far more convincing than the condemnations of a soft-spoken monk. However, once the Word had been spread to every major city of the West, the “Protectors of the Word” faded from public view.

Some decades later, Paladins were again called into service. During the height of the Time of Troubles, the Church commenced a second campaign of conversion. This time, however, the inconvincible were deemed evil. The Zakarum Inquisition spread through the lands like a tempest, laying waste to all suspected of demonic possession or corruption. Leading this crusade was a new generation of Paladins, known as the “Hand of Zakarum.” These cavaliers of righteousness swept through the lands, expunging the taint of demonic contamination wherever they found it.

In the midst of this bloody crusade, a rebellion arose within the ranks of the Paladins of Zakarum. The rebels condemned the methods of the Inquisition, proclaiming that the new Order of Paladins should protect the innocent, and that the evil corruption was rooted in their forebear’s failure. They resolved to fight the true source of corruption, the Three Prime Evils – Diablo, Baal and Mephisto. And so, these rebellious Paladins left their Zakarum brethren and ventured west.

Got it? Paladins are holy warriors devoted to fighting corruption on the lam from the corrupt inquisition. The crusader class in Diablo 3 looks like it will be cut from this exact mold. In the game your character will build up religious “conviction” to spend dispelling demons and the undead with holy damage. The current characters operate similarly, with Demon Hunters collecting Rage, Barbarians generating Fury, and Monks building Spirit. (The Wizard and Witch Doctor classes are both spellcasters and build up mana to fuel their spells.)

As an action role playing game (ARPG), Diablo 3‘s gameplay doesn’t radically change from class to class. A player’s style in combat might differ based on character, but all players equip the same number of skills, use roughly the same kind of armor, and defeat demons with similar weapons. For experienced gamers, there are very significant differences, but for casual observers, the gameplay across classes is pretty standardized. See monster, kill monster. (The game developers received a flood of complaints on this and related issues that boiled down to a lack of character customization.)

What will makes the gameplay different as a crusader will probably not be subtle to casual gamers who play the game for the first or second time with that class. Diablo 3 is a game where players complete the entire game on easy difficult levels before completing the game many more times on harder difficulty settings. For dedicated players, however, the cumulative effect of dozens or even hundreds of hours of gameplay will be significant. And yes, it is pretty easy to complete the story 30 times or more, especially if you create characters in each of the 5 classes.

Consider this: When you play solo in the game, you can get a computer-controlled follower to aid you. Most players choose the Templar because of a particular bonus he provides. Over the course of your journey, he talks to you. If you spend too long in town shopping, he will say he’s bored. If you spot a powerful monster, he’ll shout one of three catch phrases: “By all that is Holy! Do you see that enemy over there?”; “A mighty adversary is before us”; and “There! A worthy foe.” After you defeat the monster? He’ll say one of four catch phrases. The most notorious is “That was a worthy foe. Glorious.” After hours and hours of defeating elite monsters, most players are sick of these phrases, but they also know them by heart. The same repetition will cause the crusader’s religious bent to become normative for players.

If you’re itching to see what the crusader looks like, you can watch this gameplay trailer from Blizzcon:

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World Religions in Sid Meier’s Civilization 5

11 Aug

As I prepare an article for a volume on the World Religions Paradigm (WRP), I’ve been rereading classic works such as Russell T. McCutcheon’s Manufacturing Religion and Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions. In the midst of John Kerry’s comment that were he to return to school today he would study Comparative Religions, it is evident we need more discussion of the way “religion” has been constructed and deployed. Michael J. Altman has an excellent post on Medium.com with his recommendations for how Secretary Kerry might revise his understanding of religions. I don’t intend anything quite so grand, but I do want to point out how freely the WRP works itself into unusual niches in our lives. Sometimes its appearance can be pretty confusing, as I found in the case of a popular computer game.

Sid Meier’s immensely popular game franchise Civilization has been the go-to turn-based strategy computer game for nearly two decades. Since the release of Civilization in 1991, gamers have logged millions of hours conquering the world hexagon by hexagon. As the ruler of an ancient civilization, players must found cities, gather resources to feed their populations, build armies to defend their lands, and research technologies that mirror humanity’s rise to the present. For the level of commitment some players have to the series, check out this account of a man who has been playing the same game for over a decade!

One of the more recent versions of the game, Civilization 5: Gods and Kings, added religion as a core mechanic for gamers to enhance their empires. You can select various traits that give bonuses for possessing certain resources or tiles. Desert tiles, for instance, produce very little food and can make it harder for your cities to grow. Often you might avoid placing cities in areas where they would be surrounded by lots of desert. One religious trait you can adopt adds a bonus for desert tiles, making them much more desirable.

Civilization V

Civilization V (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is probably enough in the details of religious attributes to merit another post or two in the future. For now I want to emphasize the way in which the world religions are constructed in the game. Players begin by accumulating faith (usually by building a shrine which takes several turns to build and has a maintenance cost every turn). Eventually they accrue enough faith to found a “pantheon” and select an initial gameplay bonus.

After even more faith a “Great Prophet” is born and players can choose to found a religion and select two more gameplay bonuses. While one is always free to found a fictional religion, the preset options are primarily the standard core of World Religions. The 13 choices are listed alphabetically (and not tied to chronology, culture, or geography): Buddhism, Catholicism, Confucianism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Protestantism, Shinto, Sikhism, Taoism, Tengriism, and Zoroastrianism. [Originally there was only “Christianity,” but an expansion split Christianity into Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox Christians.]

If a player accumulates enough faith a Great Prophet appears and s/he can found a religion.

While faith is universally represented by a dove carrying a small green branch, each of these religions is represented by an icon. The icons serve one primary purpose:  when multiple religions exist in a city, the small icons fit in the pop-up HUD to display the breakdown of a population’s religious affiliation. There are also no bonuses for pairing religions with traits that might appear appropriate to their historical or cultural pasts. You can have Buddhist Cathedrals or Catholics that receive a bonus from temples. It’s a massive and confusing religious buffet.

And as I see it that is part of the problem. The choices of traits are not confined to particular religious traditions. Players are not penalized for mixing and matching, nor must they take both good and bad traits. This format presents all religions as functionally equivalent–the name is irrelevant.

I can understand from a designer’s standpoint that this mechanic is meant to offer players diverse bonuses that are appropriate for their particular circumstances in-game. It works, too. It is immensely satisfying to find your economy or scientific research pulling ahead because you carefully planned your religion’s abilities.

From a religious studies stance, however, every time I found a religion in a game of Civilization, I find myself cringing at the underlying consequences of the whitewashing of historical and cultural context. Why should the Protestants get a bonus in the desert! Why are the Tengriists getting bonuses for printing presses? How are the Buddhist monasteries generating so much wealth for my cities? It’s a endless hodgepodge.

On the one hand, I want all the many thousands of Civilization 5 players to run out and read Stephen Prothero’s God is Not One rather than Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions or Karen Armstrong’s A History of God. Implicitly and explicitly, the game makes it possible for its players to treat the world’s religions as simply different paths up the same mountain. Prothero lays out the case for laypersons that these “world” religions simply do not believe in the same deity. When Civilization makes it inconsequential to pick Zoroastrianism over Buddhism, they’ve made it easier for gamers to think there is little difference between the two. [Note I say “easier.” I don’t believe the game is responsible for getting its gamers to think much about the differences among any of its religions–that’s the problem!]

The beliefs of many faiths are mutually exclusive or, at the very least, perennial antagonistic. The attempt to synchronize world religions is not simply an effort of categorization (scholars being scholars) but of faith and its role in creating and shaping scholarship. It is the product of a certain way of looking at the world and a certain way of judging its people’s beliefs and behaviors. Because we know that the WRP is so profoundly entangled in the rise of enlightenment rationalism and Protestantism in the West, at least we have a chance to develop a very good sense of the biases and contortions of the categories. This, I suppose, is the other hand: even Prothero’s work can be fundamentally misleading.

One of the great challenges in avoiding the WRP is stepping outside of the boxes into which we’ve placed religious lives. It’s not easy and there are pitfalls that the game exposes. Civilization is a game that puts players at the dawn of time and hopes they’ll survive until the present day and beyond. This inevitably compresses (or obliterates) not simply the details of the lives that would render the WRP less powerful, but also the differences of time, space, and culture that led to the possibility of the WRP in the first place. It doesn’t matter whether I pick Catholicism or Islam–the game doesn’t care and there are no consequences to my selection. I guess that means that religion has been so spectacularly reduced by the game that its arbitrary-ness is more evident than its special-ness. As I said, a hot mess.

At least the gameplay is still spectacular.