Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Playing Like Jesus

After a long, long hiatus, this last week I've been taking my downtime and catching up on my gaming.  There's not been much new out there for consoles since the market began the transition to the next gen.  I'm not there yet, as I'm not motivated to drop a few hundred bucks on something I don't really need.

Instead, I'm going back, and playing games for the PS3 that I missed the first time out.  In this case, I'm finally getting around to the Mass Effect Trilogy.

I'd heard great things about the game when it came out for Xbox 360.  It was complex, and well acted, and well scripted, a wholly immersive space-opera that didn't make you check your mind at the door.  But I had a PS3, so I was--for years--just out of luck.  Now, though, I've remedied that.

Most interesting, to me at least, were the wildly different ways the story arc could play out.  This went beyond the roleplaying game standards, in which your character--a highly customizable version of a protagonist named "Shepard"--could be equipped and developed in myriad ways.

It was that the moral choices within the game completely changed the story.  There've been many games like this before, among the most notable being the gorgeous landmark fantasy game Fable, or the classic Star-Wars milieu Knights of the Old Republic.  But Mass Effect feels like it takes that to a deeper level.

Mass Effect plays that out through a relatively simple system, a dialog wheel that comes up whenever you're in communication with others.  There, in front of you, is the more gracious response, the neutral response, and what is typically an amusingly cruel smackdown.

If you play the Renegade side, hard and selfish, butchering enemies and bullying subordinates, and seeking advantage and wealth at every turn, it'll shape your story.  Certain avenues will open up, and others will close.  

If you consistently choose compassionately, trying to do as little harm as possible and showing mercy and a commitment to justice, the game plays out very, very differently.  Doing the right thing does not always get you out of conflict.  You can't always save every relationship, or insure that every friend and companion survives.  But going Paragon does make a difference.

Those choices run deep, and have a cumulative effect.  They create patterns of relationship that sustain through the whole of the first game, then are uploaded into the second, and then the third.

How do I play?  When I play these games, I find that I don't want to "act out" being cruel.  I just don't.  I'm not really even curious to see what might happen if I did.  My would I be curious? I know what that looks like, bitter and resentful and oppressive.  Why would I want a story to play out that way, if it doesn't need to?  I get enough of that in the news, and in the bitterness of virtual shout-fests.

It's not quite that easy in our day to day exchanges, those moments when we connect to others.  We don't have a convenient moral dialogue wheel that hovers in the air in front of us to guide us, although perhaps there's an app in the works for Google Glass that might remedy that.

But then again, perhaps it really is that easy.  We know our hungers and our angers and our resentments, and how those make us speak.  We also know, in part, that best self that we're called to be, and what it looks like when we act in accordance with that grace.

It's a bigger and infinitely more complex choice wheel, and a wildly more intricate story.  But as we shape our small corner of it, what we have to do is be intentional about making that right choice, every time it presents itself.

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