There is not a lot of faith in game settings these days. When I say this, I do not mean that there isn’t enough representation of real-world religion per se, or even that there aren’t a lot of religious characters in games. What I mean is that there is a lack of faith as a concept in games: that is, the idea of believing in something without evidence or proof.
When people in Dishonored‘s Dunwall pray to The Outsider, they do so knowing that the Bone Charms they are crafting are definitely magic, and that there are people running around right now who are definitely magic due to The Outsider. What they are performing isn’t an act of faith, because there’s no doubt.
The same occurs in The Elder Scrolls‘s Tamriel. When people worship at a shrine to one of the Nine Divines, an actual, tangible blessing is bestowed upon them. Even if you don’t make it out for a pilgrimage, you can still crack open a history book and learn about that one time Akatosh came down from the heavens to fight a Daedric lord. Not metaphorically, either. They just had a fistfight, like, in the streets.
When characters in video games, especially fantasy, are of a faith or religion, they frequently are worshiping a verifiable divine entity which has unquestionably made its presence known in the world. It’s really hard to debate the faith of the Lumen Sages in Bayonetta, because Jubileus is perched on top of their base like the angel on top of a Christmas tree.
When characters in games do worship an intangible god or pantheon, they frequently either subscribe to a real-world faith system (like Ashley in Mass Effect) or are blatantly insane (like the Church of the Atom in Fallout). It seems like whenever game designers put forth the effort to create a religion for their game, it’s simply default that this religion reflect actual divine powers.
Don’t get me wrong, I like interacting with fictional gods, goddesses, and formless entities in games. As a big fan of Asura’s Wrath, Bayonetta, and Pokemon, I have had plenty of fun punching my fair share of deities. I can’t help but think, however, that games are missing out on an interesting type of story: loss of faith.
It’s a fairly common character arc in other storytelling mediums to have a character lose their faith. Scully from The X-Files constantly has to struggle with her uncertainty in her faith, especially in the presence of some very certain weird stuff. Javert’s faith in dogmatic law is brought into question at the end of Les Miserables. It’s extremely interesting to watch a dogmatic character have their faith brought into question. It can be extremely telling to watch a person try and reconcile their beliefs, or adopt new beliefs, or simply break down at the contradiction.
And yet, games usually don’t have such character arcs. The gods of Magic: The Gathering‘s Zendikar launch a crisis of faith not because they aren’t real, but because they are, let’s call it misadvertised. Saren’s ramblings about the mythical Reapers are quickly resolved in Mass Effect when an honest-to-god Reaper flies in and starts blowing things up. In most every Shin Megami Tensei game, you get to punch just about every major figure in every world religion.
In real-world religion, faith is arguably the single most important component. Religions define themselves from one another in the ways they reaffirm faith, the way they respond to their faith being questioned. Without that faith, game religions lack the same character. The Knights Templar in Assassin’s Creed never really lose faith, especially when they have the ability to commune with actual divinity (even if the “divine” turn out to be an ancient precursor race).
I’d like to see that, though. I want characters to have faith in games, to be forced to have crises of faith. A crisis of faith isn’t a crisis of faith when you know that there is a divine being you’re reaching out to exists, and is just ignoring you, like the Maker in Dragon Age. That’s something totally different. I’m talking, a character who has extended themselves towards this idea that may or may not be real, and whose reality isn’t determined through the course of the game, which they have faith in to give them strength in trying times.
This reaching out towards the unknown for help, I think, is totally different than reaching out towards an actual divine being, because it describes the character. Anyone can believe in something that’s unquestionably real, but for a character to have faith in something that is intangible, then there’s a chance they either exhibit strong conviction, a need for logic defining an illogical world, a potential fear of the unknown, or a desperation for help in troubling times, all of which present interesting character traits to be explored in a game’s story.