As anyone with a strong theology of creation will agree, art, at its best, presents us with a unique vantage point on God’s Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. While every artistic medium presents us with distinctive avenues of insight and perception, we want to argue here that video games are unparalleled in certain respects in what they bring to the table.
To appreciate their unique contribution, it is helpful to highlight the difference between storytelling in an interactive medium and storytelling in a fixed medium. Film is at its best when it plays to its main strength, the thing it does better than anything else: Visuals. “Show me, don’t tell me.” People often gravitate toward the notion that video games should tell stories just like movies, only with interactivity mixed in. In some ways this feels like a logical and natural progression, but it could hardly be more wrong.
When player choice comes into play, traditional storytelling elements like pacing, emotional beats, and three act structure become compromised, if not completely neutralized. The video game is at its apex when the game world itself, the environment in which the gamer is immersed, tells the story. Traditional story elements such as external plot, character development, and universe back-story can all play an important role, but they are not what make any game great. Indeed, even the most well made cinematics (i.e., in-game movies that serve to deliver bits of the story intravenously between durations of game play) will derail a game narrative if it is not supported by the living, breathing, game world itself. As such, the goal of the game maker is to foster a physical environment in which the player is equipped to discover a uniquely engaging experience.
Bearing this in mind, video games’ two greatest strengths emerge: 1) increased player empathy through the illusion or reality of control, and 2) in more recent examples, genuine player choice.
The first has been on the scene since the beginning. When utilized correctly, this element of gaming serves to heighten and blossom the story elements, mythology, themes, and symbolism that the game offers. And indeed, these are often spiritually and theologically suggestive, to say the least. In The Legend of Zelda and Theology, a number of elements of the Zelda mythology are explored in light of Christian theology. Digging deeper into Zelda’s fantasy world of Hyrule reveals that, like all of the great fictional fantasy worlds, it is permeated with transcendent truth. The destructive effects of evil and power wrought by the game’s antagonist upon the once beautiful Hyrule illustrate the corrupting power of sin in our world, and in our hearts. The need and eventual rise of a savior restores Hyrule to her former beauty and vividly portrays this world’s need for a redeemer. Likewise, the joy of discovery and wonder inherent in every Zelda title starkly illustrate what Tolkien called Faerie, a parallel universe which shares some elements with our own world, and conveys transcendent truth in colors just shades off from reality. The difference here between a game like Zelda and movie that may feature similar themes, is that the game causes the player to feel fully in control of the protagonist, and therefore effectively increases the potency with which the game’s already powerful themes are felt. By placing the player in a beautiful, lush, fully realized world that feels alive, that lives and breathes—indeed, a world that evokes Eden—he feels as though the events of the plot, predetermined though they may be, are his to own. Hyrule can be explored largely as the player sees fit, and so the elation of victory and the weight of defeat wield greater power because, naturally and unavoidably, a deep sense of empathy breeds within the player as he guides Link from forest to mountain, from bustling village to lonely, forgotten temple, and finally, to a climactic clash with the king of evil.
The second asset, genuine player choice, a notion rife with moral and theological significance, is a relatively recent advancement in video gaming, which has emerged as technology and design techniques have become more sophisticated. It is now common for a game to feature multiple outcomes to the story, all dependent on the player’s choices. The Mass Effect trilogy, a science fiction, galaxy-sweeping epic that features a fight for the survival of all known races in the universe, allows the player seemingly infinite choices, from the epic to the mundane, as he makes his way through the enormous three-game tale. Choices range from “Should I buy this person a drink?” to “Should I allow this previously problematic alien race to live, or should I wipe them from existence?” Incredibly, it’s not only the grand, life or death decisions that excite. The mundane is charged with power simply because we are given the ability to choose, and we know our choices matter.
Few truths are more fundamental to our existence than the fact that our lives are infused with meaning precisely because we have significant freedom in the choices we make. We are on a path to becoming someone, and that someone will be determined largely by the choices we make. Human history is affected in a physical way by the choices we make, but the state of our hearts and souls are at stake, as well. In the best games, this profound theological truth is mirrored more sharply than in any other artistic medium.
A genuine, well realized game world, in which the very actions of the player elicit unparalleled empathy from the player, provides a feeling quite unique to any other medium. Couple that with the power of real choice followed by a feeling of responsibility over his character and the NPC’s around him, and the invested player feels something inaccessible by any other art form, something that taps into the very nature of who we are at our essence: free beings, inextricably bound to the world in which we live. Free beings empowered with the choice for good or evil. Every artistic expression requires input from the beholder, whether it’s the preconceived notions that he brings to it, or the very tangible action of closing or opening one’s mind to a new point of view. Video games demand even more, but the payoff is something powerful. It’s a feeling, indeed, a replication of our real lives, but one that cannot be replicated in any other medium.
Jonathan L. Walls is the editor of The Legend of Zelda and Theology (Gray Matter Books), a collection of essays for academics and pop-culture loving gamers. He contributed an essay to that volume, as well. He also co-wrote an article with his father, Dr. Jerry L. Walls, for The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy (Wiley-Blackwell). He currently resides in Los Angeles, where he working to get his first feature film as writer/director made.
Jerry L. Walls is Professor of Philosophy at Houston Baptist University. Among his other forays into pop culture are The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy (co-edited with Gregory Bassham) and Basketball and Philosophy (co-edited with Gregory Bassham).
Jonathan L. Walls, “Trouble in the Golden Realm: Ganondorf and Hyrule’s Problem of Evil in Ocarina of Time,” in The Legend of Zelda and Theology, Gray Matter Books, 2011, 31-46.
 Philip Tallon, “The Birth of Gaming From the Spirit of Fantasy: Video Games as Secondary Worlds with Special Reference to The Legend of Zelda and J.R.R. Tolkien,” 47-69.