Across the Net: “‘That Dragon, Cancer’: A Video Game on Death, Grief, and Our Living Hope”

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The Gospel Coalition’s Chris Casberg wrote a piece titled “‘That Dragon, Cancer’: A Video Game on Death, Grief, and Our Living Hope“. Love his observation on how the experience subverts player agency.

“That Dragon, Cancer” frustrates and subverts the normal expectation of agency. Players are given game-like tasks, like navigating Joel through a field of cancer cells as he clings to a handful of balloons, or racing a wagon through the hospital.

The facade of power and control crumbles away. It’s a brilliant piece of artistry in terms of video game design and theological heft; we players, accustomed to the power to trample our enemies, are shown our impotence in the face of a broken and fallen world. Our works cannot save Joel.

The overall effect is devastating. I cried multiple times, and I even had to stop the game to go hold my infant daughter. I’ve never had a game move me so much.

tdc2

For The Win: An Interview With Zachery Oliver

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Zachery Oliver is the Agent Paulson/Nick Fury of the video game world. Which is to say that he recruited me for the Avengers Initiative…I mean to TheologyGaming.com. In an effort to pick his brain and figure out exactly where he comes from, I thought it best to interview the recruiter himself. 

Zachery Oliver

Mickey looks angry. Watch out, Zachery!

Q: Tell us more about yourself and the site.

Zachery: I owned and created the site. I’ve got a Master’s of Theological Studies from Boston University’s School of Theology, as well as a BA from Merrimack College in Theological Studies and Philosophy. Did any of this help me in forming the blog? In a way, I suppose.

I’ve been playing video games since I was 3-4 years old, and can’t remember I time I wasn’t playing them. Probably a more formative experience was playing Secret of Mana with my brother and my father over a Christmas break, as the Sprite, without a guide or anything. The game clock on the cartridge (which I still have) is somewhere in the hundreds of hours. There’s just something about video games that works for me, entertains me, and really helped me out in life to sort ideas out (weirdly enough). And there’s so many of them!

But what I really love is that there’s so much theological exploration. I’ve got a wealth of knowledge of Christianity and video games…a weird combo, to say the least. There’s a dearth of substantive content regarding both, and thus we have Theology Gaming. I just started writing stuff that I wanted to read, and so far it’s been going well! Also, I didn’t get into any Ph.D. programs for theology, so probably that too! I needed a change from the rigors of academic study, all said, and I guess it just wasn’t for me (or God’s will).

Bryan: Hold up, your Dad plays/played video games? I’m trying to think if my Dad ever picked up a controller…

Sounds like you were a man of the Super Nintendo. I see now where your loyalties lied…with the Dark Side. While you were playing Secret of Mana, I was over on the USS SEGA Genesis cruising with Sonic, Ecco, and Vectorman. I had no clue of all the awesome RPG’s I was missing out on by not owning a SNES.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with Theology Gaming? How can you differentiate the site from the thousands of other enthusiast blogs?

Zachery: These are difficult questions to answer for a few reasons.

First, I hadn’t had the intention to compete with anyone; I honestly (and naively) figured that I discovered some untapped area of theological discussion. To my surprise, sites like GameChurch, JohnnyBGamer, and others already existed. Silly me, apparently, for not checking the demographics!

In all seriousness, though, my real goal was simply to express a long-held conviction that Christians can use anything they do for the glory of God. Combining my primary hobby with my God-given talents and developed skills, I decided to start a blog about my sometimes cogent, sometimes rambling thoughts about all things theology and video games.

As you may notice from reading, I focus greatly on the mechanical elements of games and that is where I find the theological exposition in most areas. There’s a reason for this: I don’t think video games differentiate themselves from other forms of entertainment through their story-telling quality. Also, that would be rather droll and place them into undesirable categories. Rather, I see them as a uniquely engaging entertainment form that, in my experience, creates human connections across all kinds of divisions simply through our common experience of playing video games. The same goes for regular games played throughout human history, but video games make it possible to communicate with lots and lots of different people with the power of the Internet – sometimes positively, sometimes negatively, but that’s human nature I suppose.

It’s in making human connections that I find validity, and it gives a common ground for discussion that wouldn’t exist otherwise. Would you and I be talking right now if not for video games? Probably not; we live in disparate places, and find ourselves in completely different age demographics, yet here we are talking about video games and theology. God’s will is a whirlwind sometimes, let me tell you.

For more from Zachery Oliver, head on over to TheologyGaming.com and check out the site.

Unnecessary Checkpoints

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Growing up, I lived in a valley that was hedged in by foothills and mountains. The south end of the valley featured a Border Patrol Checkpoint. Set up to combat illegal aliens and drug smuggling, the checkpoint was situated roughly 70 miles north of the Mexican border. Unnecessary? Politics aside, I think so.

Recently, I have been playing through Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen on the Nintendo DS. As the games title insinuates, DQIV is broken into chapters or side stories. The first 5 chapters focus on what turns out to be the support characters. Chapter 6 unites the support characters with the hero of the game, you.

Dragon Quest IV marks my first entry into the Dragon Quest series. While I have enjoyed the 20+ hours I have spent in the game so far, I do have a minor gripe, the unnecessary leveling checkpoints.

20 year old gameplay mechanics aside, Dragon Quest IV commits the sin of the invisible wall. Every few levels, these invisible checkpoints force players to stop and grind (level up) until they are at a sufficient level to proceed in the game. Dungeons, monsters, and bosses are some of the most common level checkpoints found in the game. While I know that this is a common RPG mechanic, I have never been so aware of it. Perhaps this is due to the age of the game? I’m not sure.

Grinding is one of those bite-the-bullet game mechanics. Properly instituted within a game’s design it can be a mechanic that one barely notices. While I am enjoying the time spent with Dragon Quest IV, I can’t help but wish that a more organic type of leveling system be created. However, I do find some sort of twisted comfort in level grinding. The old and the familiar, right? Until next time.