Super Mario doesn’t believe in God.
For all his magical items, heroic deeds and self-sacrifice, Mario knows – simply knows – that there is no external, mystical force shaping events and willing to intervene on his behalf. There’s the player, of course, but once he boots up the system and grabs the controller, the player and Mario are one and the same. Mario, and Mario alone, is the only person who can save the Princess, defeat Bowser and restore order to the land. No invisible, benevolent overlord. No God. And he likes it that way.
Antitheism, as defined by journalist and author Christopher Hitchens, is essentially the belief that it would be better to live in a godless universe than one ruled by “round the clock, divine supervision”; that not only is God likely nonexistent, but that our universe is all the better for his absence. Though this might not seem an unusual point of view coming from the Hitchens’ or Dawkins‘ of the world, it is far more surprising to attach the same philosophy to, say, Mario and Luigi.
The vast majority of videogames, from Metal Gear Solid to Super Mario Bros., take place in atheistic universes. When Solid Snake duels against a Metal Gear armed with nothing but a stinger missile and a pocketful of rations, there is no (in this case, literal) deus ex machina waiting in the wings to destroy the walking robot should Snake get too close to death. Snake is the only person who can destroy the Metal Gear; there is no God watching the battle who will occasionally grant miracles in Snake’s favor.
Describing this sort of gameplay as godless may seem obvious; in many ways, it’s simply good game design. Every game gives the player some degree of control over their environment – the existence of a supreme being who supersedes all player commands would be frustrating to no end. If the player’s actions can be overruled at the whim of another character, why should the player even play? Why not turn the game into an extended cut scene if player input is so unimportant?
Because of this, most games must take place in atheistic universes and thus are antitheistic by nature. It is clearly better to play a videogame taking place in a world without a god than a world with one.
Then again, one can’t forget the so-called god simulators – games like Civilization, Black & White, or Spore that claim to put the player in the position of a supreme being, leaving him free to shape the universe to his will.
In reality, however, these are not “god games” at all, in the sense that the player is truly controlling the One True Deity. These games are antitheist in the exact opposite way the Halos of the world are. Where god-devoid games like Metal Gear Solid allow the player to exercise some control over the world, these player-as-god games must actually redefine the idea of “god” in order to prevent the player having too much control. The player-god of these “god games” is not all-powerful, and thus is not, by current religious definition, God at all. Perhaps it would be more accurate to refer to Black & White as a “demi-god game.”
In Civilization and Spore, the player’s powers don’t extend beyond the realm of the currently possible (terraforming and planet-busting bombs notwithstanding), nor do they extend past the player’s chosen race or nation. If the player is indeed a god, then he’s only the god of a particular group of people on a particular planet – his direct influence on sentient beings goes no further than that. Even Black & White, a game where the player can conjure fire and water with a few mouse clicks, focuses much of its gameplay on forcing the player’s god to extend his limited influence and defeat other, similarly geographically-restricted gods in what can only be described as god versus god combat.
These not-quite-gods are, once again, necessitated by mainstream design philosophies. If the player inhabited the body of a true god, becoming omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, then the game is over: There’s no more challenge to be had if the player can snap his fingers and end wars, no sense of progression if the player begins the game with the ability to influence the entire cosmos. Though Black & White 2 took the idea of progression and linear goals a little too far (prompting GameSpy to characterize the campaign mode as “reducing a god’s rise to power to a checklist of tasks that must be completed to advance”), its design choices were very much in line with the gaming community’s demands for an accessible strategy game. The player never gets to explore the logistical and philosophical ramifications of being all-powerful – the sorts of things that would make for a truthful and truly interesting god game – but instead trudges through a typical world conquest scenario. Conventional design seems either to necessitate the total lack of a god, or the existence of a gimped, player-controlled one.
But what about games focused on killing God?
The enemy-god narrative is the latter of only two scenarios where God can exist within the game world while still allowing the player some control. Whether the god in question is literal, as in God of War II, or figurative, like in Portal or BioShock, the god-as-villain plot has become notably popular over the last three years. If players can’t be a true god, why not knock him off his heavenly throne with a rocket? As Frank Fontaine’s control over Rapture and the player is so absolute by BioShock‘s final act, and as GLaDOS’s omniscient presence manifests itself in every puzzle of Portal‘s first 18 rooms, both antagonists might as well be gods of their respective universes. These god figures initially manipulate, abuse and/or disrespect the player, until he or she finally utilizes his newfound freedom and kills his captor in a violent, protracted boss battle.
Because of the way they deal with seemingly omnipotent beings, anti-god games represent the purest form of antitheism in gaming. Mario’s world may inadvertently suggest that it’s more fun to rescue the Princess when no one’s watching over you, but Portal and BioShock damn near scream it. These games encourage resentment on the player’s part for being manipulated by a figure who kills supporting characters (and companion cubes) at will; players are meant to directly feel, understand and hate the slavery imposed on them by their behind-the-scenes despots. These games teach the player that life under the thumb of a god, figurative or otherwise, is no life at all. They inexorably guide players to the conclusion that in order to complete the game, they must use their free will (and a few well directed missiles) to escape their spiritual bondage.
Regardless of how one feels about the existence of a supreme being in real life, it must be said that the anti-god games thus far have the most honest, complete and thoughtful view of his possible existence within the medium. Super Mario Bros. and Metal Gear Solid ignore the question of God altogether, but unintentionally celebrate his nonexistence. Spore and Black & White claim to explore the idea of God, but restrict the player’s powers, thus preventing them from exploring truly interesting religious questions like the problem of evil; only the anti-god games simultaneously address the question of a divine intelligence and posit their own answer. That answer’s validity is open to debate, but it is definite and fearless in a way the other de facto atheist games are not.
Leaving their individual, philosophical flaws aside, the point remains: All games are antitheist. Whether an intentional effort to keep control in the hands of the player, a sacrifice of true godliness for conventional gameplay challenges or an overt rejection of being controlled by a higher power, all games subscribe to the idea that a videogame world without a god is far more entertaining, suspenseful and meaningful than a world with one. Mario wouldn’t have it any other way.
Anthony Burch is a filmmaker and the features editor for Destructoid.com.