Scene from Fallout

God and Games

Published: 20th December 2019 Last updated: 20th December 2019

Games are often influenced by religion, some refer explicitly to the Bible. Cultural theologian Frank Bosman is an avid gamer and has published research on the relationship between God and games. He wrote this column that analyzes gaming in view of the Christmas story.

Christmas is a feast in celebration of birth. It always has been. And probably always will be. It used to be grouped around a child in a manger, surrounded by shepherds, wise men, angels, an ox and a donkey. These days it is grouped around a well-stocked table, with blood relatives, in-laws, and step-family, all on their best behavior, acting like everything’s fine, and often not quite succeeding. Nonetheless it’s in the air. The longest night and the shortest day shake hands. Candles on the table, lights in the Christmas tree, feel-good films on Netflix. New life is in the air: already we are longing for the warmth of spring and summer. The Romans called it Sol Invictus, the invincible sun, victorious over the cold darkness after every winter. Christians call it Christmas, convinced as they are that two thousand years ago the light itself was born. Anglo-Americans call it Santa Claus, a mature belief in the power and magic of giving and forgiving. Bring in the Glühwein!

Normally, I’ll be sitting in front of a computer screen. I’ll be writing articles (good fun!), filling out forms (yak!), or playing a computer game (good fun too!). Normally, I do research on religion and video games. Fascinating research it is: from crazy Christians in Fallout 5 to near-death experiences in Batman Arkham City, and from silent icons and frescos in Metro Last Light and Half Life 2. Lost Coast to the passion story from Child of Light. The holiday season is extra fun for gamers: Black Friday marks the start of crazy special offers coming at us from all directions, many of which we don’t even want to resist.

Why is there not much birthing in games?

There is not much birthing going on in games. Probably because the average gamer prefers gunning down aliens or racing around in way too fast cars. Probably because most games can live without bloody pictures of tiny lumps of flesh slithering out of a woman. And yes, in a way that is really rather bizarre. We all of us not only started that way, it’s strange that, on the whole, we don’t seem to mind seeing naked female bodies including visible private parts, and at the same time shy away from children being breastfed or women giving birth. Could this be something to do with primal forces we still fail to understand? Or are we dealing with male privilege not yet exposed as such?  ‘We’re pregnant’ and ‘we’ve been blessed with a baby boy/girl’, all well and good, but let’s be fair, who’s doing all the hard work?

Nonetheless, when writing this column, my thoughts wandered off to one of my favorite games, Fallout 3, which connoisseurs would agree is one of the greatest games ever made. The game starts with the joyful occasion of the gamer being born (https://youtu.be/10ulC3-4O28?t=173). Well, not really the gamer of course. It’s the Lone Wanderer that is born, the man or woman (the choice is yours) you’re going to walk anywhere from twenty to a hundred hours through the post-apocalyptic world of Fallout 3. It starts out good fun and cozy. Mother’s heartbeat. Baby crying. Blood spattering on to the screen. Bright overhead lights, because – well, Americans can’t imagine you can give birth to a healthy baby outside a hospital.

I am Alpha and Omega

Father James and mother Catharine are over the moon. She is self-effacing enough to pant: ‘We did it.’ And, as I said before, she is lying, but very sweetly so. While the player is given the opportunity to choose the gender and name of his/her avatar, James asks you an important question about your digital life in Fallout 3, that is addressed both the Lone Wanderer and the player him/herself: ‘It’s a big world out there, full of all sorts of people. What about you? What kind of person are you going to be?’ In this particular game, you can often choose whether you solve a certain situation with violence or with tact. Plus the game lists all those decisions and rewards you with good or punishes you with bad karma. The total amount of karma affects what other characters in the game think of your Lone Wanderer and it impacts the end of the game itself.

Back to the operating table. Just as you finish entering your choices, Catharine goes into cardiac arrest. And despite James’s best efforts, his wife dies after having cast a dying glance at her newborn child (https://youtu.be/10ulC3-4O28?t=368). In the next scene, the Lone Wanderer is one year old and toddles bravely across a room in the underground bunker where a few lucky people have found refuge from the ubiquitous nuclear radiation outside. James immediately reads his son/daughter (your choice) your dead mother’s favorite quotation, framed and on a box in your room (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tzpgMzP9pIg).

Come over here. I want to show you something. See that? It was your mother’s favorite passage. It’s from the Bible. Revelations 21:6. “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.” She always loved that.

What kind of person you would choose to become

Surprising, perhaps. Insignificant, maybe. But at the beginning of the game, you are introduced to quotation from the Bible about someone claiming to give people a drink from the fountain of the water of life. You don't have much time to think about it either, because you are eighteen years old in the next instant. Your father has fled and has left you in the lurch. If you also manage to escape from the bunker, you'll find yourself in an anarchist world full of dangerous mutants and bandits. You follow in your father's (figurative) footsteps until you discover his Project Purity. James was in the process of developing a water purification plant, which was to purify the world around you from deadly radiation.

When bandits want to steal his invention, James sacrifices himself by flooding the control chamber with radiation. It's up to the Lone Wander, i.e. the player, to decide what to do. Will you go into the room, saving the world but killing yourself? Or do you chuck in the towel and think mainly of your own good? Or do you send someone else into the poisoned room to do the dirty work? The choice is yours. But whoever remembers the very first scene already knows what to choose. Your mother who sacrificed herself to give birth to the Lone Wanderer .... And whoever remembers the Bible quotation about that which gives life (rather than poisons it) knows that there really is no other option. And whoever remembers that James' very first words to you were about what kind of person you would choose to become, well …

For those who take the ultimate decision, the following obituary is read by voice actor Liam Neeson.

And so it was that the Lone Wanderer ventured forth from Vault 101 intent on discovering the fate of a father who had once sacrificed the future of humanity for that of his only child. But it was not until the end of this long road that the Lone Wanderer learned the true meaning of that greatest of virtues – sacrifice. Stepping into the irradiated control chamber of Project Purity, the child followed the example of the father sacrificing life itself for the greater good of mankind.

Who goes in the manger?

And so things come full circle. Catherine gave her life to give birth to her son/daughter. James gave his life to give the rest of the world a second chance. The Lone Wanderer gave his/her life to give mankind, lost by its own sinfulness, a second chance, a new chance at life. Birth leads to death, death leads to new life. Perhaps I should put together a nativity scene after all, next to my computer. With James and Catherine in the role of Joseph and Mary.

And who goes in the manger? With some embarrassment I realize I'm supposed to be in there. I won't do it. Afraid the manger and even my desk won't hold my weight. But even more so because I don't know what I'm going to choose when faced with that ultimate choice to put the life of the other above my own. Birth leads to death, death leads to life, life leads to new life. In the deep midwinter.