Free Will and the Irony of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

<<Warning: Minor Spoilers Alert>>

In Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (henceforth, KoA:R), the player is immediately introduced to a universe which every individual is beholden to a predestined fate, and it was common knowledge to the people that this pre-destined fate cannot be escaped.  There exist a group of fortune tellers known as fate weavers who are able to reveal the destiny of those who seek to know their final fate, but fate weavers quickly become unpopular as few people are ever happy knowing the hour and the means by which they die.

Against this backdrop, the progtagonist wakes up among a pile of bodies, learning that he was once dead but have been mysteriously resurrected, and even more mysteriously, is the only character in the entire universe which does not have a fate.  Hence, he becomes known as “The Fateless One”.  Eventually, the protagonist discovers that not only is his fate his own to write, he can change the fate of other individuals as well, and truly, for the first time, people are free to “decide their own fate”.

I am a Calvinist, i.e. I believe that God has predestined everything to happen in this universe, including who becomes a Christian or not.  [It is worth noting that this is a controversial position among Christians (the predestination-free will debate has never ever been resolved by either Christian theologians or non-Christian philosophers).  For more information about the various positions, see here.]  As a Calvinist, I was intrigued by KoA:R‘s treatment of predestination, and there are interesting tidbits to explore (particularly  the House of Ballads faction quests) but ultimately the game was not very interested in exploring the intricacies of free will and the limitations thereof; there was just a simple dichotomy presented – free will good, anything else bad.

Which was unfortunate, because of all people, the game creators should know full well the limitations of free will, and in particular, “non-linearity” in games.  KoA:R, despite being an “open-world sandbox” RPG, is noted for its linearity – there are no real morality choices in the game of any consequence, and the narrative path is fixed. For a game whose narrative hinges upon the individual who is truly able to “write his own fate”, it is ironic that the player only follows the linear path which has already been written for him by the game designers.

Erm, nope. Not really.

Erm, nope. Not really.

The irony only grows when one considers KoA:R in a real world context.  Like many other gamers who like “high fantasy”, I was very excited about KoA:R when it was coming out.  It  was a game which had an all-star development team which included Ken Rolston (lead designer of Morrowind and Oblivion), Todd McFarlane (comic artist for Spiderman and creator of Spawn) and R.A. Salvatore (my childhood hero and author of the Icewind Dale & Dark Elf Trilogies).  When demos and previews started coming out, KoA:R was described as Elder Scrolls meets God of War, the game with the best combat mechanics ever seen in an open-world RPG (still true today).  How could this not be a huge success?  Surely, such an excellent game was destined to be successful?

And to be fair, the game was critically well received and did enjoy moderate financial success.  But it was also revealed that it didn’t sell enough to “break even”.  What happened?  And why was the studio laying off its staff shortly after they released its first game?  For a full treatment of the issue, read this interview, but the tl;dr version is this: the founder and owner of the company, retired baseball star Curt Schilling, doesn’t really know how to make video games or run a video game company.  But he thought if he had enough belief in himself, he would succeed – this was what sports had taught him.  So he actually round up friends and investors and went ahead.  Fast forward 6 years, the company failed without ever releasing a single game. (KoA:R doesn’t really count as it was actually developed by another studio which was subsequently bought into this company)  Dozens of employees were left jobless, and some were even saddled with debt.

Curt Schilling, Todd McFarlane, R.A. Salvatore and Ken Rolston.  In happier times.

Curt Schilling, Todd McFarlane, R.A. Salvatore and Ken Rolston. In happier times.

I am a teacher in my day job.  As a teacher I come across one sentiment very regularly, which, to me, is a heinous lie:

“You can achieve anything as long as you just put your mind to it”.

We like to simplify things to kids.  We want them to work hard.  We want them to have aspirations and not give up on them too easily.  All that is good.  But we shouldn’t lie to kids and shape their worldviews so erroneously   Life isn’t that simple.  Many factors affect your success in life, the majority of which are outside of your control.  God is not obliged to give you what you want as long as you “work hard enough” or “believe in yourself enough”.  In fact, God is not obliged to give you anything.  God is never obliged.

What is ironic about KoA:R the game, as well as the real life events which surround the game, is the failure of the principal characters to realize that human will alone is never quite enough.  We are at the mercy of many things outside of our control, things which can only be determined by God.  But our self-centered hearts insist otherwise.  We must control the destines of our own lives or else life is not worth living.  But that too, is a lie. 

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”

(James 4:13-15 ESV)

An Exegesis of Eternal Sonata [Part 4 – Sacrifice and Redemption]

Part 1 – Plot Summary
Part 2 – Metaphysics
Part 3 – Man & Society

***

[Spoilers for Eternal Sonata‘s ending]

eternal sonata polka and frederic

As explored in Part 3, we’ve seen that Eternal Sonata portrays a society which is fallen, where men are overcome by their greed, vanity and lust for power.  Yet against this grim backdrop, stories of hope emerge, providing a glimpse that all is not lost.  That despite how fallen mankind has become, there is a hope that there is a source of goodness which is greater than the evil and failings of man, a hope that there will be a better ending.

These stories emerge through the tales of redemption of the various playable characters of Eternal Sonata.  The personal stories of characters like Jazz, Claves, Falsetto, Crescendo and Serenade all contain elements of loss, salvation and redemption.  However, the main thrust of Eternal Sonata’s narrative was always about the two main protagonists: Polka and Frederic.

Polka

The game starts with this narration from Frederic:

“Why? Why did it happen? Why was she destined to die? What crime could a girl like that have possibly committed to deserve such a grim fate?”

And thus we were introduced to Polka, the innocent girl who was destined to die.  Later in the game we were told that Polka was different from others in that she was the only person with a perfect Astra; this was like saying Polka was the only “flawless” person in the universe of Eternal Sonata.  At the end of the game, we would be told that Polka was the destined one, who’s role was to sacrifice herself (by jumping off a cliff) and this sacrifice would restore the scorched and damage land back to its original lush glory.  But her sacrifice accomplishes more than just this, the universe is “restored” in the most literal of senses – everything is reversed, including time, and Polka is “reborn” as she falls from the sky in this newly restored world.

The parallels to the redemptive work of Christ are striking; like Jesus, Polka was destined from the beginning to be saviour.  Like Jesus, Polka was blameless and “flawless”.  Like Jesus, Polka’s death was a willing submission for the greater good of others.  Like Jesus, Polka’s dealth brings restoration of the land, and of people.  Like Jesus, Polka is eventually “resurrected”, although “born again” might be a better description for Polka.  These parallels are so striking that one wonders whether the Japanese creators of Eternal Sonata are Christian (unlikely), or that the tale of redemption is so pervasive, so universal and so true, that it just keeps cropping up in works of narrative fiction across all media.

But there are differences between the sacrifice of Polka and the sacrifice of Christ.  Just by turning back time so that history can play itself out again could be considered “restoration”, but that was hardly salvation.  It could even be considered a cruel joke, a curse.  There was no real hope.  No many how many iterations we go through, there cannot really be hope if there was no better end in sight,  This is where Frederic comes in.

Frederic

Frederic François Chopin was a dying man.  What was hinted by his biography (and the narration of the story), was that he was not a happy man lying in his deathbed.  He was dying young, barely into his prime as a world-renown pianist and a composer.  He was dying lonely, with several failed relationships with women, never been married and with no children.  He was dying homesick, never been able to return to his native Poland due to the political strife of that era.  He was dying without hope.

Yet the irony of the story was that the one who was without hope would be the only one who could offer hope. It was Frederic who broke the never-ending cycle by affirming Polka as a “Heaven’s Mirror”.  It was Frederic who realized that despite his hopelessness (in real life), there was a rich beautiful world with people he loved on “the other side”, and this realization not only brought himself hope, but it created hope and life for everyone else as well.  It was Frederic who broke the rules – Polka, as well as the World can be saved, not just either/or.

When Christ was denied three times by one of his dearest disciples and laid hanging on the cross, the most shameful instrument of death in the Roman era, it appeared all but hopeless.  Could this truly be the messiah whose was prophesied to save Israel from its bondage?  Yet, the irony of the story was that the One who appeared hopeless was actually the true hope provider.  That only through His death on the cross, could there be hope for Israel and for the rest of humanity.  It was Christ who broke the rules – God’s justice as well as God’s love was displayed, not just either/or.

Conclusion

Polka was the destined sacrifice, the blameless lamb to be slain.  Frederic was the true hope-provider and the true life-giver.  As Christians, we believe that Jesus Christ was both. For those of us who are Christians, let us not regard too lightly this coming Christmas the true significance of Jesus the Messiah being born into this world, and the great joy and privilege we have to live for His glory alone.

From heaven you came helpless babe
Entered our world, your glory veiled
Not to be served, but to serve
And give your life, that we might live

There in the garden of tears
My heavy load, He chose to bear
His heart with sorrow was torn
Yet not my will but Yours He said

This is our God, the Servant King
He calls us now to follow him
To bring our lives as a daily offering
Of worship to the Servant King

[Addendum: Read also Richard Clark on Christ and Pop Culture regarding the meaning of Christmas]

Update: December Hiatus

There won’t be any more articles here for the month of December since I’ll be real busy this whole month, including being the main guy planning for Christmas Service at my church.

I will however, be publishing a guest article (on FF XIII) soon over at Theology Gaming.  Much gratitude to Zachery Oliver for inviting me to write over there.

Enjoy your Christmas holidays everybody!

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[Addendum: The post on Theology Gaming is up! Click here to check it out!]