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)

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6 thoughts on “Free Will and the Irony of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

  1. I think I was always taught that you would succeed as long as you put enough effort into something. That much is true! But “success”, by the world’s standard, isn’t what comes of it. Usually this applies to video games, because you do indeed become more skilled and get “better” at the game. You become a better person and develop a work ethic fitting to the challenges you might face.

    So, in that respect, telling children this is good and bad. At least in some way, it’s helped me live a more fulfilling life than it would otherwise. Now this effort is directed towards God rather than men; that’s the good that can come out of it.

    • Hi Zach,

      I have to disagree with you here. While I do think that we should teach children to be diligent and disciplined, the way to teach them should not be to promise them “success” should they attain the desired levels of diligence or discipline. When we teach kids this way, they will start to feel as if success is their entitlement, that they DESERVE success, as long as they “put their mind to it”. This, I believe, is generally in conflict with the gospel message – in reality we are NOT worthy individuals, we are not deserving of anything, much less blessings from God. I am also wary of the underlying worldview we are trying to sell to our children (although Hollywood is also partly to blame) – that the most important thing in life is to set your eyes on a certain aspiration and overcome all obstacles to achieve that aspiration. That only attaining your aspirations will you obtain true fulfillment. I know plenty of young millionaires who disagree with this. True fulfillment only comes in Christ, and nowhere else.

      How then should we teach kids to be diligent and disciplined? If the kid comes from a Christian home, then we should teach her that being diligent and disciplined is pleasing to God, and there is nothing more important than to please God. If the kid comes from a non-Christian home, we should teach them that it is morally right to be diligent and disciplined, just like it is morally right not to lie even though lying may benefit you more.

  2. I head straight for Paul’s statement to the Philippians while he’s incarcerated: “I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength.” There’s irony in that statement, too. Probably the complete opposite irony of KoA:R. Paul was in complete bondage and talking about being content with much and with little, not forging his own destiny.

    My issue with Reformed theology has always been the lack of imagination and possibility that God always wants to give us more of his Kingdom in the world around us. Things are free from locked-outcomes and directly play into how much we’re awakened to His Spirit and desiring more. Perhaps this is why we see less of the supernatural where there’s more “reason?”

    Either way, I fear I do have to call you out, Yann. You didn’t for not including the resolve that we can “do all things through Christ who gives us strength.” Yes, human ambition and self-improvement are garbage. But we’ve got a loving Daddy who always wants to see us walk more in the fullness of his Kingdom in the here and now.

    • Dear Joshua (and Zachery),

      Let me first express my appreciation for your candidness in challenging me and I see it as an expression for your love for God, your love for me as a brother, and your desire to see God glorified in what we write here on our blogs. I hope you can understand that I see both of you as brothers and co-laborers and also share in that desire. Let me also agree with Zach (in a reply to me over at his blog) that it is a good and healthy thing that we do disagree with each other, as it is a great testimony to Christ that 3 Christians from such diverse backgrounds and theological leanings can serve together in a common vision to see Christ glorified in the gaming community.

      Let me also say I that I think I do understand where you’re coming from. Leaving aside hermeneutical issues on the free will/predestination passages, I think this is the crux of our disagreement: you see that a God whom does not “lock outcomes” as a God who is more loving and hence, more magnified and more glorious than a God who predestines. However, from my point of view, a God who predestines is more sovereign (because he is not contingent upon man in any way), and to me that makes Him more magnified and more glorious. Ultimately, we both agree on the same thing – we choose our theological framework based on the belief that God is the most glorious entity possible and the One most worthy of our worship. Can I appeal to Romans 14 that we respect each others’ convictions, and instead focus on how we can encourage each other to greater serve God’s glory despite our theological differences? This is also our collective witness to the gaming community.

      Finally, Let me say that I am deeply appreciative for both of you and I seek your forgiveness if in any of my writings I have said insensitive things about you or folks from your tradition.

      • Yann, You continue to impress me. You’re an excellent writer and you’re exceptionally polite. Yeah. We’ll probably disagree. But you’re right to appeal to our cooperation. In this post, I was just contesting your dislike for the notion that “You can achieve anything as long as you just put your mind to it” by bringing up the “can do all things through Christ.” It’s more of a lack of that detail in the conclusion of this post than anything.

        I just sometimes wonder if we as Christians actually believe that if we depend on the Lord that we can do anything he asks or inspires us to do. I know I falter in that, for sure.

        Anyway, I love you and your writings. Keep up the great work. Thanks for writing about this game. Looking forward to your next posts.

  3. So, a few things:

    1. I am pretty sure predestination has a place in Christianity. And I am quite sure that this is the case, as even the word translated “predestined” in the original Greek seems so plain as to not have any question to its validity.. However, I’m not sure the idea makes any logical or rational sense from the standpoint of a fallen human being looking upwards, so to speak. So, even if it, in fact, is the state of affairs, I cannot perceive nor act upon that information in any other way than in the same facet as grace.

    So yes, we must act as if people do have free will – that is where I think I am coming from. Though we cannot comprehend it, (I guess “Christian mystery” would fit here!) we have to act upon the information we do have and can perceive. Something in the same sense that the Trinity admits understanding if not comprehension.

    2. True fulfillment does come in Christ, and subsequently in the Church. That makes perfect sense, I wager! But, I am saying that my upbringing turned out to actually aid me in what I do now – an unintentional preparation, come to think of it. That is why I am happy that I was taught this in the first place, not for the perceptions of “success” from a capitalist standpoint.

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