[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 3, Issue 12 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Infinite Loops.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]
There’s a meme that says when you’re a kid you have all this time to play video games but no money to buy them, and when you’re an adult you have all this money to buy them but no time to play them. I’ve been lucky enough to sometimes combine the two, turning playing games into a paying job, but, at 33 years old, I get a certain sinking feeling when a new game flaunts a running time in the double or triple digits. I no longer relish the promise of a workweek’s worth of new content, especially if it’s a narrative; if I manage to make the time to get to the end, I’ve forgotten the beginning, and my games library is full of uncompleted titles whose promises feel mostly like threats.
Given this, I’ve become a fan of roguelikes, a game genre begun with and named after 1980’s Rogue. Roguelikes usually feature permadeath, so when you die, there’s no checkpoint or reloading; you simply start again. To prevent this from growing frustrating or repetitive, most roguelikes also feature procedurally generated or randomized content, so your experience changes on each restart. You’ll find yourself with a different level layout, with enemies in a different place or with a new arsenal of tools or abilities, all of which demands you adjust your playstyle and strategy each time. Certain things will always be the same—enemy behavior, the number of levels, or your ultimate goal—but each playthrough is a unique setup of old elements in new places.What ultimately surrounds both roguelike games and faith is the delight and connections inherent in play, the willingness to be open to joy and to pursue it in all its best forms.
Today, roguelikes have spawned numerous subgenres: procedural death labyrinths, rogue-lites, or roguelike-likes (with most modern entries departing from their forebears by using permadeath to provide complete but relatively brief play sessions). A complete run in the turn-based space exploration game FTL might be two hours from the start to beating the final boss, but that doesn’t mean you’re done with the game. A new playthrough will end in the first sector when you encounter an enemy you’re unprepared for or you’ll lose to the last boss because you didn’t find enough scrap to buy an upgrade you were counting on. Beating the last stage of FTL, as well as options available in randomized encounters, gives you access to new ships with new crewmembers, strengths, and weaknesses, asking you to develop a new set of skills and bringing fresh challenges that make the game ache to be replayed.
Other roguelikes tease you with the promise of never seeing the end due to their punishing changes and low margins for error. For instance, over the past few years, I’ve logged 90 hours in Derek Yu’s incredible and elegant Spelunky and have barely seen the third of its four official levels, never mind the several secret ones that require particular items or actions to unlock. In Spelunky, you’re an explorer looking for treasure in a series of mines, jungles, and caves; each floor has a time limit of two minutes and 30 seconds before an unbeatable ghost appears to chase you to the exit, putting an inherent time cap on play. Those 90 hours were pieced together from play sessions of 10 seconds to 10 minutes, each one brought to an end due to something I failed to account for in the game’s tight, tense systems. The floor layout changes each time, as does the placement of the enemies, but each enemy behaves predictably across runs, giving rise to an immediate restart at death due to my desire to try again because I knew better—that old arcade trope of “one more try.” Spelunky also logs your deaths, of which I have hundreds, but this isn’t a mocking frustration; rather, each death is a record of an engaging, complete game session distilled into a manageable chunk. Roguelikes can be picked up, put down, rage-quit, or infinitely replayed, always rearranging familiar pieces into unfamiliar circumstances, making room for surprise, delight, challenge, and improvement.
I would say that roguelikes are meant to be played forever, regardless of whether you’ve beaten them once or never even come close. My favorite roguelikes always call me back, and their small pieces but endless size slot perfectly into my day. The general brevity of their runs, that tantalizing combination of changes and staples, can add up to the same running time as a sprawling cinematic game, but without the demand to do so in a long session. I can do a few runs of Spelunky in between work tasks or at the end of a long day without blocking out hours or neglecting other responsibilities. Their mechanics and setups return easily to me, even if I haven’t touched them in a while, and the ease with which I can pick them up and put them down makes me pick them up again and again. My favorite roguelikes both comfort and surprise, give and take, leaving their doors open for me to always return without demanding I hunker down for the long haul.
I see the daily work of being a person of faith in a similar light. We can see our spiritual progress as a narrative, as a step-by-step process of becoming kinder, more reverent, more vulnerable with God, more worshipful in our everyday life. But when I look at my faith that way, I can see how I’m setting myself up for the same failure that I face when buying that new $60 AAA game. As I enter my credit card information or bow my head in prayer, I know I’ll never finish; I know I’ll never get there. For one, faith isn’t a journey that can be completed, a challenge to be beaten once and then looked back on with the satisfaction of saying, “Whew—I sure got good at that!” My faith is a work that repeats with variations, refusing to culminate in a coda I’ll see in this life. One moment of generosity to someone on the subway becomes a new challenge when I’m broke or tired; taking a moment to reflect on the glory of God’s creation on a beautiful snowy day is a different hurdle when my air conditioner is broken in the grime and sweat of a New York City July. The set pieces of daily living rearrange themselves into unique configurations each dawn, requiring new strategies, new commitments, and new tools to follow them to where they point toward God. A success one day is a failure the next, and there’s no point at which faith can be won, can be filed away to make room for the next thing.
Furthermore, if we see faith as linear, it can be difficult to block out time for it during our day. Few of us have the luxury of going away on a long retreat, and even making time to worship with others can be difficult given other demands. This give and take, choosing worship at the expense of other pursuits, can cause us to resent these practices or can keep them from feeling relevant to our lives. I forget the joy of play when a 100-hour game becomes a chore; I forget the joy of worship when it means I can’t have brunch with a friend from out of town. When games or prayer only exist on weekends or in their carefully appointed time slots, I can lose sight of their presence in the rest of my day and how they can inform my other interactions, choices, and experiences.
So my own faith is roguelike. Every day I have the same basic goal and the same basic tools—God’s Word, my own intuition, the random but familiar layout of my life and routine—but each day is new, and my pursuit of faith both trips and thrives on these changes and surprises. In the same way that I can have a new experience in a roguelike from an unexpected arrangement of old pieces, a sudden shift in the design of my day can open up new possibilities to grow in my relationship with God. The sunlight hitting the tree outside my house in a new way can take me aback with the joy of creation I most deeply associate with God, even if I pass that tree every day. A moment of human connection with my regular deli guy, standing out in the midst of a largely rote encounter, can surprise me into remembering how sacred the smallest of human interactions can be. The pieces are the same, the weekdays like links on a chain, but there is always variation in each link that mixes the familiar and the unexpected. Instead of being something I have to do at a designated time or get progressively better at, faith can visit my day at any moment, recognizable but new, never overstaying its welcome, asking of me only what I have to give. If I falter, if I’m short with someone or fail to act in accordance with my values, I know I haven’t lost at religion; I know it’s going to be there again tomorrow, that I’ll face the same situations wearing new clothes. I can start to look for these moments, invite them in, and prepare for them. In this way, my soul grows in a series of fits and starts, short runs that add up over time into an infinite, eternal work.
I see these ideas best combined in one of my favorite prayers, the Examen of Conscience, a daily Catholic practice I adopted when working as a prison chaplain with the Jesuits during divinity school. My favorite version is Father James Martin’s, which opens with invoking God’s presence before moving on to its five steps: declaring gratitude for good things that happened during the day; reviewing the day’s events with an eye toward where you felt God’s presence and where you turned away from it; expressing remorse for moments when you behaved out of step with God’s will, your personal values, or your best self; asking for God’s forgiveness and deciding if action needs to be taken in regard to those you’ve wronged; and closing by asking for the grace to see God’s presence more clearly the next day. To me, the steps of the Examen provide the same container as a rogue like: new content held by the same levels and motivated by the same goal.
Most of my days are similar to each other—I get up, I bicker with my cat over his food, I turn on the computer—but when looked at closely and through the lens of the Examen, small but important variations start to emerge. Today, I snapped at my roommate because we ran out of coffee filters; today, I received a nice note from a client about work I’d done just when I needed it most. Through the Examen’s repeatable focus, I can see where God was in these encounters and can reinterpret them in the context of who I want to be in my faith. The constrained nature of the Examen means a session can vary in length—brief if a day was spent mostly alone at home, long if a day was involved or complicated. But through the contrast between the container’s familiar repetition and the careful reflection on the day’s new content, a living, changing faith emerges. I can start to see patterns and trends, can identify particular challenges and draw connections. By beginning and ending the Examen with the same goal—to grow in awareness of God’s presence and grace—I can measure my progress not in a straight line but in a series of replays, leading not so much to a successful end goal but to a flexible, surprising, and vital faith. I end the Examen like I end a good Spelunky run: with a good story to tell and the desire to try again on the next round, to face the unique shape of tomorrow with the confidence of the eternal sameness that undergirds it, to move in an endless loop around the desire to grow in my life with God.
What ultimately surrounds both games and faith, to me, is the delight and connections inherent in play, the willingness to be open to joy and to pursue it in all its best forms. The familiarity and changes in roguelikes highlight the purest essence of play, just as I see God’s presence most clearly in small moments of grace that hint at the larger work going on behind the scenes. I find the best faith to be a living one, one that can weave itself into each of my daily moments by bringing gratitude, kindness, and reverence. Time spent with Spelunky or with the Examen feel like the best sort of moments: short but satisfying, manageable but meaningful, and always waiting for me again tomorrow.