We don’t talk about religion, right? That’s what ‘secular’ has come to mean... we don’t talk about religion. Unless of course you want to make criticisms against religion, which are still fair game – indeed, are all but encouraged among the intellectually respectable. Liberals are only credible if they are willing to speak out against Christian nonsense, while conservatives positively thrive upon their distrust of Muslims... So we end up in this strange situation where ‘not talking about religion’ becomes a blanket cover for racism because religion and non-religion are intimate elements of culture, and so if all you’re permitted to do is to speak ill of religion, you have created an environment where racism not only festers, it achieves a kind of illusion of intellectual honesty that, in my lifetime at least, distrust of skin colour has always been mercifully denied.
Because it’s set in 200AD, Silk can be about religion without dealing with the immense baggage of contemporary religions. Islam has yet to be founded, while Christianity and Judaism are a very small part of the world of 200AD, which is dominated by what we tend to unjustly collect under term ‘Pagan religion’ or, perhaps even more misleadingly, ‘polytheism’. The civic religion of Rome and ancient Greece spreads throughout more than half of the Ancient Silk Road, and collides in the Kushan Empire with eastern Buddhism, which is still a very young religion at this time. It’s also worth noting that the very term ‘religion’ has no real analogue at this time: our capacity to talk about cultural mythos as a package deal emerged via the Enlightenment... the Romans had no equivalent term at all. ‘Religio’, the root of the word, carries the meaning of a sense of duty or responsibility in 200AD, and mostly in the sense of social obligations.
Religions that are huge today are minorities in 200AD. What we call today the Hindu traditions are not entirely absent from the game, but what we usually associate with these spiritual paths are definitely on the fringes – you can sacrifice to Shiva in the Kushan Empire, for instance, but most temples there are dedicated to the Lion Goddess Nana, whom nobody remembers today. In the Parthian Empire, Zoroastrian fire temples are the core of civic religion, and although Islam is still several centuries away you can feel the connectivity between the Parthian Empire and Islamic culture in many ways... like everything else in life, religions have a history, they are not as isolated and static as we tend to imagine, and in 200AD this is far more evident than it is today.
Not that long ago, I was interviewed about the portrayal of religion in videogames by a PhD student, in part because my game Kult: Heretic Kingdoms had on the surface a vehemently anti-religious stance. (The actual story in that regard is much more nuanced, but this isn’t the place to explore it...) One of the things I took from that discussion was the manner in which a huge aspect of the portrayal of religion in videogames is the priest or priestess as the healer – a debt from Dungeons & Dragons that seems to have been tangentially influenced by Hammer House of Horror movies of all things! I became interested in finding another approach to this issue. I didn’t set out to make a game about religion, but once I knew I was making a game about 200AD I knew that it was inevitably going to be about religion in addition to whatever else it was about.
As I came to develop the class of Ritegiver in Silk, I began to see them as an opportunity for a different way of approaching religion in games. The Ritegiver is, in effect, the diplomat: by being able to perform rites at different shrines and temples, the Ritegiver allows the player to make friends with people in new areas, to stave off rebellion by performing sacrifices that help bind them to their captured citadels through civic religion, or simply to ask for aid from strangers. I leave it to the player how they interpret this – cynically, as social manipulation, or idealistically, as a marker for what religions do best when they do not lose their way: binding people together into communities of care. Both ways of understanding religion have some truth to them, and always have.
Silk isn’t a game about religion as most people understand the term. That’s because it’s about the religions of 200AD. I happen to believe that this could tell us more about religion today than it might first appear.
Next, the final part: Brexit