What in the World(s) is Video Game Cosmology? An Intro
Chances are you are reading these words on a machine fixed by gravity to the surface of a planet called Earth. You maybe use that same machine to conjure make-belief worlds on a screen, to escape the gravity and obligations put upon you by the “real” world. It’s a strange image: we humans, the product of billions of years of evolution, playing at being something else, somewhere else, as we shoot through the universe pinned to the back of a particularly wet pebble at speeds of 107’226 kilometers per hour relative to the giant sphere of fire we call our sun.
Small wonder we sometimes seek out worlds that are friendlier than our own, or more intimate, or more exciting, or – seeing as we’re stuck in this world from birth to death – simply different.
Every game can be viewed either as a miniature cosmos, or something pretending to be a tiny slice of a much bigger world. As a result, every game needs to anticipate a few fundamental questions, and ideally answer them instantly and implicitly before we as players can even consciously formulate them. These questions are:
What kind of world is this?
How does it work? What are its rules?
What is my relationship with it? Which ways of interaction and communication are available to me?
To do so as efficiently as possible, games often activate expectations that rely on tropes already deeply entrenched in our brains, whether from everyday experience, science, other games, fiction, or mythology. It’s a kind of cosmological shorthand that paints the biggest frame imaginable in a few simple and broad strokes. We see the magical fairy-tale land of Hyrule, and we just assume that it’s located on a planet much like our own, and that the lights we see at night are really distant stars. We see flames and horned monsters, and we not only know that we’re in hell in the company of devils, but also that we may safely expect angels inhabiting the same world. Our brains are used to taking a little bit of information and extrapolate a bigger picture from it.
Some games, however, do not try to get the cosmological questions out of the way as quickly as possible. Instead, they put them in the forefront, playing around with cosmological ideas both ancient and new, creating friction and space for open-ended questions rather than quick answers. They echo an ancient human desire to make sense of the world, a preoccupation not just with the shape of the cosmos, but also its history and our place within it, and often recall old ideas about the cosmos that seem to us today metaphorical, symbolical, esoteric, mythic, even magical.
This intro is just the first in a series of deep-dives that sets out to explore the relationship between games and cosmology. We’re going to talk about astral magic and heavenly spheres, demiurges and demons, black holes and primordial voids, existentialist philosophy and the myth of the eternal return, and much more. We’ll trace the roots of these virtual world trees back across the rich soil of magic and religion, mythology and folklore, esotericism and the occult, and we’ll climb its branches to look towards the horizon, and the many ways in which the cosmos is yet to be explored.
Maybe that’s all that’s needed to stoke your interest. But maybe you’re wondering: Why waste our time with ancient speculations when we have modern science? Why waste our time with cosmology at all?
While science is a powerful tool to find answers or approximations to certain questions, it’s remarkably bad at answering a simple question like: “Why though?” It’s good at describing the grandeur of the observable universe, but it’s incapable of imbuing it with meaning.
The irrational and the subjective are here to stay, and human beings will continue to explore their relationship with the cosmos in creative and experimental ways. A fact that ought to surprise no one except the scientific or religious dogmatists of this world.
Science is incapable of making sense of humanity’s relationship with the cosmos, just as human beings are incapable of stopping their efforts to find and create meaning in a world much larger than themselves. In other words, cosmology will always be hopelessly entangled with the social and political fabric of our human world.
The question “what is the world like?” is fundamentally both cosmological as well as socio-political. Our answer to this question guides our actions and feelings, but it’s just as true to say that our actions and feelings guide our answer; are you prepared to crush the lives and dreams of others to get what you want? Well, it’s a dog-eats-dog world, isn’t it? Do you always do what authorities tell you to do? Well, people need to know their place in God’s hierarchy, don’t they?
Sadly, today as thousands of years ago, the answers to the question “what is the world like?” is often abused to uphold the status quo or legitimise cruelties both big and small. Every time someone shrugs and says “that’s just how the world works,” you’ve witnessed a kind of implicit cosmology in action. It’s all too convenient to confuse a historical instance for an eternal cosmic order.
What is the antidote against this kind of thought-terminating cliché? Fundamentally, we need to foster a questioning, playful, speculative and subversive perspective on the world(s) in which we live in and the ones we don’t.
To imagine different worlds is something special, a kind of visionary magic. It is also an inherently political act. For as long as we can imagine and mentally inhabit worlds different than the one we happen to live in, we are capable of perceiving tension between what is and what maybe could be, and therefore of achieving deep change. Because at the root of imagining other worlds lies the realisation that all conceptions of the world are ultimately equally imagined, whether it is the worlds-bearing branches of Yggdrasil, our late capitalist hellhole, or even the cosmos described by science. Escapism can be a force for good if it is more than a diversionary smokescreen, if we go deep and find something of value to take back as we reenter our "real" world.
But why video games?
This series is just as much about cosmology as it is about video games. But video games do have unique points that distinguish them from other forms of media engaged in cosmological questions: they are explorative, and they are simulated. Cosmologies usually have a topography, and they are in flux, behaving according to certain rules and regularities. Through their explorative dimension, video games allow us to traverse and map the topography of a virtual cosmos, and their simulated nature allows them to show the cosmos as a dynamic system that can be experienced, maybe even manipulated, by us.
Admittedly, very few games capitalise on this potential, but we can see hints of it in many places, and some games that push against the boundaries of our known ludic universe. I invite you to accompany me on a cosmic journey as we map these digital worlds, their outward shapes and inner lives, their beginnings and their ends, their limits and expanses, their potentials and pitfalls. This will be more than a series of analytical essays. It’s also an exercise in imagination, and of building rainbow bridges between disparate realms.