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Divining Divinity

Gods are falling out of favor in contemporary 21st-century living, and for good reason.  They can be used as platforms to manipulate the downtrodden.  Their original tenants can be forgotten and misinterpreted to please popular opinion.  By over-glorifying them, both gods and messiahs can be easily detached from everything they originally stood for and used to drive people to acts of great harm.

Worst of all, you cannot find a god anywhere you look.  Personally, I like to think that god is in the details, a subtle divine spark to be found in every facet of creation itself, both everywhere and nowhere... it's funny how something is easy enough to find when you simply change the definition.  However, this really does not make the cut for the classical definition: a god is generally thought of as an independently-thinking, miracle-inducing entity.  You would think something like that would be hard to hide!  But, the more science spreads our scope of verifiable evidence, the more poignant their absence would seem to be.  I will grant you that absence of evidence does not mean much, but "Have faith" means less than ever in a post-modern world that encourages retesting the validity of even the things we can verify the existence of. 

So let us talk instead about something that definitely does exist: the idea of a god.  Ideas have power enough to drive the actions of individuals, and those actions have an easily verifiable influence via a simple cause and effect relationship with everyday reality.

In fairness, here's one for the other camp.
In this way, I would say principles and gods are closely related.  You cannot buy honesty in a can, though you might be able to verify a relative absence of lies.  Though lady justice may carry a set of scales, you cannot weigh justice itself as it is as intangible as any other idea.  A scientist may isolate hormones in a vial and call it love, but we know better.  Saying you are taking a belt of "liquid courage" is always done tongue-in-cheek.  Yet, despite their intangibility, principles, like gods, certainly exist as ideas.  Whether or not they can be found anywhere in the universe, ideas are the tools which allow a conscious mind to function.

Of course, a false belief is called delusion; if it's not grounded in truth then it is probably a bad idea.  I have already spoken at the head of this entry about how the idea of gods can be misused, but are principles themselves any less vulnerable?  I am a general believer in honesty, but the harsh truth can be delivered with less truth and more harshness.  Justice taken to too great of an extreme is tyranny, a police state.  Excessive love is suffocating.  Courage without reason is foolhardiness.  The point I am trying to make here is that even good ideas can be ruined by taking them to excess, or in the wrong direction.  To discern the difference is a matter of critical thinking, and it probably requires more vigilance than any of us have the energy for... but the responsible among us would at least try.

I am getting a little off topic: what's on the table here is the value of the idea of gods.  I would speculate an idea of a god without useful or appropriately-weighted principles (or any principles at all) is a useless idea, every bit worthy of an atheist's scorn.  Meaning no disrespect to your culture, but honestly, you need to keep your house in order better than that.  However, contrary to what a hardcore atheist would tell you, I would not say that the solution is to disavow the idea of god at all (casting them off as delusions).  In truth, the idea of a god, well-executed as a philosophy that drives one to excellence can be very powerful, which makes it a good idea, even a fantastic one.

Not that I am about to go out and start a religion.  But I have fostered a certain interest towards the value of the idea of gods.

Now Watching: Oh My Goddess! (a.k.a. "Ah! My Goddess!").

Okay, so this might seem like a bit of a shift in thinking but consider this a case study.
From left to right, that's Skuld, Belldandy, and Urd, the three goddess sisters of this series.
Ah! My Goddess! is a thoroughly entertaining anime.  The girls might not be the most unfeasibly proportioned sex objects I've ever seen to grace an animation cell, but that might work to their advantage: too much cheesecake is nauseating.  Watching the 2005 remake of the series, I am fairly blown away with the lighthearted, upbeat spirit of the show and the beautiful visuals.  Despite bearing resemblances to the typical 2D girl heartthrob property, I think this is one that everyone can enjoy.

The premise, like any good anime or manga, is brilliance in its simplicity:
  1. Keiichi Morisato is a kind-hearted doormat of a college sophomore.  He is not hated, but generally unlucky.  (In other words, he's the everyman for most people who are likely to pick up the manga.)   
  2. His generous toil in the face of an unkind world lands him on the radar of Yggdrasil which, in Ah My Goddess!, is actually the computer that the universe runs on.  (A pretty fresh idea in 1988!)
  3. Consequently, Keiichi Morisato "accidentally" dials a goddess help line, which puts him in touch with a goddess named Belldandy who offers him any wish he wants.
  4. Naturally, Keiichi doubts her authenticity, both as a goddess and because it seems unlikely a worthless doormat like him would be worth any special attention.  Belldandy, being a benevolent being who loves all living things, informs him that she thinks he's fantastic.
  5. Flustered, and not completely believing her, Keiichi jokingly wishes she would say by his side forever.  
  6. Wish granted, to their mutual surprise.
  7. The rest of the series is what happens next.  High jinks amidst conflicts between heaven and hell (very loosely based on the Norse definition of them).  A budding romance between mortal and goddess.
Ah! My Goddess! has quite a fantastic lineage.  The manga began in 1988 and went through 24 volumes before wrapping up in April of 2014.  It is fun to read the earlier mangas and see Keiichi wearing a style of hair I would expect to see on Yu Yu Hakosho's Yusuke, and Belldandy's idea of human fashion often ends up being something I would expect to see Dragonball's Bulma wearing; that was just the style at the time.

I often claim that Tenchi Muyo popularized the harem manga, but it debuted in a 1992 original video animation.  But then, Ah! My Goddess is not exactly a harem manga, either, it is more of a romance drama with just one romance going on, and everything else is intermissions into comedy or other sentiments.

There are a few things that I really like about how this story works out:
  • The Pals with Jesus trope is actually kind of fun.
  • Car talk.  Clearly, the mangaka had a thing for automotives, and it is fun to see them talk about various motor bikes, unusual cars, and so on.   (Keiichi is part of the college auto club, so this becomes a fixture of many episodes.)
  • Useless protagonists of harem mangas usually annoy me.  However, in Ah! My Goddess! the fact that he is so useless actually makes sense! If he was not, he would hardly need a goddess to show up and bail him out.  It also makes sense that, despite being a kind-hearted fellow who tries his best, he is obviously going to be completely outgunned in the average supernatural conflict.
  • As I mentioned earlier, this anime keeps the cheesecake to a reasonable tolerance.  There is not a single upskirt shot to be seen, and the characters do not act all that perverted except under unusual situations (such as being under the effect of a spell or drug).   The closest thing to a pervert this series has is a character who is an affluent playboy whose wealth and power allows him to treat women cruelly, backfiring spectacularly when he starts messing with the likes of goddesses.
  • The characters are pretty well designed, and seem to embody relatively unique tropes instead of jumping in tune to existing formulas.  Even though the only real romance is between Keiichi and Belldandy, the other goddesses who visit (mostly Belldandy's sisters) and Keiichi's human friends all have fun personalities and story arcs to get involved with.
  • The romance with Belldandy takes a novel spin because she is, after all, a goddess.  While Keiichi is understandably attracted to her, you don't just make a move on a goddess (and it does not help that Keiichi is generally spineless around girls anyway).  Meanwhile, Belldandy's affection towards Keiichi is initially hard to differentiate from her affection towards all mortals, since a Goddess's whole purpose is to make mankind happy.  So it is a bit weird, here is an all-powerful being fostering a relationship with a speck of dust but, to some extent, being a goddess is more of a vocation in this universe, so it is not completely infeasible.
That said, as the anime continues (this being a 2005 remake) I have to say that the series loses momentum a bit about halfway through the second season:
  • They start falling back on the same old tropes such as gratuitous bikini outfits and zany tropes such as the evil knockoff and the love potion (subverted).
  • The devils (basically the opposite of goddesses) are evil to the point of resembling Power Ranger villains, just plain silly (and probably deliberately so).  
  • Belldandy is supposed to be pretty much perfect, but what can you even do with a character like that?  Fortunately, she develops a few flaws (such as jealousy, which catches her completely off-guard) because otherwise she would be about as worthy of sympathy as a pull string doll.  However, I would nevertheless say she proves that even perfection can be taken to a fault.
  • Apparently there is only two big reveals in this romance, because they keep having to reuse them.  Reveal number one is Keiichi decides he really meant it when he asked Belldandy to stay by his side forever.  Reveal number two is Keiichi finally gets around telling Belldandy he loves her.  I am about halfway through season 2 and (including season 1) he's done them both at least on 3 occasions.
  • They also seem to have completely forgotten how Belldandy's contract with Keiichi became irrelevant when she decided to hang around despite it not existing at the end of season 1.  All of a sudden in season 2, plot lines related to how that contract needs to be valid for her to stay.
Despite its flaws, for the most part, it is a pretty cool anime and I may well turn to seeing where the manga goes after I finish the TV series.  If the anime ended in 2006 and the manga kept going until 2014, it would seem likely there are quite a few adventures of this series left even after I finish the anime.

Game Development: What exactly does all this talk about gods have to do with it?

Alright, basically it's this: I was not watching Ah! My Goddess! strictly coincidentally, it really was a case study for something I decided to do in this computer game I am working on.

I basically needed agency for my characters in the game, and what better deus ex machina support could I add than deus itself?  More importantly, these are impetus to drive the dynamic action in the game, that which drive nations to act with or without the player.  I actually started with gods - talk about your "top down" designs!

I am not actually putting down any real life religious creed's god because that blatantly sacrilegious and has nothing to do with what I am making.  As I said, what interests me is the idea of gods, not the specifics, and their influence.   However, because principles make more sense, these gods are actually going to represent principles, and (if possible) I am going to make it clear that there needs to be moderation to the extreme of any principle.

To use an Ultima IV analogy, imagine that you have been busting your butt to increase the influence of the virtue of justice throughout Britannia, but it starts to go too far.  All of a sudden, this benevolent being of justice you are serving starts taking on a sinister overtone, and it is all your fault for unbalancing the scales of the universe.

Why not just stick to the principles, then?  Why add gods?  Because gods are fun.  Their being gods gives them direct agency and, whether or not they exist in real life, even an atheist should be able to understand that they can certainly exist in a computer fantasy RPG.

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