But For the Grace of Tuche: Why Writers Should Avoid the Temptations of Caricature

An earth like planet set against the deep of space with two yellow suns glowing in the backdrop.

Alpha Centauri’s title screen.

It is an indispensible commonplace of feminist criticism to say that prejudicial archetypes are not only socially harmful but make for bad storytelling. This is not a mere artefact of diplomatic speech, however. It reflects a truism of narrative art and characterisation themselves: the easy catharsis of cardboard-cutouts is alluring but a dead end in terms of artistic staying power. Making a character a lazy stereotype may plug a gap in your story, but it ultimately leaves it hollow and unaffecting. To use such stereotypes ensures art that merely goes through the motions without actually taking us anywhere.

Original characterisation, and its delightful conveyance of the player to another world, have never been a monopoly of so-called “high art.” After all, the best popular art can manifest that quality as well: to be memorable precisely through avoiding the paint-by-numbers of stereotypical characters. The Mass Effect series does this spectacularly well. But I think a good example that has precious little to do with the so called “identity politics” issues that get peoples’ backs up would suffice for an exploration of what I mean here.

**

Any account of my often lonely childhood would be incomplete without the chillingly ethereal soundtrack of Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri backing it. As a classic 4X (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) game in the tradition of Civilisation it hardly seems like a goldmine of characterisation. But, freed as it was from the constraints of a game with actual historical figures, Alpha Centauri’s speculative sensibility allowed for “faction leaders” for each nation you could play that had their own fully developed philosophies, ideas, personalities, and histories. What resulted was a diverse pantheon of leaders who taught me more than a little about the political tapestry of our world.

And the developers did so while avoiding easy, popular caricaturing. The game was suffused with quotes—every time you built an improvement to one of your cities, or researched a new technology, or built a new secret project, you were treated to an extended, illustrative monologue of some sort, richly voice acted. Sometimes they were quotes from historical works of literature or philosophy, but other times they were the geniusical science fiction writing that gave life to the fictitious world leaders of an alien planet.

A screenshot from Alpha Centauri showing a panel superimposed on the game screen with portraits of the seven leaders, each with a glowing "Yay" "Nay" or "Eliminated" beneath their names; this is the game's diplomacy screen.

All seven of the playable factional/ideological leaders from the original game.

The genius lay in their seduction—every philosophy, be it radical environmentalism, uncompromising scientism, religious fundamentalism, or collectivist authoritarianism, was given a worthy exponent who argued for her or his cause with unparalleled skill. They were credible as world leaders and philosopher monarchs ruling kingdoms that orbited distant suns. They made you believe in their causes—or seriously consider it.

What’s more: they stayed with me. One character in particular would slip under my radar and influence my thinking years after I upgraded my computer beyond any operating system that could run the game without some serious fixing.

Sister Miriam Godwinson, the leader of the Lord’s Believers faction, would be easy to caricature as a malevolent, mad religious zealot who is laughably irrational and mindless. Instead, the writers gave us a character with discomfiting subtlety who forces those of us inclined to the realm of reason to confront what it is about faith that draws so many.

The narrative filaments of the game are thin; you’re building a civilisation, not playing an RPG. But there is a story of technological development that laces through your march down the game’s research tree. As this is a game set in the 22nd century, it’s only a matter of time before you discover AI and nanotechnology, and only a matter of time before these things facilitate rather ugly forms of social control.

It is Miriam Godwinson who pens a work of philosophy entitled “We Must Dissent.” Attending one secret project video, which shows graffiti-painting dissidents being slaughtered by an AI security system, is Godwinson’s stern voice intoning “will we next create false gods to rule over us? How proud we have become, and how blind.” The “zealot” becomes the curious voice of reason in this new age of progress, challenging us technophilic players to wonder at the moral and ethical implications of that inexorable march.

It’s that bit about “false gods” that chimes with an especial resonance, because this game furnishes us with some rather compelling thoughts about faith and divinity.

A video still showing a concrete wall, at night, with "We Must Dissent" spraypainted on it blue paint, the spray can sitting on its side in the foreground.“God” as a metaphor has always fascinated me, and AC plays with this idea with astonishing facility. The planet this game is set on (creatively called “Planet”) is described as an “awakening alien God” because of its psychic native life that act like antibodies to human colonisation, Sister Miriam talks of how “God” was quite a bit more clever than scientists thought, or averring that humanity is trampling in the garden of an angry God.

Miriam speaks literally, of course. As a Christian, she quite literally believes in God. But if you see God as a metaphor her words ring truer than they might otherwise, and suddenly all this talk of God sending Man [sic] forth from the garden of Eden (the quote from Genesis that acts as an epigraph to the game) begins to make a bit more sense.

If one sneaks past Miriam’s literalism to get at the germ of the insights she drops throughout the game, you are treated to a perspectival shift about just what this thing called “society” is and what our universe is relative to the humble efforts of sapient beings. It goes back to an idea I never tire of citing from Martha Nussbaum’s magnum opus, The Fragility of Goodness; the ancient Greek notion of “tuche.”

Tuche, a very distant ancestor of the word “luck”, is a much broader concept than that in the cosmology of Greek antiquity: it essentially means all the grandiose, macro-level forces that bear down on human life but are woefully out of anyone’s control. It is luck, yes, also Fate, but also nature, society, the wrath of the gods, or the crushing weight of historical events in motion. Although techne–as opposed to tuche is used to describe the artefacts of civilsation made by humans, I’ll argue here that society itself is bigger than our technological achievements and acts as a force of nature unto itself.

If we think of Miriam’s “god” as tuche, suddenly her insights can teach you something more interesting than “religious zealots are backward, irrational Luddites.” That stereotype would no doubt be satisfying, but it is nowhere near as memorable (or didactic) as what Miriam ultimately became.

“Men in their arrogance claim to understand the nature of creation, and devise elaborate theories to describe its behavior. But always they discover in the end that God was quite a bit more clever than they thought.”
— Sister Miriam Godwinson“We Must Dissent” 

It’s easy to read this as a neo-creatonist screed; but as a sociologist I found something in this that was all too familiar. Take “creation” as the metaphor it’s often used as (“I looked for her all over creation”), and then consider the long and troubled history that we in both the social and natural sciences have endured as we try to explain what we as human being have wrought. In sociology alone, the unyielding march of theory after theory to try and grasp the totality of civilisation, explain it, and render it predictable, has always been stymied by the way that tuche surprises us, revealing yet one more variable in an already impossibly lugubrious equation. Marxism, functionalism, constructivism, neo-institutionalism, conflict theory, sociobiology, neurosociology, middle-range theory, psychoanalytic theory, structuralism, post-structuralism, and now (Goddess save us all) postmodernism; we try and try so very hard to get it all into one theoretical framework that reveals the mechanics of our world, but our god (society, history, culture, civilisation) is always quite a bit more clever than we had hoped.

Even postmodernism—that cynical reaction to past-failures, an abjuration of our ability to explain matters empirically—is thwarted by society’s continued, insistent existence and its halting explicability. There’s always enough we can explain through a gesture to “social structure,” enough to make a mockery of mircological cynicism—but never enough to satisfy the grand theoretical projects that are every social scientist’s wet dream.

All of these thoughts, and quite a few more than I have space to explore here, were sired by a few lines from a game I played when I was fifteen years old. Such thoughts come about because each voiced character was given a personality that not only transcended stereotypes but also challenged them; it forced little-me to confront the fact that I could learn something from people I disagreed with—things that neither they nor I would have expected.

In this way of looking at things “Miriam’s god,” referenced in her various quotes, is a heady combination of everything that humans, in our herculean individualist mode, cannot control: the undulating tides of society, the totality of nature, the screaming silence of the universe (“is nothingness any less a miracle than substance?”). And from that perspective comes a kind of reverence that anyone, from atheists to the devout, could appreciate.

**

From the delicate strands,
between minds we weave our mesh:
a blanket to warm the soul.

–Lady Deidre Skye, “The Collected Poems”

Four organic towers, each with synthetic discs jutting out up and down the length of the natural skyscrapers in a step-like pattern, set against a glowing orange sky and sunset.

Artwork of a Gaian City, from the game.

I never played the Believers, I either played as the Peacekeepers (liberal democrats), or the Gaians (ecological democrats); the latter being led by Deidre Skye. As I grew older, her thoughts on society were of more than a little interest as well. Her poem, cited here, is about a telepathic matrix—technology that allows for direct communication between human minds. But once again, metaphor serves us well; the poem can be read as a description of community at its best. The game taught me to go beyond the literal and identify the thoughts (”our mesh,” perhaps) that underlay a variety of different ideas, and how to find precious perspicacity amidst the small world of my adolescence, all in what looked to my parents like some silly video game with unusually good voice acting.

You can do a lot with a world that avoids easy stereotypes or cardboard cutouts. You can grace the nimbus of art’s highest purposes, no matter its genre or medium, and realise you are flying.

Eternity lies ahead of us, and behind. Have you drunk your fill?

— Lady Deirdre Skye, “Conversations With Planet”, Epilogue

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Comments

  1. Carol Saint-Clair says:

    An important message well explained. I enjoyed your writing. Thank you!

  2. Well now I’m going to have to get this game. This post might have to join my collection of touchstones, thank you!

  3. Probably my favorite quote from Miriam was for the Bulk Matter transmitter, where she points out that while physical matter may be disassembled and reassembled through the transmitter, there is no way of knowing if the same can be said for one’s “soul”, or personal identity. It’s a pretty eye-opening thought, and one which makes discomfiting how the other faction leaders are content to ignore such questions.

  4. “Beware of he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart he dreams himself your master” – Pravin Lal. That stuck with me throughout my life, and matters now more than ever. It’s astonishing to think of how intelligent this game was, and what it achieved in a genre that typically abandons all sense of story.

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