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Premature Evaluation: Crest

Lord it up

Each week Marsh Davies brings a rain of fire upon the Sodom ‘n’ Gomorrah that is Early Access and comes back with any stories he can find and/or succumbs to the sordid pleasures therein. This week he fixes a puritanical eye upon the hapless hedonists of Crest, a god game in which your only interaction is to set a list of commandments and hope the humans heed your Word.

The god of Godus was less Jupiter than janitor, a god whose entire divine being was dedicated not to righteousness but to relentless menial labour. Crest’s god, by contrast, has a bit more responsibility, being required to describe an entire moral framework with a few judicious instructions. Though, that’s not to say your chosen people won’t find your religious writs open to some degree of interpretation. 180 degrees, in fact. Tell them to seek food and look after the elderly and, a few generations later, the tribe is waging a xenocide on gazelles and dancing until they drop dead.

Describing Moses returning from his chinwag with God on mount Sinai, Jerome writes that “his face was horned from the conversation of the Lord”. But the word “horned” here is a tricky one, and made even more so by the fact the original Hebrew is written without vowels. There the letters “KRN” are used, forming a root word from which multiple but related connotations can derive with the addition of vowels - though which vowels and which meaning is intended is a matter of context. Each possible meaning nonetheless suggests some sort of projection. It can refer to an animal’s horns, but, perhaps more aptly, it also comes to imply radiance. A light ray, projected from a point, is not unlike a horn, after all. Indeed, its usage in this sense remains in modern Hebrew today, in cathode ray tubes and x-rays alike, and even has connotations in the financial world as a source of power or capital. It can refer to the little handles on the side of the altar that you could grab to claim sanctuary, or even, figuratively, the “increasing majesty” of a princely line. All things that are little at the start and flare out.

You have to forgive some of their transgressions: your edicts are rather ambiguous, after all - described by a limited grammar that allows you to combine a scant few symbols in a “if [subject] then [verb] [object]” relationship. The tutorial limits this even further: the only subjects at my disposal are “desert” and “unhappy people”; the only verbs “prioritise” and “de-prioritise”; the only objects “young people” and “metal”. I don’t really understand why the tutorial has picked these particular things, or, indeed, what possible relationship desert dwelling people have with metal in general. Are they dead keen on it? What can I use metal for in this game? I am not an omniscient god, alas.

I figure a sensible thing might be to suggest that they move to somewhere which isn’t a desert, but, since this isn’t an option, I suggest that unhappy people prioritise metal. I assume this means I am instructing them to go and acquire some - thus generating a useful by-product from their misery. At least it gets them out the house, you know?

Most scholars now agree that the sense intended by the original Hebrew is that of radiance, specifically of light. It is followed by a word which, while it means surface or skin in the written text, is a homophone for the word for light. Given that this text was meant to be read aloud, it seems likely that the meaning of projecting light was intentional. Maybe Jerome was just a bit tired that day, but there are reasons to think he wasn’t being a total doofus in his choice of interpretation: this is the only instance in which he translates KRN to mean horned, suggesting he was aware of the other, probably more apt, connotations and chose this regardless. It might be that the Latin word he used, cornuta, had some particular allusion that was more obvious at the time. It’s unlikely he intended it to be read literally, and certainly not derogatorily, instead implying that Moses had been adorned or glorified in some way. It seems peculiar now, but many grandiose figures throughout history were described as having horns as a symbol of their power, Alexander the Great and Attila the Hun among them. Horned helmets might be worn by kings and priests alike. But regardless of the intent, a more literal interpretation of Jerome’s words began to take hold in the later medieval period, when the association between demonic imagery and bestial horns had also been established. And thus we have that persisting racist caricature of the horned Jew.

The tutorial ends and I find that I am now able to send out a much broader range of commandments, with subjects and objects picked from the following: desert, savannah, woodland, gazelle, lion, old people, young people, unhappy people, happy people, starving people, overfed people, and, according to the tool-tip “a period when followers are born”. I don’t know if this refers to the circumstances which permit procreation, or simply post-natal care. In any case, it’s moot, as none of my proclamations seem to have really the slightest predictable effect.

I get a few new verbs, too: I can now get my followers to perform or not perform things (though I am unclear on the distinction between this and prioritising things), and also to move toward or avoid things. I suggest that if they live in the desert they move to wherever food is. Nothing appreciable happens. I suggest that if they’re hungry, they get food. Nothing happens. I suggest if they’re unhappy, they get food. Someone dies of starvation. I suggest they move to where the gazelles are. The population grows a little, and people cease to be truly miserable, but nobody is really happy either and nobody has moved. Some people die of old age. Women seem to be transferring vegetables between the houses for unknown purposes. The men go off to dance by a hillside. I wish for a Great Flood button.

Such derogation is almost always a convenience to someone: no one looked at Jerome’s translation and suddenly thought, “Gosh, we better hate the Jews now!” They found room within the bible’s ambiguity to bolster their own existing prejudices. Misinterpretations are always opportunities for reinterpretation, allowing the powerful or would-be powerful to work their own agenda. Just look at the colossal amount of decapitations, burnings, warfare and turmoil that occurred as a result of the Reformation: a squabble among people who still believed in the same god, yet who, by strange coincidence, each preferred the interpretation of the bible that gave them power and not the other. The schism with Rome permitted Henry VIII to establish himself as the head of the church and divorce his wife, while the insistence of Rome that translation of the bible into English was heretical permitted speakers of Latin exclusive power over its interpretation. Many Protestants were made when they were able to read the bible for themselves and found, curiously, no mention within of the priests or churches which held such sway over their lives.

Commandments have a time-limit to them and eventually disappear into the tribe’s ancestral memory. You can always add more, though, and even use the same ones again, though to what end remains unclear. Thought bubbles above your tribespeople indicate their current obsessions, though these are just as ambiguous as your own statements. I think the vegetable women are prioritising the elderly because they have enough food for themselves. That’s nice. However, no one is having sex, despite multiple commandments that might encourage them to do so. Eventually, the entire tribe dies of old age, except for one enterprising spirit - the only one who seems to have heeded my multiple commandments about not living in a bloody desert. He has moved to the woodland, and founded a new village of one, where he resolutely fails to find any of the food that is in abundance there. Instead, he travels half the span of the continent to dig holes in the desert ground. I issue commands to ignore metal if you are starving and to prioritise food, but still he goes out - a young man, a lonely man, a very hungry man, tormented by, I can only presume, the legacy of my very first commandment. And soon he is a dead man, albeit one surrounded by a large amount of metal. My legacy as a god is finished.

The other creatures on this island have had a similarly torrid time, I note: the lions are all gone, and the gazelles have retreated to a small pocket of woodland on a distant prominentary. My people’s houses crumble and nothing is left of the civilisation that once stood there. Best thing for them, really, the idiots.

In fact, it’s hard to think of that many guileless misinterpretations of religious writ that have not resulted in one group or another seeking advantage. I welcome your suggestions in the comments. I’ve come up with just two, and, oddly, they both involve that most controversial of spiritual matters: beans.

Starvation in a desert is, however, preferable to what happens to the second tribe I attempt to chaperone to nirvana. They have a pretty good start, I would say, founding a village below a mountain, with a jungle fed by streams on one side and a savannah on the other, running down to the shore. Gazelles gambol and prance in the woodlands and my people have plenty of food. Naturally, I begin with a really very sensible set of commandments: if overfed, prioritise making babies. If overfed, find metal. If underfed, find food. This seems to cover the basics for population growth, population wealth and survival, I think. I throw in a cheeky one: if unhappy, be happy. Perhaps it is this deeply felt contradiction that eventually drives them all to the extremes of violent insanity they later endure.

Things go well to begin with, however, and new houses are erected around the village as the population swells. It does not distribute its food equally: some are starving while others prosper. I am not a god to suffer a wealth gap, so I throw in a few countermeasures in the hope that the overfed will pass on their excess to the underfed. At least, that’s what I hope I am saying.

Things tick along. Tribespeople die of old age and their houses instantly crumble - which is weird since I thought houses contained more than one person. In fact, the scale of the game’s abstraction is unclear in general, and what people are doing and why continues to be a great mystery to me, their god. There is a good deal of dancing down on the beach, even though I’ve never asked for this. Several of the dancers keel over and die, mid-jig, but generally people seem quite cheerful. Nonetheless, one guy ups sticks and leaves, never to return, insteading travelling the entire continent, circumventing the giant mountain range at its centre, to plant his tent in the middle of the desert on the very opposite side of the world.

What a madman, I think. But perhaps he just saw what was coming.

Jewish tradition at Passover forbids the consumption of leavened bread in deference to the ancestral flight from Egypt which occurred in such a hurry that, it is famously said, the bread was given no time to rise. However, there persists a controversy today about whether beans are also forbidden at this time, a confusion resulting from the very respected medieval Rabbi Joseph Caro’s reticence to distinguish pulses from grains (though there is some suggestion this was not mere error, but rather because he felt it was easy to confuse or mix the two and so it was better to play it safe). Whether such a flat ban on legumes and rice, alongside the other forbidden grains, should still exist today is a matter of some vibrant debate. Manufacturers of kosher laxative celebrate in the meantime.

It’s not clear exactly what triggers it. I try to put people to work, to curb some of the ridiculous dancing. If you’re happy, I say, get metal. Get food. And then if you have loads of food, “perform underfed”, by which I mean, feed the needy. And if you’re needy, “perform food”. What I don’t say, but what people then in fact do, is eat each other. They just saunter over to a neighbour’s house, pull out a baby and devour it. Cannibalism, in a very literal sense, eats my civilisation from within. Pretty soon there are only two houses left. Luckily, my commandments have expired, so I plug in a new one, designed to satiate their desire for flesh. If hungry perform gazelle. And so they do, the two remaining old ladies of the village, making the long trek to the woodland to where the remaining gazelle have migrated in the years since the original founding. They both spear a beast, but one lady collapses from starvation before she can get her haul back to the village. I’m not sure why she didn’t just eat it on route.

The other returns home but then promptly packs up her house, slings her belongings in a sack, and starts to walk. She heads back, past the gazelle, round the great mountain at the island’s centre, and toward the desert where a single elderly man mines metal and goes without meals. I wonder if she’s looking for one last snack. But, instead, she puts up a tent. Companionship in old age, perhaps. She goes on one final hunt but never makes it home. The old man dies, too, leaving the continent to the gazelle.

The 5th century BC philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras also vehemently discouraged his followers from eating or even touching beans. There’s even a story of him interceding to prevent a cow eating beans. The guy really hated beans! Though no clear reason was given by the man himself, it seems, later unreliable voices were keen to explain his antipathy, providing a litany of the bean’s remarkable sins. It’s because beans resemble genitals, say some. It’s because beans disrupt your concentration by causing you to fart. More recently, some have suggested that Pythagoras suffered from favism, a hereditary disease most prevalent in the Mediterranean, which would make him intolerant of a substance found in beans - to the point that its pollen alone could cause fever and, in extreme cases, death. There’s also the suggestion that Pythagoras believed fava beans were a conduit by which the souls of the dead were reincarnated. He may even have died because of his hatred of beans: one story (among several) says that he surrendered his life to assassins rather than flee through a bean field. Clearly, no one really understands Pythagoras’s prohibition on beans, and yet people were willing to deny themselves this food on his advice for some centuries to come. I’m not sure what the moral of this is. People will believe any old shit, it seems. But really, Pythagoras is the anomaly: what the vast majority of religious reinterpretation suggests is that, when given a choice, people tend to believe in what benefits them.

Crest’s ambition is a good and interesting one: to create a systemic god-game around manipulating an AI’s programmatic grammar, and it did give me two procedural stories I am glad to have had - albeit within parameters that I now feel I have largely explored. Did Crest say much about the evolution of religion, as is the game’s stated goal? I’m not sure. Certainly, as my settlers gnawed each other’s bones, I can admit things did not fall out as I had hoped: but any narrative of corrupted intentions is somewhat lost amid the general ambiguity of how those intentions are expressed in the first place. I don’t think it has much to say about or compare with religions which have annunciated very specific, clearly articulated dictums that are then deployed very selectively by the religion's modern adherents to pursue the agenda of power or persecution. Crest offers too opaque a process to really see your agency at work, or even detect when it has been perverted. Sometimes, in fact, it feels like you aren’t even really there - which may be more of an excoriating statement about God than the game intends.

Crest is available from Steam for £4. I played the version with the Build ID 730414 on 13/08/2015. It’s planned to be in Early Access until December, with a number of additions to it over that time, including more symbols to allow for more commandments - though the implementation of these may be dependent on the funding they receive in the interim.

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Marsh Davies