This is the fifth list in a series of list which is about the serious interpretation of video games. So far we've covered politics, sociology, psychology, and morality. Now it's time for number five: Philosophy.

Philosophy is unrepeatable from arts. You can be a good philosopher without being a good writer, but you can't be a good writer without being a good philosopher. No art is purely aesthetic, and there's a message, a philosophy, behind each great work of art. Literature is philosophy in motion, philosophy shown, rather than philosophy argued. The two have always influenced each other.

Philosophy has influenced literature. Many schools of art are rooted in a philosophy. Neoclassicism was shaped by the humanism of its time, and the philosophical outlook of Great Chain of Being. Existentialism is both a philosophical and a literary movement. Naturalism was based in 19th century outlook on Darwinism. Samuel Beckett was a disciple of the philosopher George Berkley.

But the other way around is also true. Nietzsche was deeply influenced by Greek tragedy, and they shaped his ideas a lot. So were Schopenhauer and Kant, who were influenced by the works of art.

Video games are very young, and we have yet to see how they will be viewed in comparison with philosophy. But let's make some educated guesses, shall we? Here are ten games that are deeply philosophical.

Let's begin with SaGa Frontier. Right off the bat, I have to confess that I wasn't sure where to put this game. Does it belong to the moral list? Religious? Emotional? None of those naturally. So I put it in philosophical list, although I can't connect it to any specific philosophical school or a few philosophers have discussed death as their main subject. I'm putting it in the philosophical list because the game is thought provoking and deep and it can be called a philosophical game easily.

Death is an important subject; many people think about it extensively. It's present in all literature, and some great poets like John Keats and Sylvia Plath have created volumes about it. It's sometimes about the fear of death, but more often, about accepting the death of you loved ones or yourself and coping with the fact. SaGa Frontier has the same theme. There are seven scenarios in the game, two of which deal closely with death.

Red is a teenage boy whose father is killed by a criminal syndicate. He turns into a super hero to avenge him, and after destroying them, he loses his powers. Why this is philosophical, and not a mere revenge story? Because at the end we know that he can never live normally, and he struggles for the rest of his life. What makes this story deep is the fact that the concept of death is always present, and is pondered upon deeply.

But even deeper is the story of Riki. He wants to save his homeland, because he perceives a notion of immortality in one's hometown. But the price he pays is high: he destroys almost everyone he holds dear during the process. This story has an existentialist hint in it. It's about not trying to seek false immortality and trying to live as life is.

Why I didn't put this in the previous list? Well, ethics is an important branch of philosophy. If you allow me a crude generalization, there are two views on how morality works among philosophers. The first group say that moral rules are absolute and we should discover them, or we already know them. The second view point believes in relative morality. Moral rules are constructed, and they change; what's moral in some situation, might be immoral in another. In into, I called literature "a philosophy in motion". Well, Valkyrie Profile is "moral relativism in motion".

Lenneth, the main protagonist of the game, is on a mission by gods. In order to fulfill her mission, at a point, she has to sacrifice her friends, and she has the ability to travel in time and watch the deeds of her alter-ego. The conflict that she's trapped in is not a conflict between good and evil, morality or interest, but conflicting moral values each equally good- she's in a no-win situation. There are many games that one can applaud for their gray morality- Heavy Rain, Fallout, The Witcher, for example- but what makes Valkyrie Profile so special is not the fact that it's about the different shades of good- but rather, the impossibility of a truly moral endeavor.

Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are two great famous philosophers who disagree on an important topic: the human nature. Hobbes believes that humans are by nature "nasty", and natural state is a state of a war of all against all. A strong, big government is needed to suppress this and if people are too free, they begin acting wild. So, to Hobbes, human beings are evil by nature. This view is also shared by Bertrand Russell, who was unlike Hobbes a liberal. Rousseau stands on the other extreme: natural state is the best possible state. Humans are inherently good, and the only evil is the civilization which corrupts people. So we need a return to primitiveness, a return to the original humanity. If you leave a baby it will naturally grow into a moral human being. There are philosophers who stand in between, for example John Locke believed that although human beings are savage by nature they have the ability to form societies and make rules to suppress their savage self. However, what I'm saying is that human nature is an important topic in philosophy.

Live A Live creators seem to agree with Hobbes and Russell. There nine chapters in the game, first seven can be played in any order, and then chapters 8 and 9 are unlocked. The game follows through all the history, following from prehistoric times, to ancient China, feudal Japan, American Old West, and the future. In all of these chapters one thing is predominant, war, senseless war, human lust for blood, and blind and naked violence. Nothing seems to bring hope; it ends with murder or apocalypse, there is no right choice. Humanity is savage and always will be. The true face of human nature is ugly.

Live A Live is a very deep game. It can be viewed from many perspectives, and it's a never-dying masterpiece. On a personal note, I dislike Hobbes. I love Russell, but I dislike his pessimism and determinism. Then why, I love Live A Live so deeply?

Because a work of art can force you to acknowledge the depth and power of an idea you disagree with so powerfully no logician or philosopher can.

Utilitarianism is a school of thought which believes that the moral worth of an action is determined by how that action affects the society or humanity as a whole. If the action causes harm to more people than it benefits, it's wrong, and if it benefits more people than it harms it's right. So, their motto is "the greatest happiness of the greatest numbers", they're always looking forward to serve the collective. Utilitarianism is a noble ideology, and it always goes hand in hand with democracy. The most important proponent of this ideology is Jeremy Bentham, and I consider myself his fan. But there's an undeniable fault to it, that it ignores the rights of the minority. Claude Adrien Helvétius is a radical Utilitarianist whose ideas are very radical, and the result is frightening. The main antagonist of Bioshock 2 is Sofia Lamb, another radical Utilitarianist, and the game tries to show the possible evils of Utilitarianism.

What she aims at is the happiness of most people. She believes that what she does will ultimately benefit more people than it harms. She knows that the events of the previous game have brought unhappiness to the people of rapture and she seeks to end this situation. She uses her own daughter as a test subject, and she finds this an action of altruism, working for common good with no regard of personal gain, and she wants to create an intellect who's selfless and has no regards for individual interest, but only considers the majority of people when acts. She uses large doses of ADAM but the experiment goes wrong, and she realizes that she can experiment only on her own daughter. So she does that. But since every other act is justified to reach this goal, she ignores personal rights of her daughter, tries to kill you as you save her, and sacrifices many poor lives. Utilitarianism gone wrong.

At the end, John Stuart Mill, a disciple of Bentham, contributed the most important amendment to Utilitarianism. Mill hold not only the rights of majority important, but also the minority, turning it into the greatest intellectual achievement of humanity, liberalism.

Playing Xenogears was a very strange experience. The game seems to incorporate the religious mystical philosophy of Plotinus and his followers, Neoplatonism. They considered themselves the followers of Plato, but in fact their philosophy was a unique interpretation of Plato's ideas, independent in many aspects. The main goal of the group was to reconcile Greek philosophy and Christian theology. It's a form of theistic monism (to hold that the universe is actually one). The One is the central godlike figure which encompasses the whole universe and all that is good comes from Him, and everything is united with him. The One throws out what they called nous. It's a much disputed word, but let's say it's something like spirit, but a spirit which includes spirituality and rationalism at the same time. It's also the source of our being. So our nous (our being, spirituality, and rationality) stems from The One. (And it is immaterial). Our goal, in short, is to surpass our material low self and enrich our nous, in order to be united with nous, and therfore with The One. So, it's a form of mysticism.

What about Xenogears? A science fiction RPG which seems to be based on Neoplatonism. I will mention the similarities and you decide for yourself. In the game, there's a mysterious power called Deus. Deus is the Greek word for God. Our heroes believe that they are a part of Deus and one they they should rejoin it. To be short, Deus is the same as The One. Our heroes venture upon a journey to create Deus once more, but later, they find out that it's actually a constructed machine with no noble goals. So, if I have to tell the plot of the story in philosophical terms, it would be "Some people set out to find the truth about find out it's wrong.

There are more evidences: The name reminds us of Xenophanes, the Greek philosopher who said "Humankind creates God's image in his mind". And this is the plot of the game, we create Deus (God). There are references to Nietzsche, who said god is dead. There are references to Freud and Lacan. The game is heavily philosophical, dealing with many schools and it seems to be deeply atheistic. But it seems the main framework is that of the Neoplatonism which is ultimately rejected.

Objectivism is a philosophy explained by the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand. The basic tenets of this system is that reality exists outside our consciousness, and we come in contact with it with our senses, and we can understand reality using deductive and inductive reasoning. So far,, nothing new. She also adds an ethical part to her doctrine: The aim of each individual is to pursuit the rational self-interest of himself or herself. We don't have any other goal. This leads to a capitalist society with a laissez faire economy. Her ideas are in fact, the radical capitalism. Her novel, Atlas Shrugged, shows how evil it is for the government to interfere with innovation and industry and we should leave people alone. You can call atlas Shrugged "Capitalism Manifesto". Her ideas, like the system she supports, have some merits that come with some problems. Bioshock is ready to point out the problems.

The main antagonist of the game is called Andrew Ryan. Even his name is a hint to the philosophy he represents. Andrew Ryan, Ayn Rand, Ayn Rand, Andrew Ryan.... see the similarity? However, he has created the Rapture as capitalist paradise: in his city (which is built under the sea), a city free from religion, socialism, communism, and altruism, the four evils who want to tamper the individual. He believes that economy unites all people, and a free market society in which every man is entitled to the fruit of his labor is the ideal society. So he has created the ideal society. Then Rapture hits the fan.

A substance called ADAM is discovered, which can be used to mutate people and give them power. People, unregulated by nothing but self-interest, mutate themselves so much that they turn into zombies and the city is brought down to hell. Ryan does every crime to keep his city intact. And then he also creates a cult of personality for himself. He has become a dictator. Dostoevsky says that you begin by absolute liberty but end up with absolute tyranny. The same happens to Ryan.

Bioshock has a point. Capitalism and Socialism can't work in their crude forms. Both suffer from deep problems. We need to find a middle ground.

Silent Hill games are mostly analyzed from the psychological perspective- they had three entries in our third list, the psychological one. But I think the games also lend themselves into philosophical analysis easily. Epistemology is a branch of philosophy which studies the nature and the limitations of human understanding and knowledge. So it's an endeavor to understand understanding itself, to know knowledge itself. The basic question is "How do we know what we know?" This branch is vast, but one particular question which interests all philosophers and artists is that how can we be sure that our understanding is accurate, it doesn't manipulate the reality. It's a bold question, because it questions our all knowledge. This is closely connected with psychology, so in a work of art which puts us in the mind of a lunatic, this issue is inevitably raised: How accurate is our understanding?

In the works of art this leads to some greater, deeper, works: To me, Mulholland Drive is mainly a philosophical movie, not a psychological one. You just have to take the psychological question of sanity and go further with it, and then you have an epistemological problem questioning human understanding.

Silent Hill games do that. They choose troubled individuals and make clear that the demonic world we see is a mental image and the monsters are the manifestations of the fears and torments of people. So, in the game, the line between reality and mind is blurred, and any certainty of the validity of our knowledge is denied. In the first and fourth game, we are trapped in somebody else's mind, (Alessa and Walter), and the game asks a very existential questions: Can the way other people perceive us change our lives? When others perceive us, do they trap us in their nightmares? Are we bound by other people's precision? Sartre says: Hell is other people. He means we're continually perceived and understood by others, and this shapes and manipulates our self-awareness, our lifestyle. In the first and fourth Silent Hill, our path is shaped by other people's madness.

In Silent Hill 2 and Shattered Memories we are watching the reality from a distorted mind, therefore these games are more psychological. However, the question is back with a vengeance in Silent Hill 3. Heather is a normal girl who undergoes normal crises- as I've said before, I think this game is about adolescence, and is full of rape and abortion symbolism. However, we see how Heather's precision manipulates the real world. The line is blurred again, but this time subtly, so subtly that most gamers don't recognize that when they play the game. Instead of being openly symbolic the game hides its symbolism under a facade of a simple scary tale, and therefore it's deeper and more philosophical- because it's closer to reality, and yet it questions it.

There's a newspaper in a metro station which talks about how a person fell under the train and died. When you go to the spot where he was killed, his ghost comes and pushes you on the rails, and you have a short time to run before being squashed by the train. Normal scary games stuff, eh? No. If you fail to notice and read the newspaper, the ghost won't appear. It won't appear if Heather doesn't know about it beforehand. What does that tell you? The game is full of such scenes.

Existentialism is hard to explain in such a short piece. It's very complex, it doesn't have a rally slogan like other schools, and the individual philosophers such as Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche or Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir, and artists such as Dostoevsky, Herman Hesse and Kafka differ a lot. Existentialism is an attitude, rather than a system of organized ideas, it's lifestyle. You have to get acquainted with it. There many great introductory texts about them. Unlike many other schools of philosophy, Existentialism can directly affect you and make your life better.

But here I'd like to mention one seminal work by Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus. He compares the situation of humanity to Sisyphus. He had disobeyed gods, and therefore he was condemned to spend eternity in an absurd punishment: everyday he had to push a boulder up to the top of a mountain but the boulder would roll down again. His situation was absurd, and so is ours. We live in a godless universe. (notice that by godless Camus doesn't mean only god as in the creator, but any external source of meaning- Likewise when Nietzsche says "God is dead" he doesn't mean "Yahweh had a heart attack", he means "every transcendental reference is dead). So our life is absurd and meaningless. What should we do? Commit suicide? Camus' answer is no. We have to revolt. We rebel against the world, and the struggle itself makes us happy. "The struggle enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

So, let's take a look at Planescape: Torment. An AD&D RPG game, is a cult classic masterpiece which is a true example of why video games are no inferior to literature or cinema. Mainly story driven- battle is less important. The story is about a hero called The Nameless One. He is an immortal. He has died and reincarnated many times but has forgotten about his past lives, he can't even remember his own name. Now he has to travel through the tormented planes and reclaim his memories.

The Nameless One is trapped in an absurd situation. As we play on with the game we think deeply about what it means to have an identity, to belong, even on what constitutes the "self", and there's no ultimate answer to this question. The gods of Sigil are dead. There's no meaning, and everything is absurd. But we realize that the Nameless One is achieving personal redemption by his very struggle and fight to create meaning out of the absurd situation he's trapped in.

This game is clearly an Existentialist game, and it's a masterpiece. Play it if you haven't.

This game seems to be a contemplation on the nature of ideology itself. The story is very deep and you can't summarize it in a short entry such as this one. In short, the game seems to examine how different ideas war to prove themselves worthy of being the basis for a good world, but at the very end; none of them are enough. The game seems to question why should we limit ourselves to a certain ideology. The game is against simplification and generalization, and seem to ask the player to keep an open mind.

The world is destroyed, and now the gamer is supposed to rebuild it with one of the many ideologies that are presented in the game. The gamer's choice determines how the scenario will play out- because the main hero is a blank state with no idea and no personality, and the gamer is free to build his ideology from scratch. There are many ideologies present in the game. Shijima is close to monism, which asks for a unity of all world and asks for a spiritual understanding. Musubi is heavily reminiscent of Descartes and solipsism, and seems to advocate private rationalism. Yosuga is a form of elitism and social Darwinism.

So, which one is preferred at the end? As the gamer, you have the choice to defy each of these simplistic ideologies and restore the world as it was, and I think that was what the creators had in mind. The game tries to say that the world is beautiful in its complexity, and no simple close minded ideology can grasp it.

And now we come to our number one. I could've easily called the previous entry "The philosophical game" as well, but no- This game is much deeper, much more complex, it's one of the rarest events in gaming history. It's certainly the best Final Fantasy which has been made- and easily one of the top three games ever created. You could write a book about this game. It's a miracle which gives away new meanings as you come back to it.

Final Fantasy Tactics takes place in a medieval kingdom called Ivalice. The plot follows Ramza Beoulve, a noble cadet who's caught- against his will- in midst of a military conflict between two noble families for the crown called The Lion War. As the story goes on, he allies himself with many characters and discovers that there's a sinister conspiracy behind this war.

There are many different characters in the game. All of these characters are deep and they have their own personal philosophies of their own. I could put this game in the political list- but it's not mainly political. The game is not mainly about plots and corruption and power plays, but about the clash of ideas. If you let me compare this game to entry 2 (SMT3: N), they both are similar in that they both represent many different ideologies which clash. Both of them refuse to take sides. I've read many different interpretations of this game, and all seem to think one character is favored. But this is not the case. The game itself is disinterested. The game stands aside and lets the plausible characters take the stage and present their case at its best.

Which takes us to the difference between these games: the varied ideologies in this game are not simple and crude, but sophisticated and deep. They all have their advantages and disadvantages, and although none of them are complete, all of them are true in one aspect, and from a specific perspective. So if I'm forced to choose one specific attitude for the game it's pluralistic: the game embraces all differences and accepts that we all have a share of truth.

Ramza Beoulve is a free spirited heretic, his free-thinking attitude is symbolized in him being a mercenary- belonging to no creed, just a man of himself. Delita Hyral, another major character, is a commoner who has turned into a hero, and his ideas clearly represent those of a democrat. There are also many supporting characters who represent social Darwinism, aristocracy, etc. There are tons of characters and tons of ideas.

Just a random point: If I have to select the top 10 RPGs of all times, the first one is this. The second one would be Vagrant Story, which takes place in the same universe.

In short, if they ever asked you why video games are as important as literature or cinema, bring one reason: Final Fantasy Tactics.

Well, this is it. I have to confess: this was the hardest list to create. Making the choices was tough, cutting them down to ten tougher, and writing them the toughest. I doubt any of the future lists will be as challenging as this one. I hope you enjoyed it.

Again, MotherKojiro. I need to thank him again, for he suggested 4 of the games on this list, numbers 10, 9, 8, and 2. Of course, I originally intended to put number 2 in the list.

Coming up!
Now we have done half of the list, and half remains! Next up is "The Top 10 Games Which Deal with Important Religious Issues". Take care!

List by Nazifpour (02/15/2011)

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