I like Bravely Default, just, like, a heck of a gosh-darn lot. It’s a throwback to the days when Final Fantasy was good, but it also strives to be its own thing, and it succeeds spectacularly. It marks a return to the resource-draining, dungeon-crawling gameplay that made the older FFs so compelling, but you can turn off random encounters and b-line to the boss if that isn’t your thing. The combat is also the finest I’ve seen in a turn-based game since Radiant Historia, an intricate web of customizable stats and play mechanics that begs you to exploit it. That said, I sometimes get the impression that the game isn’t so fond of me.
Bravely Default presents itself as a solid, straightforward tale of good versus evil (although there’s a lot going on beneath the surface). A team of four plucky youngsters square off against an empire of cartoon baddies in a bid to save the world. What troubles me is that our four plucky youngsters are effectively religious missionaries, while the cartoonishly evil antagonists are all atheist strawmen.
Now, even as I say that, I’m aware that I probably sound like yet another easily offended, obsessively progressive, whiney atheist. I am, but I also think I have a pretty strong case here. The primary antagonistic force for the majority of the game is the Duchy of Eternia, a scientifically advanced nation founded on the principles of “Anti-Crystalism” that seems to have ambitions of global conquest. The “Crystal Orthodoxy” is a religion devoted to the worship of the ancient elemental crystals that serve as the lynchpins of the world because Final Fantasy. Anti-Crystalism, as the name suggests, is a movement devoted to ending the worship of the crystals (by any means necessary) and putting humanity on a more pragmatic, progressive path. This naturally results in several disasters and untold suffering.
The various Anti-Crystalist bosses commit atrocity after atrocity, enslaving children to work in mines, indiscriminately massacring thousands with chemical weapons, and using drugs to coerce women, all while ranting fanatically about “progress.” They do this in a world where the “gods” they’re railing against aren’t just readily apparent, they’re actually physically there for you to go visit at any time. If you asked Glen Beck to write a show where militant atheists take over the world, it would be more even-handed than this.
Of course, this is by the writer of Steins;Gate, so there’s more to it than meets the eye. You later learn that Anti-Crystalism was founded for damn good reason, that the Crystal Orthodoxy has seen its share of corruption. One of the core themes of the game is that any ideal can be twisted to vile ends. That said, this doesn’t change the fact that many of these characters are real monsters, and the game inextricably ties the moments they stopped having faith to the moments they stopped being human. You could argue that the game is just cynical – after all, it’s written by a famous visual novel author – but the parallels to atheist stereotypes are too numerous to just dismiss out of hand.
Now, the answer to my attention-whoring title is probably no. I doubt that Naotaka Hayashi or anyone on the Bravely Default team has it out for atheists. Rather, I think the game is playing on pervasive misconceptions about atheism and secular philosophy that happen to be engrained in the cultural zeitgeist. Whether the game is using these stereotypes to make its villains more superficially believable or to set up a clever subversion down the line doesn’t particularly matter. My chief concern is that both of those narrative tricks are likely to work.
Atheists in general have a massive problem with PR. Openly declaring your atheism is tantamount to political suicide for a candidate in the United States, and in certain parts of the bible belt being outspoken about it can be close to actual suicide. That’s due in part to many of us being abrasive and oversensitive – and this article might not be helping that – but the lion’s share of the problem is a result of widespread misconceptions. There’s a general notion that we hate god (when to us that’s like hating Voldemort), that we’re angry at the world, and that we’re driven by our own selfish ambitions. While that’s true of some of us (as it is of all people), our philosophy (or lack thereof) leads to a deep appreciation of this one world we get to live in, and many of us are generous because it just feels good to give.
By reframing the ambitions of its Captain-Planet-caliber villains from destroying the environment to destroying god, Bravely Default serves to highlight the absurdity of these stereotypes. I can’t say whether this was intentional or not – this is, after all, a game where half the punchlines are “ogling women is funny” (and I say that as a staunch anti-feminist) – but either way it serves as a solid jumping-off point. Actually, all games are exciting from a theological perspective, because they present worlds with objectively creators. The contrast between these worlds and the one we live in is part of what lead me to my current philosophical standpoint, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Regardless of whether it’s down with my worldview, Bravely Default is a strong early contender for my game of the year. It’s a hell of a lot of fun to play, and the world and characters are really enjoyable. I also love any game that gets me thinking – be it about clever strategies and character builds, or topics like this.