March 28, 2015

Final Fantasy XIII Lightning Returns Is Plato’s Euthyphro Dilemma In Drag

Having reached the end of the road in the third installment of the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy, requiring 150+ hours of game play over a four year period to climb the highest levels of power in creation and culminate in a conclusion to the series, I’m struck how the entire thing is really a well-done repackaging of Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma.  It forces the player to answer a question that everyone should decide for themselves, whether religious or agnostic, atheist or Pastafarian, if they seek to know their own heart; to uncover the unspoken, hidden internal assumptions they carry around with them about the nature of good and evil.

In case it’s been awhile since you delved into the classics, the philosopher’s famous question posed in Greece more than 2,300 years ago can be summed up as (made singular since a majority of world religions are now monotheistic):

Is something “good” because God says it is good, making it dependent upon His will?or

Does God say something is “good” because it is inherently “right”, making goodness independent of His will?

Before you read any further, please note that this post contains spoilers about the game series.  If you have plans on someday playing it, you might want to turn back now.

The God of Light and the Savior of Souls

In the third installment of the game, Bhunivelze, God of Light and creator of the universe, has awoken from a long slumber.  Due to a series of events that occurred with one of his created children, the goddess Etro, the world is being consumed by chaos and there are only twelve days remaining until the final, thirteenth day when it will cease to exist.  Creation has been reduced to a small landmass where the surviving members of humanity have lived for 500+ years, never aging but still being struck down with disease and accidents.

Final Fantasy 13 World Map

With twelve full days remaining before the final, thirteenth day, this is all that remains of creation as the Chaos rolls in, consuming everything.

While there is nothing He can do to stop the fall of the world, God has found a loophole to provide salvation.  He built an ark as a refuge for the souls of humanity and has labored to fashion a world anew; a paradise where He will offer those chosen eternal happiness as vessels recreated, capable of being filled with his own divine glory, knowing no sadness or pain.  Since He, himself, cannot see into the human heart, He calls forth a savior to gather the souls for Him to place them on the ark.  He intends for her to one day take the place of the deceased goddess Etro and maintain balance by ensuring the cycle of life and death.

As the game begins, you must save enough people to complete the main story line, with each day in the game corresponding with 1 hour and 12 minutes in the real world, though you can call upon certain powers to temporarily suspend time, allowing you to increase this exponentially.

While you go through the world, and offer redemption to those who need it, healing their hearts and restoring their hopes, it starts to become clear that all is not as it appears.  God has followers on Earth who are preparing a ritual that, it is later uncovered, will destroy all of the souls of those who have passed away, as he considered them unworthy compared to those who were able to survive, becoming stronger, during the five centuries of entropy and destruction.  He doesn’t want his new children to feel the pain of loss, knowing their former loved ones weren’t allowed into His new universe, so He intends to wipe them, and all memory of them, out of existence.

You also realize that He has possessed the body of one of your closest allies, pulling his strings like a puppet, so He can keep an eye on you throughout your journey.

Joshua Kennon Save File Lightning Returns Final Boss Save File

Approaching God in the cosmos after He has fashioned a new world …  you can see the silhouette of your friend, who the entire game, it turns out, God has been possessing like a puppet, divine marionette strings holding him up in front of the creator as He knew the key to reaching you was those you loved.

Joshua Kennon Final Fantasy Save File God Holding Hope

You see God, holding the body of your friend Hope, having refashioned the clay out of which he is made to serve as a sort of divine empty vessel so He could keep an eye on you this whole time.  He’s essentially discarded Hope’s soul as it was no longer useful to Him.

As His will is laid out in front of you, the savior, it becomes clear that God is capricious and cruel.  He speaks of divine love, yet casts aside any who are short of His standards or no longer meet His expectations.  All is merely a reflection of Him.  When a few brave humans realize who His avatar is and dare to question Him, He simply dissipates their Earthly bodies, reclaiming the energy with a defiant, “This is mine”, as all matter, including the clay from which men are made, flow from Him.

The Choice the Savior Must Make

And thus, faced with the horrifying prospect of something greater than mass murder on the grandest scale possible, the savior – you – decide to defy God and work with another of great power, guiding the souls of the deceased into the ark, as well.  You believe that salvation should not be only for those who are worthy, but for anyone who is willing and desires it.  As the world melts away, He makes you look upon His new universe and then says that, because of your action, He intends to burn it all in a sea of flame as He will not have those who are unworthy walk on its holy ground.

You, the savior of humanity, refuse to accept this and draw your weapon against God Himself.  The final battle between messiah and Lord will determine the fate of eternity.  It will determine whether there is a place in the new world for those who were not good enough on their own to inherit it.


In the beginning, God takes your attacks as nothing more than an opportunity for you to show your worth to Him. Yet, as you progress and begin to damage Him with your own divine powers, He becomes enraged and says He will purify your body in fire for daring to raise your sword against the creator.

The Great Questions of Humanity Still Haven’t Been Answered

I think it’s interesting that civilizations have risen and fallen, countless generations been born, and the world changed in incalculable ways, yet one of the “hard” questions laid out by a very smart man a very long time ago can still serve as the underlying foundation to an entertainment product millennia later; a philosophical treatise wrapped in a shiny veneer.  Though the pantheon of Zeus, Apollo, Hades, and Poseidon might have fallen, the question still comes up in a different form today when Christians, Jews, and Muslims ponder God’s demanded sacrifice of the life of Isaac at Abraham’s hand on Mount Moriah, even if only as a test of faith.  The names change, the plot is the same, thousands of years go by, and humans still seek answers to a handful of questions that they are trying to settle for themselves.  There’s something marvelous in that consistency.

I haven’t been able to withstand the temptation of posing the question to those in my own life, religious and non-religious alike.  It gives such a clear picture into their worldview.  Try it for yourself and you might be surprised how efficiently it lays bare the philosophy of those around you.  In my own tests, the answers almost invariably fall into a handful of categories.  What’s even more surprising is the fairly small, but still sizable, percentage of people who admit that if there were a God, and if He ordered something evil like the mass murder of innocents, they would still comply, without question, because “He’s God”.  When pressed for a reason, there is a divide between those who say it would be a survival mechanism to avoid punishment from an entity with unfathomable power and those who believe that the mere command from the divine would transform that which was immoral into that which was moral.  That last one is a terrifying proposition.  If those in power can get someone to believe it, they can manipulate them into doing nearly anything.  At its heart, it is responsible for billions of human deaths, rapes, tortures, thefts, and other sins.

As for me, what’s my answer?  That’s not relevant, though the last paragraph should give you an idea of which direction in which I find myself tipping.  What matters is how you answer it for yourself.  If you knew beyond any question that a supernatural creator existed, and it were in your power to offer salvation to the world, would you turn you sword on God and defy Him, or would you obey, allowing those who were harmed by the fall to be lost forever?  What would be your motivation?  Would your answer change if you discover that God Himself had a creator?  Someone higher up the divinity chain?

Who’d have thought a combination of ancient Greece and modern Japanese cultures would produce such thought-provoking questions?  Storytelling is one of the greatest, and most valuable, traditions and it’s clear to see why.  It offers people a chance to ponder existential questions in a non-academic, visceral way that is accessible to nearly anyone.  I’m not sure if many of the people playing the game are necessarily aware of the history of the plot line they are traversing, but if it causes them to think, to examine the world, to look at their own beliefs and motivations to decide why they believe what they believe and, more specifically, what they believe, it’s gone beyond mere entertainment and become something more.  While the medium may have changed – when author C.S. Lewis was discussing the nature of God, He used a pen and wrote out The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe – little else has.

It was a wonderful way to spend the morning.  I’m the only one awake, and I just started a New Game+ file on Hard, which removes the limit caps, allows significant upgrades in equipment and ability, as well as some other things.  The best part?  After beating the game, I got the Double Deity weapon, which has an only 5% probability drop rate.  Now, Lightning will be running around wielding the weapon of God the next time I feel like saving creation.

Final Fantasy 13 Lightning Returns Joshua Kennon New Game+ Hard

I’m so strong I don’t have to worry about stats at the moment so I’m going for the God-in-White-Tails look on my New Game+ file.  This was the best Final Fantasy I’ve played in a long time, though it wouldn’t make any sense unless you had played the two installments prior to the final in the trilogy.  I was worried about the timer in the game but I became so efficient with Chronostasis I managed to put in almost 67 hours.

Making coffee while the credits rolled and the sun rise came through the forest behind the house was one of the simplest, best memories I’ve had.  It was so peaceful it was surreal.

  • joe pierson

    I never thought this question was difficult to answer, under zero threat everyone will make one choice, under threat you will make the other choice (everyone has a breaking point).

    • Joshua Kennon

      From a practical standpoint (rather than the bigger, philosophical question about the source of good that Plato was trying to examine), that’s the conclusion to which I find myself inexorably drawn. There is simply no way to take the power differential out of the incentive equation as the potential downside would be so awful that most men and women would do anything to avoid it. In a sense, what is good or right would cease to matter as they would become subordinate to survival.

      • joe pierson

        Yes, the conclusion is very unsettling, it’s rips away your humanity. I personally don’t know how to deal with that knowledge. Marcus Aurelius couldn’t face it, in my opinion.

      • Scott McCarthy

        I’ve been considering this for a few weeks now, and I can’t work past omnipotence.

        If God is all powerful, he must, then, have control over the very definition of morality. If God controls the very definition of “good,” then whether an act is good or not good, moral or immoral, is left to His discretion. Of course, an all-powerful God must also, then, have the ability to give an immoral command – so obeying or disobeying His order is, in and of itself, neither moral nor immoral.

  • Richard

    After some thought I’ve settled on the reverse of Pascal’s wager. I intend to do good based on reason alone. If there is a god and my lack of faith separates me from the true believers even though I do the same good actions (or in some cases, better) then I want no part in that. Your post goes into the reasoning behind that in more depth than I could.

    • Joshua Kennon

      You’re in excellent company because that’s the same thing Marcus Aurelius (often dubbed “the wise” as he was one of Rome’s greatest emperors) concluded during his lifetime when pondering this question.

      “Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

      Most of my conclusions after all these years of study and thinking come very close to his own on life, rationality, adversity, and the nature of good. He thought seeking wisdom was a duty and that we each had to improve our own thought process by identifying what we believed that was wrong and replacing it with better information:

      “If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”

      His Meditations are worth reading and are only $1.92 on Kindle. Or, if you want to excerpt the good stuff, you can find some good passages and quotes online.

      • Richard

        Thank you for the reminder, it’s been too long since I read Meditations. I just ordered the hardcopy.

  • James Crooks

    This is among my reasons for arguing that Video Games can be Art. (Is that even still an argument these days, or have we all accepted that games can be art?) Graphics and literal aesthetics aside (which, I also think have, or can have, value as art), the storytelling of some games has always been as legitimate as a novel to me. One of my favourite CRPGs, Planescape: Torment, has far more philosophy and better writing than most actual books I’ve read.

    As for the philosophical question posed here, I’ve come to much the same conclusion as Richard posted. If belief in a particular way matters more than the justice of a individual’s actions, then I would conclude that such a god is petty and evil, and ought to be seen as an adversary.

    The more I’ve read of Marcus Aurelius, the more I come to appreciate his wisdom and it’s applicability today. I’ve met a lot of poor ‘argument from ancient wisdom’ fallacies, but Aurelius’ arguments are surprisingly modern, or rather, insightful about human nature, which hasn’t changed much since then. I came across excerpts and paraphrases of his work in William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life, which is a good layman’s introduction to ‘applied’ Stoicism, and a book I’ve greatly enjoyed while trying to drill down on the “primary mission of my life”, as your Mental Model post put it. I’ll have to move Meditations up my list to read, now.

  • Joshua

    I like to think about the question in reverse. If I created life and I then conducted torture on it just because I wanted to would this be considered moral or right? I can’t think of a non sadistic way to justify my actions in that scenario.

  • lokgp

    Since this post, I have read many of the quotes from Marcus Aurelius, and most of them are picked from Meditations. Then I tried to read Meditations for the full version, which is available here:
    Meditations on MIT

    But, just like Shakespeare, it is simply too tough to read. There is definitely a need for simpler modern day english for these classics. The language is becoming a barrier to wisdom and knowledge. I guess that’s why only those who worked on them managed to grab these past wisdom, leaving most people behind.

    But I did enjoy Marcus Aurelius writings. Its shocking to know that these were written 1,800 years ago. I likes his idea of having no opinion as an option, and the idea to retreat upon yourself at any moment you feel like it.

    Did Marcus Aurelius mention anything on feeling sympathy and empathy? It seems to me that there is no benefit to feeling sympathy, but human still feel them and are compelled to act on them. I wonder why.

    • Joshua Kennon

      The translation you found was from the 19th century; the English is old because it was penned to be understandable to someone living in the 1800’s (which is why it is free, as the copyright on the old translation ran out a long time ago). There are several modern English translations that are much easier to read, like this one.

      • lokgp

        Great! Thanks, Joshua!

    • lokgp

      Ah, I have figured it out why why we have feeling of sympathy and empathy, which then translate into gestures of kindness for others. Here’s what women says:

      “Kindness is the number one quality I look for in a man. You can see in how he treats anyone – from a CEO to a housekeeper – and it’s a reflection of how nice a guy is. Funniness and confidence come after that.”

      The whole idea is that women seeks kindness, empathy, sympathy from men. It signals that this guy is going to treat her well, and will also treat her children well. Kindness is one of the criteria that women uses to pick men. So, eventhough kindness in itself those not benefit men or women, but indirectly they imply that they will be a good mate and probably more trusted as well. So, evolutionary, this made sympathy, empathy, kindness to be passed on to us and the future generation.

      Yeah, do feel and show genuine kindness. :-)