God Game (novel)

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It was Nathan's fault that I became God.

It is, as I would learn, Hell to be God.
—Opening lines

God Game is a 1986 science fiction novel by the late Rev. Andrew M. Greeley, who is better known for his "Bishop Blackie" mysteries. It recounts the experiences of a nameless first-person narrator, a Catholic priest who is asked by his nephew Nathan to beta-test an early version of an Interactive Fiction game called Duke and Duchess. The game isn't very impressive at first, but when lightning strikes his satellite dish during a violent storm, the game's primitive CGA graphics become impossibly high-resolution video of what are apparently real people -- and the narrator quickly discovers that he is now very much responsible for them and their small, but complete, world called The Land.

The Land is split into two ancient nations who have been enemies from time immemorial -- one led by Duke Lenrau, the other led by Duchess B'Mella. But both leaders have tired of the eternal war, and each finds the other attractive, even if only from a distance. The narrator realizes that the best hope for peace is to pair these two strong personalities up, so he begins to matchmake, discovering how to manipulate events around them even as he directly addresses them to offer advice and guidance. Unfortunately, there are forces and factions within The Land who do not want to see peace, and the narrator quickly learns that he must be vigilant to discover and thwart those working against his plans for duke and duchess and the whole of the world. He soon finds himself caring deeply about the people whose lives are in his hands as he hears their prayers and does his best to find a happy ending that sticks. His closest ally and tool in this is Ranora, an "ilel" -- a combination prophet/jester/bard/fairy in the form of a dancing blonde teenage girl with a panpipe, wearing a peppermint-striped dress. Even with her not-insubstantial help, the narrator finds that being God, even for such a small world of limited focus, is a daunting and emotionally exhausting task, and he dare not rest on his laurels too early. Worse yet for his own sense of reality, some of the characters whose lives he has been manipulating cross the wall between the worlds to visit him, begging for a bigger role in the story or changes in their lot in life -- or crying for help.

With the help of Ranora and a Text Parser that almost seems like an A.I. (when it isn't utterly brain dead), the narrator does his best to juggle the politics, personalities, and even the weather of the Land in an attempt to unify the two ancient nations, by bringing together their rulers in a marriage of mutual love and respect. But lacking the omniscience of the real God, he cannot know that he has guaranteed a permanent peace -- and a permanent love between Lenrau and B'Mella -- until he pulls off a real miracle and finally defeats all the forces working against them and him.

God Game (novel) is the Trope Namer for:
  • God Game: As noted below, this novel predates the entire genre of "god games" by several years, and may well have inspired the concept.
Tropes used in God Game (novel) include:
  • Alien Sky: There are four moons, and according to an analysis of the recorded game data after the fact, the sun appears to rise and set in the same place.
  • Aliens Speaking English: The inhabitants of the world, despite being very humanoid aliens, appear to speak perfectly idiomatic modern English, and understand the narrator's communications without problem.
  • Ambiguously Human: The inhabitants of The Land. According to experts who studied the narrator's tapes of the game, they look human at first glance, but have a visibly different physiology when examined more closely.
  • Another Dimension: The Land is clearly a Pocket Dimension of relatively small size -- with slightly different physical laws from ours.
  • Author Avatar: The unnamed priest protagonist is generally considered to be a self-insert by Greeley. If he's not Greeley's Bishop Blackie Ryan character.
  • Camera Lock On: Seems to be a default mode after the start of the game -- the narrator constantly repositions the camera by selecting the person or persons he wants to look in on, but has no control of the angle beyond that.
  • Dating Sim: Although not designed as one, the game ends up including aspects of this genre as the narrator manipulates both sides of several relationships so as to get people together, or to reinvigorate flagging marriages.
  • Deadpan Snarker: The game interface/parser, sometimes. Whether this was an intentional feature by the developers, or something added after the lightning strike is unclear.
  • The Dev Team Thinks of Everything: A claim Nathan explicitly makes about Duke and Duchess while convincing his uncle to test it for him.
  • Expy: Several of the people inside the game appear to be Expies of people the narrator knows in the "real world":
    • Kaila and Malvau seem to correspond to a couple named Hagan. Both couples are having problems with their marriage, and it appears that the narrator's efforts to help Kaila and Malvau carry over to the Hagans, who have gone into marriage counseling by the end of the book.
    • There is a profoundly strong connection between Ranora and Michele, a teenage member of the narrator's large extended family with whom he has frequent contact. At one point in the story, Ranora contacts the narrator by briefly possessing Michele and having her phone him.
  • Free Rotating Camera: Averted, though not to the point of Camera Screw. Although the narrator can switch his P.O.V. to any of the people in the game (and he has most of the major ones hotkeyed for fast access), he has no control of the "camera" positioning. At one point he notes that the camera auto-positions so that people praying are always looking right into the "lens".
  • A God Is You: In-universe: the protagonist is given an early Interactive Fiction game to beta test that transforms into a Simulation Game; after his experiences result in a dramatic rewrite of the game, it is actually renamed from Duke and Duchess to God Game. This makes the book the Trope Namer for the "God Game" genre, the first real-world example of which (Populous) came out three years after it was published.
  • Gosh Dang It to Heck: The people of the Land seem to have no strong oaths or swear words; the narrator notes that "the Lord Our God condemn you" is strongest curse of which they seem capable.
  • Guilt-Based Gaming: A possibly unique literary example, a bit more extreme than in "real" games -- when the narrator (erroneously) believes he has fixed everything and stops playing the game, Ranora actually reaches across the wall to possess his niece and beg him to return. And once he comes back to the game, several characters explicitly ask (via prayer) why he abandoned them.
  • Heroic Fantasy: The world to which the narrator is connected is very much a pseudo-Medieval swords-and-sorcery setting -- except where it isn't.
  • I Just Want to Be Special: N'Rasia asks the narrator to give her a bigger, more important part in the story. Subverted slightly when the immediate results of this request embarrass and distress her, and she decides that being a background character is better -- but she ends up a critical part of the ending anyway.
  • Ice Queen: The narrator nicknames G'Ranne "the ice maiden".
  • Interactive Fiction: The original type of game Duke and Duchess was intended to be. Instead, it turned into a Simulation Game.
  • Irish Priest: The nameless narrator/protagonist.
  • It Only Works Once: After successfully and permanently ensuring peace in The Land, the narrator is never again able to reach across the wall between worlds, no matter how many times he tries playing the game afterwards, even using the save data from the original run.
  • Leitmotif: In-universe, this is one of the things that Ranora as an ilel does -- she can reveal and celebrate the true nature of a person by creating a "theme" for them on her pipe.
  • Life Imitates Art: The narrator comes to realize that the wall between The Land and the "real world" is more like a thick fog, and some of his actions in the game have repercussions on the people and events around him.
  • Lightning Can Do Anything: A lightning bolt striking the narrator's dish antenna turns the game from low-res Interactive Fiction to something disturbingly real.
  • Lingerie Scene: The people of The Land apparently pray in their underwear (in private, at least) -- and for a world that seems very medieval, the women wear lingerie that seems to come direct from Victoria's Secret.
  • Magic Music: Ranora's pipe-playing sometimes seems to drift ever so slightly into this territory.
  • Magical Flutist: Ranora.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: As one of her ilel "duties" Ranora functions as this for all the major characters and the whole of The Land in general. This makes the moment she appears in somber, almost goth, clothing and completely devoid of her usual vivacity all the more striking.
  • Mission from God: Ranora (and ilels in general, according to the lore of The Land), are explicitly sent by God to perform a specific mission.
  • Narrator: Averts the trope as we define it, with the character called the "narrator" here being the protagonist and intimately involved in the action everywhere in the story.
  • No Fourth Wall: One of the side effects of the game's transformation -- characters from within the game start manifesting in the narrator's life in the "real world", asking for help and plot changes.
  • No Name Given: The main character/Narrator. We know he's a Catholic priest, comfortable with (mid-1980s) cutting-edge technology, and has a large extended family -- but we never learn his name.
  • Player and Protagonist Integration: The protagonist priest is thrust into the role of God for a small fantasy world he interfaces with via the video game. As God he is the Adviser to literally dozens of characters, although he tends to focus on eight or ten of them.
  • Possession: Ranora briefly manifests in the "real world" by possessing the narrator's relative Michelle and calling him on the phone.
  • Post Modernism: The book's direct exploration of the nature of the blurry boundaries between fiction and "reality" -- aided by the suggestion that the unnamed narrator is supposed to be author Greeley, adding yet another blurry level of possible reality -- definitely verge onto postmodern themes.
  • Punctuation Shaker: Lightly applied to some of the few words of The Land's native language that come through the computer interface untranslated, such as women's names.
  • Raising Sim: Both invoked and averted at various times by the game. Sometimes the narrator has to repeatedly nudge and nag the characters in the game into doing what they should, and other times all he can do is request something from the game engine and wait for it to appear.
  • Rule of Funny: Seems to be actively guiding the game engine's implementation of the narrator's commands to sabotage a band of bumbling conspirators.
  • Shipper on Deck: The narrator, who actively guides the Duke and the Duchess into falling in love with each other as the best course for keeping the world from exploding into endless war and chaos.
  • Shout-Out: There are numerous references to other works as part of pursuing and exploring the difference between reality and fiction, and the difference between The Land and the Earth, ranging from Star Trek through The French Lieutenant's Woman to At Swim-Two-Birds.
  • Small Secluded World: The Land.
  • Technology Marches On: The book was written in the middle 1980s. The (pre-lightning) game is described as running on a Compaq 286 (a clone of the IBM PC/AT), and makes use of the then-state-of-the-art CGA graphics running in 640×200 pixel resolution and 16 colors -- which the protagonist then jury rigs to display through his television. He manages to record much of the game action after the lightning strike on VHS tapes, and stores the game data on a Bernoulli Box.
    • Nathan's predictions of how powerful computers will be in "just a few years" are amusingly quaint as well.
  • Text Parser: The game's parser almost seems to be a character in itself, running mostly on the Rule of Funny. It is alternately dumb as a box of rocks and practically an Artificial Intelligence, thwarting or enabling the narrator as dictated by the needs of the story and The Land.
  • Translation Convention: Appears to be applied to the inhabitants of The Land for the ease of the narrator -- and vice versa.
  • Unintentional Period Piece: Is very firmly anchored in the middle 1980s, to the point that some of the settings and events in the Narrator's "real" world might seem incomprehensible to those born after that decade.
  • Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: Averted. Everyone speaks (or seems to speak) modern idiomatic English.
  • You Can't Get Ye Flask: The natural language parser for the game interface that the narrator uses to do anything more than speak directly to the characters in the game is amazingly sophisticated for 1986 -- but is still prone to this trope at the most frustrating moments. (And sometimes it seems to do it just to annoy the narrator.)
  • You Have to Believe Me: Subverted. The narrator manages to videotape almost everything he sees in the game (albeit without sound), which he shares with the game company and their hired experts afterwards. Additionally, the disk on which he stored the game data is also preserved and subjected to analysis.