Last week, during one of our regular get-togethers, my friend Wei introduced me to One Hour One Life, an open-world multiplayer survival game in which the fixings of civilization are crafted from scratch across many, many generations. Aside from its cute, hand-drawn graphics, sound effects, and pensive music, two unique mechanics of the game stood out: one is birth, and the other, death.1
Rules of the Game
When you start the game, you are born into a random village to a mother who is another player on the network. As a helpless infant, you can only message other players one character at a time (conventionally, “F” for “Food!” whenever your food meter displays “hungry,” which is annoyingly frequent at this point). This is the extent of your agency in the first few minutes. In every other game I’ve played, one is guaranteed safety at the start; here, whether you live or die depends entirely on someone else for the first few minutes.
If you have a responsible mother, she will breastfeed you until you can gather your own food. As your food meter grows, you can spend less time worrying about the next meal and more time helping your village survive: sowing, watering, harvesting, weaving, tooling, building, and so on. On the other hand, if your mother abandons you when you’re a baby, you will probably die of starvation, unless fed by another woman.
When you die, by desertion, error, or old age, you start over as another infant born to another mother in another village. In this way, each life is finite and unique.
For a new player, the village into which you are born largely determines your likeliness of survival. If the village is small and the villagers inexperienced or not cooperating, you will have a tough time finding food. If your village is large and has a farming system in place, survival will be much easier.
Advanced villages have nurseries, gardens, cemeteries, and work areas. A well-organized village makes it easy for a new player to observe how raw materials are crafted into usable products. After learning a thing or two, you can then take your place as a productive member of society.
A couple of episodes struck me in my short time playing the game.
In one incarnation, my in-game mother told me when I was born, “You are [so-and-so]. You will be a farmer, like your father and his father before him. Our village is small. Sorry I cannot give you more. May this cruel world be kind to you.”2 Sadly, I died of starvation before reaching ten, taking a piece of my mother’s life with me.
In another incarnation, I was born into a wealthier village, where there was already a system of conventions in place. My in-game mother named me “Sheena” when I was born, and I spent half a lifetime getting the hang of basic tasks like staying warm, planting carrots, harvesting, and making baskets from reeds. When our paths crossed some twenty years (minutes) later and she was a gray old woman, she remarked as a real mother would, “Are you well? My Sheena has grown up.” Unfortunately, having forgotten to pay attention to the food meter, I died of starvation a few years later at 33, leaving behind a couple of children who seemed to know what they were doing more than their mother did.
Despite my playing only an hour, these experiences left me with a tinge of sadness all weekend about the brief lives I lived: as a baby who was abandoned for being the “wrong” gender;3 as a boy who never grew up to be a farmer; and as Sheena, whose life was vain to a village that fed her and whose death, a tragedy to the mother who outlived her.
In OHOL, I saw just how dependent our lives are on the circumstances of our birth: our upbringing affects how we mature, how we contribute to society, how long we live. And when one’s identity lasts only an hour, the insignificance of individual achievement, the snail pace of societal progress, and the dispensability of each life are all brought into sharp relief. Yet in this despair, the very same permadeath mechanism casts the spotlight on something beautiful: the stories of relationships, even virtual ones, formed and played out by strangers placed at particular locations in particular times by a pseudo-random number generator. I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but I was touched by players coming together in a virtual world, as Wei put it, “toiling to make a better life for future generations.”
In many ways, real life is not that different. To my generation encouraged to shape its own destiny and to make its mark on the world, we seldom acknowledge that we too are born into villages not of our choosing, to parents whose lovingkindness or absence are out of our control, and that in the grand scheme of things, our aspirations are but a chasing after the wind.4 And just as in the game, the meaning and beauty we find in the human experience comes from our relationships and sacrifices born out of love.
But our hope is even greater. The one who placed us in our appointed time and place is not a random number generator, but the God of the cosmos, who “[thus] loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, ESV).
Therefore, as we spend our precious lives trying to survive and make a nice home for ourselves, let us also cherish those around us. That we live years, not minutes, gives us more time to invest, however insignificant we feel, in the lives of those bound to us by will or by happenstance, in the hope that one day, when we finally escape from “under the sun,” we’ll find our myriad individual stories remembered in the City of God.5
Thanks to Wei for reading my draft and sharpening my thoughts.
1 The game has evolved since I played it, so my memory of the game may no longer reflect actual gameplay.
2 I have trouble remembering things verbatim, but I tried my best to convey the mood and meaning behind what was said. Dynamic equivalence, if you will.
3 Since reproduction in the game is asexual, if you are born a male, you might be abandoned because you cannot increase the population. This happened in one of my early lives.
4 A passage from Ecclesiastes comes to mind:
Thus I hated all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun, for I must leave it to the man who will come after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the fruit of my labor for which I have labored by acting wisely under the sun. This too is vanity. Therefore I completely despaired of all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun. When there is a man who has labored with wisdom, knowledge and skill, then he gives his legacy to one who has not labored with them. This too is vanity and a great evil. (Ecclesiastes 2:18-21, NASB)
5 The question of what will be remembered in heaven is an interesting one. I found Piper’s short article informative.