I had already played Lost Constellation twice through when I invited a friend over to give it a try. I hooked my laptop up to my TV, gave my friend a controller, and watched as he slowly made his way through the same woods that I had already traversed a couple of times before. He collected all the same objects, exhausted all of the same dialogue options, and completed all of the objectives I had before encountering a scene that I had until then totally missed, a scene that had deep emotional resonance for both of us: we stared a god right in the face and watched it fall out of existence.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but growing up in the South, religious faith is in the air you breathe. Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor articulated it most succinctly when she spoke of the south as “Christ-haunted”—you can love it, hate it, or be indifferent to it, but scraps of Christianity’s influence persist in the ways we think, talk, and feel to such an extent that believers and non-believers alike are objects of a peculiar force that the religion exerts. To some, it’s a psychic burden; to others, it’s simply the air. To people like my friend and me, it’s a truth that, depending on the weather, yields either sadness or some much-needed hope.
Questions of loss, faith, and hope are the bedrock of Lost Constellation, a “supplemental game” that takes place in the world of Night in the Woods created by Alec Holowka, Bethany Hockenberry, and Scott Benson. While the game’s status as “supplemental” may insulate it a bit from the conversation over what to expect from Night in the Woods, Lost Constellation still takes to heart the NITW mantra: “At the end of everything, hold onto anything.” When I recently spoke with the creators of Lost Constellation, Scott admitted that this sense of urgency for him comes at least in part from getting older, leaving religion, and dealing with the emotional fallout from both (insofar as it’s not just the human condition, he says). “We have to kind of create meaning. We all have these ticking timers, and the world itself has a timer, and, you know, in however many years the sun’s gonna go supernova anyway,” he said, laughing.
Lost Constellation begins with a conversation between Mae, the lead character of NITW, and her grandfather, on Longest Night, their holiday celebrated on the winter solstice. Mae is restless and defiant before bedtime, and she announces that she wants to rob a bank, so her grandfather tries to pacify her with a ghost story. With this frame in place, you take control of the ghost story’s main character Adina, and you’re dropped at the entrance to a dark and foreboding forest with nothing to guide you through but a promise to an old friend and a pocketful of snowballs.
The game is billed as a ghost story, and it operates with the same kind of elegance and efficiency familiar to ghost stories and folktales. The characters in the story feel like weather-worn archetypes, figures who appear in one form or another in stories stretching back generations. There’s Adina, the strong-willed central character, embarking upon the time-honored task of getting through a haunted wood; there’s a trickster fox, whose moral nihilism leads him to sell coffin insurance with little intention of making good on his promises; there’s the harbinger, a cynical cat who foretells the doom of the main character (or does he?); and there are Godtender Brown and Father Patience Forget-Not-God, gatekeepers and de facto bridge-trolls who present Adina with problems to solve before allowing her passage. We’ve seen all of these figures before, and in a world of conflicted, fragmented personalities—everyone from Rust Cohle from HBO’s True Detective to BJ Blazkowicz from Wolfenstein: The New Order—they serve as recognizable monuments in a more tightly defined system of meaning.
While the game doesn’t necessarily take religion as its primary focus, in its narrative backdrop, players are presented with a world where religion has stuck around, but god is dying. Transcendental truth is opaque at best and totally absent at worst, and questions about the place of religion in the lives of the characters only serve to highlight this loss and to provide an opportunity for an aggressive personal quest of meaning-making.
I talked Alec, Scott, and Bethany about how their personal experiences may have shaped the depiction of religion in Lost Constellation. Only one of the trio of designers is from the South (Scott originally hails from Texas), but all of them admitted to having ties to Christianity before deciding to leave the faith. Alec (who now lives in Vancouver) spent some time working for a church where he used the Aquaria game engine to run slide presentations for youth services. After seeing too much “behind-the-scenes stuff” at the church, Alec grew disillusioned: “It was really obvious that [the pastor] was just picking what she wanted out of different translations of the Bible. I actually agreed with her political views a lot—like she was pretty left-wing, but she would kind of force the Bible into that.”
Scott was similarly disappointed in the way religion crossed with politics in his conservative Baptist upbringing: “[It was] like, ‘Evolution was a lie. Darwin made it up because he hated God,’ and, you know, ‘AIDS was sent by God to punish gay people’ and ‘Feminism has ruined everything.’ This is the kind of environment that I came up in.” After Scott distanced himself from Christian communities corrupted by this fundamentalist strain, he settled in a non-denominational church atmosphere where he was even involved in speaking for a few years. Ultimately though, Scott left the church altogether.
Informed as it is by the group’s rocky past with the Christian faith, Lost Constellation by no means dismisses religion tout court. However, it is at least suspicious of overgrown orthodoxies that do more to inhibit than to empower. In the game, religion is for the most part depicted as an obstacle. The forest that Adina wanders through is ruled by the Forest God, a deity that Adina—and the player by proxy—knows nothing about. It’s the Forest God who, according to the coffin-selling fox, will “bend and move the trees to confuse [Adina’s] route.” Because of this, Adina must jump through hoops to appease the cranky god and earn her right to travel safely to the other side of the woods.
But there’s no heart behind any of the chores Adina performs for the Forest God. When Adina is reciting the prayer she has learned that will take her to the deity’s lair, she says as much:
“Should I be feeling something?”
Cat: “You don’t feel a great sense of awe and wonder and connection to something larger than yourself?”
Cat: “Your loss.”
And to top it all off, in a clear gesture to the brokenness of capital-M Meaning in the world, the Forest God is dying.
In this sense, Lost Constellation is the heir to the cultural heritage of postmodernism. For the latter half of the 20th century, the dominant impulse of theory and philosophy was to tear shit down. At the root of this impulse was and remains an ideology of liberation, but in the rubble of the many metanarratives that used to structure our lives, artists told stories about moral bankruptcy and spiritual malaise. Take, for example, the novel Crash by J.G. Ballard, written about people so starved of sensation and moral direction that they sought sexual gratification in car crashes and the injuries they inflicted on the victims. Modern entertainment is filled with stories of such yearning, whether quiet or depraved.
Religion, because of its claims to the final word on truth in the cosmos, got a lot of heat from this critical impulse, and since the heyday of poststructuralist thought, religion’s influence on Western culture has been gradually receding. There’s no question that religion has an ongoing presence in society and that it can be a powerful force for good, but Western culture as a whole has largely lifted it from the realm of the universal and increasingly sees religion as limited and personal. Lost Constellation feels this absence, and it participates in a more recent brand of storytelling that addresses the question, “What do we do now?”
To some extent, according to Scott, the answer to that question can be religion. “It’s difficult because the game obviously takes the stance that the god that Godtender Brown worships is not necessarily worthy of his worship on some level,” Scott said. Still, he went on, “There are a lot of great people [involved in theistic faith] who do really cool stuff, and it does serve a really great purpose in people’s lives, even if I don’t necessarily believe in it, and even if I don’t always think it’s a great thing.”
Scott also said that he was weary of the way many games tend to use religion as a shorthand for characterizing a person as untrustworthy or evil: “They’re part of this cult, so you can just gun all of them down ‘cause they’re craaaaaazy,” he said sarcastically. In Lost Constellation, Scott wanted to be sure that they didn’t fall into this trap. With this in mind, they created the character Godtender Brown, whose humility and piety are cast as honorable in the game, even if the designers worry that his belief is misplaced. “In the game we say that it’s maybe not the best focus,” Scott said, “but at the same time, it’s complicated, and you kind of have to work with and understand those complications a bit more if you want to actually dignify people.”
Beyond this, the group agrees that much of the way we answer the question, “What do we do now?” has to do with our relationships with others. Alec said this is a big part of the way he chose to find life meaningful after leaving Christianity, and he used the story of how he met Scott and Bethany as an example.
“We didn’t know each other at all before I sort of started following [Scott] on Twitter and sent an email about like, ‘Let’s maybe make a game, or something?’ and he said, ‘Sure.’ And all of a sudden we’re doing a Kickstarter,” Alec said. “We started a Kickstarter before we had created any kind of written agreement about how we’re going to split profits or anything like that. [laughs] I think that’s just the kind of people we are—we just kind of trust other people, and we have this optimistic view of people working together.”
You find this optimism about the importance of relationships in Lost Constellation as Adina finally makes it through the forest and to the frozen lake. Here, players find that the friend Adina promised to visit has been dead for some time. There’s no joy in the twist here, no to-do made about what a shocking turn of events this is for the player—there’s just a tacit acknowledgment of the frailty of human connection. Yet there’s still solace found in the fulfillment of Adina’s promise and the memory of her long-lost friend. Scott put it this way: “The relationship that Adina and the astronomer had is severed because the astronomer’s dead, but on some level, the fact that it happened means that it’s kind of something, and you can hold on to that something.”
We’re not really in uncharted territory, thematically speaking, with these questions about how we make meaning in the face of our own doom. But in a world that’s adjusting to the idea of a universe without god, stories like Lost Constellation are all the more important, and the game’s creators were able to pull off their version with a rare kind of grace.
You can download Lost Constellation for free or donation on the team’s itch.io page. Night in the Woods is expected for release later this year.