Eternal Progression and Nethack

August 22, 2006 | 27 comments
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As we become more like God — all progressing towards the same end point — will we lose our uniqueness as individuals? How can we maintain individuality as we become just like God? As with many questions, this one can be answered by recourse to the classic computer game Nethack.

Nethack (for the uninitiated) is a computer game that involves exploration of a large, many-layered dungeon full of monsters, treasures, and (sometimes magical) items. Nethack requires a good deal of patience and planning (and luck!); players are not so strong that they can simply attack every monster with reckless abandon, so playing Nethack involves going on carefully planned trips to particular places to seek out certain magical items; using the dungeon layout to one’s advantage; regularly running away from monsters that are too powerful to kill (or avoiding provoking them in the first place); and carefully currying the favor of the local priests and gods. It is quite challenging, and it can be a lot of fun; there are detailed strategy guides available on many websites.

Players begin the game in many different ways. A player can be any of a number of very different character classes — a wizard or a knight or a healer or a ranger, for example, or even a camera-weilding tourist. A wizard will be able to cast powerful magic spells to attack monsters, but must run away when her magical energy is depleted. A barbarian will be equipped with a sword and heavy armor, but may be vulnerable to certain magical attacks or defenses. A ranger will come equipped with a bow and arrows, but will not excel in fighting monsters who get too close. And a tourist . . . well, a tourist is pretty hard to play.

Each character also starts out with different “attributes” — different levels of strength, intelligence, and so forth. A barbarian will have high strength but low intelligence; she will wield a sword well, but will have great difficulty learning spells. A wizard is the opposite. A ranger will have high dexterity. And so on.

Because of these differences, a Nethack player’s first several levels of the dungeon will vary tremendously based on her starting class and attributes. She will be wielding her sword, or shooting her arrows, or casting her spells, all quite differently as she advances through levels.

Gradually, Nethack games and characters converge. This happens for a few different reasons. First, a player who does not die will eventually improve on her starting attributes. Through practice or exercise or magic, the barbarian will become smarter, while the wizard becomes stronger. By mid- to end-game, each player will have maxized each attribute (strength, intelligence, and so forth). Each player will also have gained magical resistance to poison, fire, and so forth. On an attribute level, the uniqueness will have faded.

Second, each player will ultimately need many of the same items. A blessed bag of holding — for carrying around one’s items — is indispensible. Speed boots (which, as the name implies, make the player move more quickly) are also useful for everyone. The same for the various types of dragon armor (the best armor in the game) and for the various types of enchanted weapons. Other powerful items, like life-saving amulets or wands that fire death rays, are also helpful for everyone. The standard endgame equipment is well enough known that it has a colloquial name — the “ascension kit.” Without an ascension kit, it is incredibly hard to win the game.

Third, each player is ultimately going to the same place. Thus, it makes sense that each player will need to acquire the same immunities and items and skills, because each player will ultimately be facing many of the same challenges.

[Side note: It's possible to play the game trying deliberately to avoid the standard routes. There are known strategies for such "voluntary challenges." They're a lot harder to play. Though success in playing a voluntary challenge will give bragging rights, no one really disputes that the standard route -- maximize your attributes and immunities and put together an ascension kit -- is the strategy to follow for the greatest likelihood of winning the game.]

There will be minute differences, of course. One character will use one type of magical sword; another will use a slightly different sword. Different quests will result in slightly different strengths and weaknesses. But in the end, almost no one wins the game without maximized attributes, a full set of magical immunities, a bag of holding, a set of dragon armor (further enhanced by added magic), a highly-enhanced magical weapon, the right assortment of magical wands and rings, and so on.

It’s funny that characters who start out so differently converge to the same point, but it happens. It happens not out of a desire for homogeneity, but rather because there are certain choices, attributes, items, that are simply the best or most useful for arriving at the endpoint.

And even though all of the characters look similar, they all, arrived through different avenues. Yes, everyone shows up in the astral plane (the last stage of the game) with a blessed bag of holding. But one found her bag in the gnomish mines; another won hers after a game of a sokoban; a third bought hers from a shop in the dungeon; a fourth never did find the bag and ultimately had to use a wish to obtain one. Even when they end up at the same place, their stories make them different.

Can the same be said about eternal progression?

As we become closer to God and closer to becoming the people God wants us to be, we develop the attributes — love for others, knowledge, and so forth — that we’re going to want to develop anyway. And as we develop, in some says we become more similar to each other and less dissimilar. However, even as we become similar, our stories differ, and this is because even if we ultimately want to end up in more or less the same place, we all start our journey from different points.

Like Nethack players, we may all look the same when we have ascended — but we’ll each have vastly different chronicles of how we arrived.

27 Responses to Eternal Progression and Nethack

  1. Kaimi Wenger on August 23, 2006 at 1:41 am

    A commenter pointed out that comments were closed when I posted this. That was a glitch; I meant to post with comments open, and I’ve now opened them.

  2. Jacob on August 23, 2006 at 2:37 am

    Kaimi,

    How far are you taking this similarity that developes among those who become just like God? Are you saying they will, in fact, lose their individuality apart from having arrived through a different course of events?

  3. MLU on August 23, 2006 at 4:27 am

    I think the fact that living the gospel makes us so similar on the inside is what allows us to love so deeply–even people from different times, who we recognize as like us in important ways. We are all to be modeling our lives on a single model–the Savior–so we do become more and more alike.

    But your larger question is intriguing. One of my sons has great musical talent, another is more interested in engineering. As they move up in levels, will the musician think more about how things work, and will the engineer develop orchestral musings? Who can imagine a deity who can’t make music or build things?

  4. Mark Butler on August 23, 2006 at 6:31 am

    I think there is great significance in the technical matter of theology that there is only one true and living God, and yet many divine persons. So while each exalted person becomes progressively more like God, no single person becomes God, nor is any single person God. As Jesus Christ said, of mine own self I am nothing. What exalted persons do is participate in God, or represent God by divine investiture.

    Jesus Christ marked the path and set the way, right? The mystery of the trinity, or Godhead is that none of them could be God without the other. The mystery of the divine concert, or Elohim, or the body of Christ, or marriage for that matter is similar. They could not be saved without us, nor we without them.

    I understand the practical implication of this matter to be that to be exalted we do not have to acquire every talent, capacity, and ability in independence of every one else, let alone be perfect in some sort of absolute sense. The fact that two, let alone many exalted persons have to occupy the same universe (lest eternal families and the community of the Saints be a fiction) gives lie to the notion of multiple instances of omnipotence. God has all power in heaven and in earth. No divine person (in and of himself) needs, requires, or can reasonably expect such capacity except as part of the divine society.

    The idea that for example Jesus Christ can be God independent of the Father is radically Pelagian in the worst way. Divinity is all about unity. By ourselves we are (and always will be) nothing. Hence the great significance of marriage and family and love for ones neighbor as the building blocks of celestial society – that we may be one, as they are. At-one-ment.

  5. Wacky Hermit on August 23, 2006 at 8:42 am

    We are all just so many distinct Cauchy sequences converging on the same point.

    [OK, I'm a nerd.]

  6. Bryce I on August 23, 2006 at 9:35 am

    Kaimi, you’re playing the wrong game. Ancient Domains of Mystery doesn’t have near the same convergence effect (although it does exist to a degree)

  7. DHofmann on August 23, 2006 at 10:37 am

    It’s like genealogy. We each have 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 grandparents, 16 great-grandparents, and so on until they start to converge again back to a single pair of parents (Adam & Eve).

  8. Bored in Vernal on August 23, 2006 at 10:38 am

    What a cool analogy! I loved how you compared NetHack to Eternal Progression—you make life sound quite fun and exciting! (Which it should be.)

    But why, oh why do some of us love the “voluntary challenge� so much? I simply cannot make it through life without “deliberately trying to avoid the standard route.� What is my problem???

  9. Frank McIntyre on August 23, 2006 at 12:23 pm

    Wacky Hermit,

    Our Comments Policy has a strict ban on using the words “Cauchy Sequence”.

    (or it should).

  10. MLU on August 23, 2006 at 12:35 pm

    I’m quite sure there’s something missing, in my mind at least. I want to think we remain highly distinct and unique, so that it matters profoundly that we continue to live. I look forward to seeing my brother who died in 1976, and it matters quite a lot that it is him and not merely some being who is just ilke him. . .his sense of humor, for one thing. . .

  11. Jim F. on August 23, 2006 at 12:46 pm

    It doesn’t make sense to think of as human beings without our individual histories, histories that contain more than we can be conscious of or make chronicles of. But if we each “each have vastly different chronicles of how we arrived,” which seems necessarily to be true, then we won’t be the same at all. Being in the same place, having each learned patience and love, etc. isn’t being the same.

  12. Robert C. on August 23, 2006 at 1:10 pm

    I don’t Kaimi, sounds like an awefully elaborate rationalization to play a video game to me…. (Or maybe I’m just projecting.)

    As Tolstoy said, “All happy families are happy alike, all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.” But these analogies rub me wrong b/c I think they trivialize the importance of our unique identity. I prefer the analogy of, say, great art—great art is all the same in a certain sense b/c they can be differentiated (at least in the eye of the beholder) from “less effective” art. But that’s a much different thing than saying that all great art is the same (I for one have very eclectic tastes in visual arts, movies, music, etc.).

  13. Dan S. on August 23, 2006 at 2:17 pm

    Kaimi writes, “As we become more like God — all progressing towards the same end point . . .as we become just like God”

    I personally don’t think we ever will become just like God, nor do I think that the development of our characters will ever end.

    D&C 132 says that there are “gods” and that others, like Abraham, are “gods” now.

    (“v. 20. Then shall they be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be from everlasting to everlasting, because they continue; then shall they be above all, because all things are subject unto them. Then shall they be gods, because they have all power, and the angels are subject unto them.” . . . v. 37 Abraham . . . Isaac . . . and Jacob . . . have entered into their exaltation, according to the promises, and sit upon thrones, and are not angels but are gods.”)

    However, I don’t take from this reading that we will be “just like God”, as it doesn’t every say directly that we will ever have an equivalent to God’s glory and power. I see that we will obtain an “exhaultation” and that we will be called “gods” and have great power and authority, and that we will have the ability to progress forever. But, does being called a “god” mean that we will be just like our Heavenly Father?

    D&C 132:19 says that, at least in part, the glory we obtain will be the continuation of our seed (which, I’m assuming means the ability to have eternal increase of children – “v. 19 . . . and the gods, which are set there, to their exaltation and glory . . . which glory shall be a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever.”) Heavenly Father already has an eternity’s headstart on us in the continuation of his seed and glory (look at the current universe and all the spirits and creations Heavenly Father has and how much power and honor he has because of them). Regardless of when we start, we could never catch up since he continues to have more seed, create more creations, obtain more glory and honor.

    So, at least in one, very important way, God will always be an eternity ahead of us in our progression, and any eternal increase we obtain actually becomes attributable to him as well (kind of like an eternal multi-level marketing program), since they become his eternal grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc, thus adding to his glory and honor.

    So, as I see it, as God’s progeny progresses, and as God remains intimately involved in their progression, God continues to have experiences that add to his character, his perspective, his love, his power, his glory. And if he continues to progress in this way, won’t we also progress in this way eternally? In other words, I don’t think we will ever reach the “astral plane” or the “end-point” you described in your game, even in the development of our characters.

  14. Bill on August 23, 2006 at 3:00 pm

    “It’s like genealogy. We each have 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 grandparents, 16 great-grandparents, and so on until they start to converge again back to a single pair of parents (Adam & Eve). ”

    Apparently, they converge a lot sooner than that:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200205/olson

  15. Mark Butler on August 23, 2006 at 3:19 pm

    Elaborating a little, we should draw a distinction between uppercase G God (Elohim) and a lowercase g god (el). God is both a person (a singular singularity) and a Person (a singular plurality). Our heavenly father is a person. Our Heavenly Father is a Person.

    Likewise with Christ, or God the Son, and also with God the Holy Ghost. Jesus is a person. Christ is a Person. The Lord Jesus suffered on the cross. The body of Christ suffers on the crosses.

    And there were gathered together in one place an innumerable company of the spirits of the just, who had been faithful in the testimony of Jesus while they lived in mortality;

    And who had offered sacrifice in the similitude of the great sacrifice of the Son of God, and had suffered tribulation in their Redeemer’s name.
    (D&C 138:12-13)

    God is like three divisions of divine persons, three bodies acting together as one body, coming under the head of three persons acting together as one Head – the Most High (El Elyon), the Lord Jesus Christ (Jehovah, the Angel of the Lord, the Holy One of Israel), and the (presiding) Holy Ghost.

    For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.
    (1 Cor 12:27)

    Jesus Christ quoted the Psalmist in saying that “ye are gods (elohim)”. And yet who is the God of Israel, if not Elohim? The scriptures say that there is no God beside him. In other words there can only be one Elohim.

    The logical conclusion of course is that Elohim is not a person, but rather a Person. We can aspire to be like our heavenly father, indeed to be heavenly fathers and mothers, but we cannot be Heavenly Father, because Heavenly Father is not single, let alone a single person. However, He is One.

    There is a major character difference between the two. A heavenly father must be humble and self effacing, for he knows that of his own self he is nothing. Whereas Heavenly Father has no equal – his word is Law. One may deny the word of Jesus, but if he denies the Holy Ghost, the voice of the Eternal Father, he is dead (spiritually).

    And who is Christ?

    Teach them that redemption cometh through Christ the Lord, who is the very Eternal Father. Amen.
    (Mosiah 16:15)

    For behold, I am the Father, I am the light, and the life, and the truth of the world.
    (Ether 4:12)

    The equation of Christ with the Eternal Father makes no sense if we are speaking of two persons. (We are not Sabellians). However it makes perfect sense if we are speaking of a Person – the one true and living God, Elohim, the divine concert.

    So I agree with Dan S. that there is no need for our personalities to converge to a point. However there is a need for them to converge to a dynamic spiritual unity – a unity sufficiently precise that it is difficult to determine that our actions do not proceed from a unified spiritual agency. And what principle of the gospel is not designed to produce such a dynamic spiritual unity?

    God moves in a mysterious way
    His wonders to perform
    He plants His footsteps in the sea
    And rides upon the storm…

  16. Mike on August 23, 2006 at 3:31 pm

    So what’ll be in my ascension kit besides a white stone?

  17. Mark Butler on August 23, 2006 at 3:47 pm

    You have your ascension kit right now. It is called the Holy Scriptures.

  18. Dan S. on August 23, 2006 at 3:51 pm

    I agree with Mark that as we progress, our desire to sin, or to go against Gods’ will, will decrease, and our spiritual unity will converge with that of our Heavenly Father’s. But, do our personalities need to become swallowed up with that progression? I don’t think so. I honestly believe that Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost still have agency of will, agency of thought, agency of creation, agency of humor, agency of discipline, etc., and that they may approach their eternal life from different perspectives. I can’t say for sure, but I like to think that they have distinct opinions on aesthetics, that they distinct mannerisms regarding how they express themselves, and that they can still adapt to life in their own unique ways. Otherwise, wouldn’t they just be like the Borg in Startrek?

  19. John Mansfield on August 23, 2006 at 3:52 pm

    Frank, are you sure Times and Seasons is willing cede the Cauchy sequence readership entirely? Cauchy sequences are welcome at some web sites.

  20. Ryan on August 23, 2006 at 4:00 pm

    geeks.

  21. Ryan on August 23, 2006 at 4:02 pm

    Just kidding. i couldn’t resist.

    Seriously, It’s a great post. I find myself drawing those strange parallels between the gospel and everything around me all the time. This one was fun.

  22. Dan S. on August 23, 2006 at 4:24 pm

    Regarding the “geeks” comment, as Stewie Griffin or Homer Simpson might say, “It’s funny because it’s true”. Most geeks our age have come to embrace our “geek”ness and hold it as one of our most prized qualities.

  23. Mark Butler on August 23, 2006 at 4:44 pm

    Dan S., I agree with you. I do not think we need to cede our personalities completely. We need only give away all of our sins, and be willing to obey our covenants by sacrifice yea every sacrifice which the Lord shall command, and of course have a broken heart and a contrite spirit (cf. D&C 97:8).

  24. Mark Butler on August 23, 2006 at 6:09 pm

    Of course, some might argue that if we do all that, we will converge on a fixed point. I do not think that is any more tenable assertion than the proposition that two perfect composers would compose the same music.

  25. Ryan on August 23, 2006 at 7:28 pm

    Ryan Said:Geeks

    Dan S. Said:Regarding the “geeks� comment, as Stewie Griffin or Homer Simpson might say, “It’s funny because it’s true�.

    Mark Butler Said: Dan S., I agree with you. I do not think we need to cede our personalities completely. We need only give away all of our sins

    Message: You can be a geek. Just don’t hang onto any geeky sins… like pocket protectors, NetHack, coke-bottle glasses and such and such.

  26. Dan S. on August 23, 2006 at 9:42 pm

    Ryan, I think you are mainly describing the sins of a “nerd”, not a geek (unless you are saying that the norms for a nerd are like the sins for a geek). Geeks are slightly cooler. Slightly more handsome than a nerd. Geeks don’t use pocket protectors – they typically wear t-shirts or polo shirts these days, but usually a couple fashion seasons old b/c they found it on a clearance rack. Geeks don’t wear coke-bottle glasses – but, they do wear the same pair of jeans for two weeks. You may be right about NetHack, but I think a geek would rather play a graphic-intense, first-person shooter game.

    I wonder if a geek could even get into heaven having so much digital blood on his/her hands.

  27. Seth R. on August 25, 2006 at 10:01 am

    So Heaven is basically the secret “Cow Level,” and baptism, priesthood and marriage are Wirt’s Leg and the Tome of Town Portal?

    Cute Kaimi.

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