Rabbi Russell Stone, The Shivah
One of the major differences between Judaism and Christianity is that the latter believes in finding answers, while the former seeks only to ask the right questions. From his first spoken line – “Why does G-d allow suffering” – Rabbi Russell Stone’s journey is all about questions; questions that are familiar to any religious person, but which hit especially close to home for American Jews like myself.
To be fair, despite folks in my Twitter feed constantly claiming that we control the media, it’s rare to see any members of the Tribe in video games. Our biggest claim to fame is Doctor Hal Emmerich, the most punchable character in the Metal Gear series. But I don’t find Rabbi Stone a uniquely relatable character because we both wear yarmulkes – it’s because his questions are questions that I struggle with every day. Our Judaism tells us that everything that happens is part of G-d’s plan, but how do you reconcile that with intense, random suffering? How is it that everyone at my synagogue can be the kindhearted, hardworking, righteous people I know they are, and yet there are Nazis marching in Charlottesville and anti-Semitic violence against people I knew in my own hometown? Why is it that my brother and I got called “dirty Hebrews” and had rocks and shoes thrown at us when we were in elementary school growing up in the most liberal part of Kansas?
Rabbi Stone believes – as I believe – that the answer to these questions can be found in Jewish study and Jewish traditions. And yet his rigid adherence to the letter of G-d’s law drove away and hurt faithful members of his congregation. There are many stories of those whose love – whose marriage, in this case – went against their faith, but few of those stories are told from the point of the view of the man who chose to stand in their way. And what’s important is that the game doesn’t glamorize that, doesn’t excuse Stone’s actions – in fact, he himself refuses to do so. Rabbi Stone is a leader who failed his people, a holy man who isn’t sure he can believe in a god anymore – he’s a man trying to follow the path of light in a world where that path is never clear, just like me, you, and the rest of the human race.
In the typical fashion of a d’rash, let me end with a beginning. The Shivah – a point-and-click mystery made by Wadjet Eye Games before they were Wadjet Eye Games – opens in a tiny synagogue that’s almost entirely barren. I still remember the first time I saw this room, because it looked so much like my own synagogue that I audibly gasped. We had the same crappy folding chairs, the same cracks in the walls, the same simple altar. And like my own place of worship, Stone’s synagogue is almost entirely empty, its Rabbi discouraged by the lack of true devotion in his own community.
Sure, The Shivah contains a murder, a mystery involving $10,000, and a mastermind with an evil plot to rule the criminal underworld. But the game’s real stakes are simultaneously much simpler and much greater, centered around a single, oft-repeated question: “You call yourself a Jew?” It’s a question I’ve asked of myself a thousand times. And what makes Rabbi Stone remarkable isn’t that his journey answers that question – it’s that he’s enough of a mentsh to look in the mirror and ask it.
Tidus, Final Fantasy X
Tidus gets a lot of hate. Many gamers felt his voice was whiny, that he had a lot of daddy issues, and that laugh…well…
But when you take a step back and put yourself in his shoes, you realize how relatable his character actually is.
Tidus is a seventeen year old Blitzball star with a sweet life in Zanarkand. His high-tech city features machines, holograms, and technologies that we can only dream of, and as a major athlete, he has access to all the fineries life has to offer. Like any teenager, he has a lot of angst; it’s not unearned of, however, as he’s an orphan – his mother died after his father abandoned them. So he harbors a lot of resentment and anger towards his father for leaving and causing his mother’s death.
Imagine dealing with that, working through the loss of your parents as your biggest problem in life.
Now imagine being propelled 1,000 years into the past – a past without phones, TVs, internet, and other modern conveniences we take for granted.
You’d be pretty confused, right?
Now imagine that your dad, who you thought abandoned you, was not only also propelled into the past, but turned into a giant monster that destroys everything.
You’d be blown away, right?
Now imagine that this girl you’re kind of crushing on is going to die once you get to the end of the journey you’ve been pouring your heart and soul into since it’s the only thing that seems to make sense.
You’d be devastated, right?
Now imagine that you discover you’re actually not 1,000 years in the past, but instead 1,000 years in the future, and also you don’t really exist.
You’d be…wait, what?
Now imagine that you realize the only way to save the world is to abandon this mission that you’ve dedicated yourself to in order to permanently kill your father, resulting in not only your death but your complete and utter disappearance from existence. Like, you won’t even exist in an afterlife. That kind of disappearance.
You’d be…what the f-
Can you honestly look at that timeline of events and say that you’d handle that any better than he did? That you wouldn’t occasionally whine? That you wouldn’t have anger? That you wouldn’t feel moody, upset, and depressed?
So…all things considered, Tidus dealt with his issues in Final Fantasy X pretty well.
When I first played FFX, I was 14 years old and full of family and teenager problems myself. But watching that now-infamous scene where Yuna and Tidus awkwardly laughed until they felt better, I learned that, even though life gets difficult, sometimes it’s best to force a smile until you feel better. Because life is tough and you can never expect what will be thrown at you, but you’re going to have to deal with it. Tidus was always vocal about his problems and what his emotions were while going through things, but he gritted his teeth and faced them head on. I really admired that about him, and decided that I should handle my problems that way as well.
So even if I complain…even if I get upset…even if I don’t feel like laughing…I allow myself to rinse through those emotions but I will always push through to the end. Just like Tidus.
—Heather Johnson Yu