One of the most profound pieces of philosophy I’ve ever encountered comes from a computer game, which happens to be my all-time favorite. Arcanum takes the best of old Fallout, brings it into a steampunk setting, and douses it with tons of lore and philosophy that even games by FromSoftware would struggle to compete against. This particular moment in the game would continue to fascinate me even as an adult, which is why I wanted to share it here in this blog post.
Arcanum is known by the few fans it has to have substantial amounts of philosophy and other heavy topics in its writing. While most of it is with nihilism and antinatalism courtesy of its main antagonist, as well as a conspiracy sidestory inspired by X-Files, there’s also another one that I don’t see get talked about enough. It takes on a dwarven perspective of existentialism, one that I find quite interesting and fairly applicable in this day and age.
Dwarves in Arcanum are an amalgamation of various interpretations throughout fiction, as well as a slight satire of it. Certain details get questioned like the existence of dwarven women, the sanctity of dwarven beards, how the developers didn’t follow the Tolkien rule of spelling the plural form as “dwarfs”, and how uncultured city dwarves face a world where they’re subjected to discrimination without the cultural heritage to bolster them.
Let’s look into the dwarven philosophy of the Stone and the Shape.
NOTE: The following contains major spoilers for a 22-year-old game that most people never played. If for some reason, you actually want to play the game for yourself, then read no further. Consider yourself warned.
Also, I’m about to talk about philosophy, something I’m still trying to understand. I may make some mistakes here and there on this blog post. If you see any, please tell me about it in the comments.
(This dweeb fast-forwarded much of the dialogue, so you’ll have to pause to read them, if you wish.)
Thumbnail artwork from [link]
Arcanum Story for Context
If you never played Arcanum, buckle up because this is going to get long. You can also either watch a review, a really good satirical review, a video summary, or buy the game on GOG and play it yourself (after installing Drog’s unofficial patch and high-resolution patch).
This game is set in the continent of Arcanum, where magick and technology are in conflict. Magick bends the laws of nature and physics, while technology has to work with those laws, thus they can’t coexist as they interfere with each other. Magick requires a lifetime of study and training, while technology can be learned in a much shorter time.
Yes, that’s “magick” with a K at the end.
For thousands of years, the elves and dwarves were the dominant races of Arcanum. But then, the short-lived humans started taking over once they grasped technology. Gnomes also flourished by investing money into this technology, and the half-ogres would become their bodyguards as gnomes became the nouveau riche (that’s a conspiracy in the game). Traditional elves stayed in their trees and traditional dwarves remained in their mountains; those who didn’t want to follow tradition would live in the cities and become “domesticated”.
Some elves did not like how technology took over the land of Arcanum. They hated it so much that they threatened war against the dwarves unless they’re able to punish the clan responsible for spreading the technology to the impulsive humans. It turns out that the most important of the technologies in current Arcanum, the steam engine, had not been invented by a human, but stolen from the Black Mountain Clan by a “dwarvaboo.” (That’s a story for another blog post.)
The Black Mountain Clan was then sentenced to exile by the King of Dwarves, Loghaire Thunder Stone of the Wheel Clan. He had previously fought a centuries-long dwarven civil war against Lorek the Abjurer, a great dwarf himself who wanted to assert the superiority of the Wheel Clan over all the other dwarven clans. Lorek was eventually defeated, but not before the blood of countless dwarves was spilled, enough to fill oceans.
That would leave the dwarven king’s resolve scarred for eternity, which was why he felt that he had no choice but to banish his own brethren when the elves threatened a great interracial war against his people. Such a war would destroy Arcanum and render the remaining dwarves to near extinction. Loghaire was so afraid of this prospect that he banished his own people in compliance. For a proud dwarven king to comply with the demands of elves seems outrageous.
That takes us to the events of the game. Loghaire had exiled himself to repent for his betrayal of his own people. His son Randver takes over the throne in his stead as King-in-Waiting. You arrive at the Wheel Clan to find out what happened to the Black Mountain Clan, having been sent by the steam engine tycoon Gilbert Bates (the very kid who “borrowed” the technology from the Black Mountain Clan) to know of the banished clan’s fate.
You have to talk to Loghaire, an immensely powerful dwarf king who does not want to be disturbed from his mourning. You need to find a way to get through to him to know who was responsible for the disappearance of the Black Mountain Clan. One way to do this for a character with a minimum of 13 intelligence is to inquire with Randver about the dwarven philosophy of the Stone and the Shape.
The Stone and the Shape
Upon arriving at the throne room of the Wheel Clan underground complex, you talk to Randver. He is King Loghaire’s son and King-in-Waiting. You get a sense that he doesn’t really want to be there, but he took the post as his responsibility while his father remains in exile.
Since you really need to talk to Loghaire, you ask Randver for advice on how to get through to him. While reluctant at first, he relents and tells you what you need to know since he’s desperate to get his father out of his self-imposed extradition from civilized living.
If your character is intelligent enough, you can take the dialogue choice that will lead to Randver discussing dwarven philosophy.
My father’s reasons for leaving are tied up in ageless tradition. Truly, in his opinion, he had no option other than to leave his clan. He was only doing what he saw to be his only choice.
Perhaps tradition is the wrong word. Philosophy might be a better one, though we dwarves rarely consider ourselves philosophers. A philosophy, as most know it, infers a certain amount of subjective opinion, and a particular open-mindedness toward other trains of thought.
What I speak of is different. The stuff of dwarven souls, the tenets we live by, our moral fiber — though morality plays no part in it. Not morality as most know it.
Morality, at its most basic level, presupposes choice. To live by a “moral” code means there is, inherently, an “immoral” code. These are not terms we employ in discussions pertaining to dwarven intangibles. If you understand that, the rest is easier. We refer to what is known as the Stone and the Shape.
What he’s saying here about dwarven morality is something akin to Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative.
To be a Dwarf, what does this mean? Our character is defined by immovability, the solidity of stone. We dwarves see the soul not as something ephemeral or transient, but as rooted in this reality as the mountains from which we carve our homes.
Take this mountain, the sight of him against the horizon can set our hearts afire, and with throaty and tear-choked cries we’ll call greetings or farewell. But to live within him, feel him shifting and settling, cracking, veins full with blood of gold and silver, and he is both hard and generous, and we rejoice in both because we are Dwarves.
There is much about us that is like the stone. We feel no more at home than when it surrounds us, and it carries to us the roar of the great molten flows, or the slow whine of subterranean ocean-rivers, or when all is quiet, mountain-whispers so steeped in age that even the stars were young when they were first spoken.
Perhaps the simplest way to sum this up is the concept of doing good not because you were told to or even taught to, but because it’s both the logical thing to do and simply in your nature. You do good because it is good and you are good, simple as that.
Being good is both a habit and a part of your identity, so it’s not even that much of a choice for you. You can still see that you can choose to do it, but it’s also who you are, and you are confident in that.
There are many kinds of stone. What I speak of is what we are all cut from, not the form we take afterwards. That is what is known as the Shape.
The Shape is what forms us, what defines our being and our purpose and the things we say and do. As there are many types of stone, so are there as many shapes. Granite for bricks, and shale for oilstones, and marble for statues, and crystal for the fragile and the precise.
A stone yields what is already within. And so we, as Dwarves, look within and see what it is we are to become.
The Shape isn’t just being whoever you want to be, neither is it being destined to become something particular and nothing else. It’s a more involved and intensive process than just picking a college degree, profession, or even identity.
This is the most important concept. One cannot exist without the other. To a certain degree, Shape does define what the Stone becomes. Flint makes a good striking stick, but the reverse is just as true. You can’t make a good striking stick without flint. Shape arises from Stone, but Stone is dependent upon Shape.
As slate will flake and crack under the sculptor’s chisel, so will a dwarf who knows not his purposes, knows not his Shape.
You don’t just choose your Shape, but you have to be sculpted and molded into that Shape that best fits your Stone. But no matter what kind of Stone you are, you are still Stone. There are realities of being a Stone that can never be changed, but you get to be the best Stone you can be with the best Shape possible.
If you think that we are “fated” from birth to be a particular kind of person, you are incorrect, although I can see where you’d make that connection. I’ve said only that your Shape must be true to your Stone. The use of the word “fate” presupposes a single, unalterable line. Dwarven purpose is a room with many doors.
Dwarven morality, the choices we make, at the most basic level, is defined by us being dwarves. Work ethic, love of family, respect of wisdom, these are our morality. We see them not as choices because, as dwarves, it is merely being who we are. Stone is the existence of these things; shape is their expression.
That last sentence really hits his point home. We in the real world like to debate about nature versus nurture in various things a bit too much. Why wouldn’t it be both that add up to how a person turns out to be? Isn’t a person born to particular circumstances, then given faculties to learn about themselves and determine how to go about life?
Randver then explains what was going through his father’s mind when he decided to go into a very prolonged anti-vacation deep beneath the earth.
My father left us because he felt he had betrayed both his Stone and his Shape. He felt that allowing the elves to banish his brethren was a betrayal of his Stone. The same act was also a betrayal of his Shape, being King of the Dwarves. Without either, he was empty.
He then further elaborates on the Stone by bringing up Lorek the Abjurer, the instigator of the centuries-long Dwarf Civil War.
Meanwhile, Lorek was a dwarf who had betrayed his Stone. He believed that his clan was better than those of other dwarves, and because of this only they were fit to rule. Anyone who opposed him was put to death. His words were evil, but he spoke them well. Many dwarves followed him, and many more died because of it.
Lorek’s Stone was flawed. His shape could be no different.
When you betray your Stone, it means you betray who you truly are inside. Lorek betrayed his Stone by turning against all other dwarves. When one betrays their Stone, their Shape is sure to be flawed as well.
There are times when the choices we are forced to make cannot be true to both the Shape and the Stone. There is a saying among Dwarves, “Weigh your own Stone.”
Musashi Miyamoto wrote his Nine Principles in the Earth scroll of The Book of Five Rings, wherein the very first principle is “Think honestly.” That means being honest with yourself, even when you’re making mistakes. You can’t learn from your mistakes if you’re not willing to admit that you’ve done wrong and your behavior and mindset are flawed.
Problems are when challenges or difficulties have clear cut solutions; dilemmas are when there’s only a bad choice and an even worse choice. When dilemmas come up, you have to make a choice regardless of sacrifices. How can you make such a choice that stays true to your Stone and Shape? Sometimes, you may have to betray one to stay true to the other.
It goes back to Kant’s categorical imperative. The best possible choice you can make is what yields the least falsehood. While you may think you can tell white lies to embellish the truth or cover up what doesn’t seem to matter, that’s no good if you’ll have to continue explaining yourself. I still think that in the end, if you have to lie about it later, it’s best to not do it.
However, it’s all up to you and how much you’re willing to sacrifice. Loghaire was willing to sacrifice his position and status in order to repent for his transgression.
Finding Your Ikigai
Let’s take things back to the real world. The Japanese term ikigai refers to a calling that satisfies four criteria:
- What you love.
- What you’re good at.
- What you get paid for.
- What the world needs.
You can say that’s by order of difficulty in attainment. That sweet spot is incredibly hard to hit because of the conflict between wants and needs.
- If you’re doing what you love and what you’re good at, that’s a passion.
- If you’re doing what you’re good at and get paid for it, that’s a profession.
- If you’re doing what the world needs and get paid for it, that’s a vocation.
- If you’re doing what the world needs and you love it, that’s a mission.
- If what you’re doing satisfies all four criteria, that’s your ikigai — your true calling.
I’m sure there are people out there who think of ikigai as a fantasy, much like Arcanum and its characters. They would tell you to grow up, sit in your shit, and learn to like it.
However, that need for finding one’s true calling still pervades, whether it’s fictional underground dwellers living full lives within the mountains or real people struggling to make things work in the real world. To grow up should mean learning where you truly belong, not just be forced to fit in.
Purpose and Place in Late-Stage Capitalism
A common complaint these days is that not as many people want to take on more “traditional” occupations like being doctors, lawyers, engineers, or so on. Those can potentially bring people closer to their ikigai since they’re public service work based on fascinating and beneficial subject matters, can pay decently well, and require years of study and training to become qualified for.
However, there are problems inherent in today’s systems with most work. As labor becomes more and more demanding and wages are becoming less and less sustaining, there has been a growing movement of anti-work. Let’s leave out the freeloaders who don’t want to work (including me) and focus on the underemployed. Those who are doing better may say such people have merely underachieved and should work even harder to do better.
But isn’t that exactly what today’s work culture wants you to do? To work harder, even with less pay. The potential for better prospects is being dangled in front of them like a carrot to a rabbit, or a hamster in a wheel. However, what’s really hung above them is a proverbial Sword of Damocles, ready to cleave them once they either realize that they’ve been had or when their bodies give out.
Parents miss out on their children’s birthdays, spouses neglect each other, fellow human beings care for each other less and less. If we’re going to talk about purpose and place in this day and age, we don’t even have to talk about work. We just have to talk about how the system doesn’t let us have the time and space to truly find our calling and be made confident enough to know that we truly have a place we can call our own in this world.
And it doesn’t even have to be exclusively about work and employment. With how the educational system works and how most parents tend to teach their kids about what they should become when they grow up, it’s no wonder suicide rates are increasing and “quiet quitting” has become a thing.
On the other hand, the world can always use more doctors, and you can get paid for it once you’re a fully-fledged doctor with your own clinic. But the world is full of quack doctors who aren’t that good at what they do, and I know as a Chinese that a lot of those doctors don’t really love what they do, but they do it because they have to.
The same goes for dentists. I had a dentist who was more into his car than treating his patients.
Striking It Out on Your Own
Let’s take the example of virtually everybody wanting to be online content creators instead. Practically everyone in the world right now wants to be an online content creator these days, but very few people have actually good ideas that can make for good videos, and even fewer have the talent for presentation and entertainment.
Take that reduced number and reduce it even further down to those who can actually monetize their content enough to make a living out of it. Then take all of those “successful” content creators and leave in the ones who are actually doing a valuable service to their audiences.
Aside from maybe Mr. Beast, perhaps the ones you’ll have remaining are the scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, and the really good financial experts who give free education and advice to their viewers. As you can see, even if you’re “successful”, it may not be ikigai enough to check off all four criteria enough to existentially satisfy you.
I don’t want to read too much into why Anthony Bourdain decided to exit Planet Earth on his own, but it does say a lot that while he was doing something he loved and was good at with his shows, which certainly paid him handsomely, he would always talk self-deprecatingly about how he makes “frivolous, self-indulgent television.”
The Importance of Agency
People dreamed of becoming bloggers, then YouTubers, and now dream of becoming famous TikTokers instead of employees and tradespeople because the former offers a lot more agency. A higher salary can’t adequately make up for losing one’s agency, but having the opportunity to shoot the moon for both is even more attractive.
Company employees are beholden to the policies and directives of their employers; government employees to the government; freelancers to the harsh reality of the job market. You can work hard now and get that paycheck, but that work you did won’t even be remembered. All that labor ends up being ephemeral and existentially insignificant.
As a child who had been subjected to a mother’s aspirations of “safe livelihood” — working a 9-to-5 office job was the pinnacle of her dreams for me (a story for another time) — I certainly felt short-changed as far as tutelage goes. Perhaps if I hadn’t had that hammered into me in my youth, maybe I’d be working in a big company right now as a middle manager or something.
But somehow, I ended up like this, just having reached my late 30s, writing about the fictional philosophy of stumpy alcoholics in a computer game on a website I’m paying too much money for to keep up. But I’m writing nonetheless, the one thing I want to keep doing until my last breath.
We don’t get to truly weigh our Stone, and there aren’t enough ways to help us properly carve out our Shape. We’re on our own while we have to struggle to survive.
What is the point of all of this? Of this post reaching almost 4,000 words to talk about the philosophy of fictional characters in a video game?
The Stone and the Shape is a look into finding one’s calling not based on sheer aspiration, but on introspection. We live in a world where the media keeps telling us that we can be whatever we want to be, yet the real world keeps reminding us that our place is wherever allows us to pay the bills and serve our masters until our dying breath.
This really long blog post surely went off the rails, going from interesting fictional philosophy to real world existential dilemmas. If it made even a tiny bit of sense to you, then perhaps I did alright with writing this. I just went off the seat of my pants when I rewatched the video of the Stone and the Shape lecture. It’s one of my two favorite moments in that particular location in Arcanum, so I can’t gush enough about it.
I’ll be writing more about philosophy on this blog sometime soon. I can’t promise that they’ll be good blog posts — most of it will likely be pretentiously horrible. They’ll just be chronicles of me continuing to learn about this stuff and maybe even come up with a few ideas of my own.
Have something to say? Do you agree or am I off-base? Did I miss a crucial detail or get something wrong? Please leave whatever reactions, questions, or suggestions you may have in the comment section below.
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