Warning: The following contains spoilers for Can Androids Pray and features discussions of derealization and suicide.
Across the war-torn battlefield, mechanized corpses lay smoking, holding bodies inside like metal sarcophagi. Craters scar the wastes, reminders of the convulsions of humanity sparring for unnamed ideations. In a pocket at the edges, two Venusian Confederacy fighters lie locked up and damaged. Servos burnt out, they stare at each other alongside the wreckage of a Mercury Protectorate soldier, a reminder of who caused their downfall. Here, in their last moments, a momentary rest is found between these two in their solitude.
Can Androids Pray is a visual novel from developer Natalie Clayton (@ScarletCatalie), written by Xalavier Nelson Jr. (@WritNelson) and scored by Priscilla Snow (@ghoulnoise). With pleasing, striking lofi visuals and a thumping soundtrack, Can Androids Pray is, at its core, a story about what humanity means to us, and how we relate that to our greater purpose and place in this universe.
Spread interstellar, humanity exists across multiple planets. We left earth back in 2087, as the United Continents, but that unity didn’t seem to last long. Now warring on a deserted Earth, virt networks vie for the rights to stream these clashes for the masses. We’ve forgone the ways of physical existence, regarding it as a drain on our limited resources, disease-infested, and less intense than the virtual. All of life exists now within virt space: shows, games, interactions, even our sex lives have been completely digitized.
One of the few things still occurring in our left-behind outer reality are these wars. Distant datacenters analyze simulations of attack plans, plotting out how to handle responses, and ultimately result in an efficiently attained death toll. Enter the focus of our story, Beatrice and player-character Cortney.
With a cut fuel line on your mech, there isn’t much time left. Come sunrise, the both of you will be blown to smithereens. In the interim, Beatrice tries to fill the silence. Ruminating on her foregone last days, she wishes they could have been better spent. Mostly, she despises the fact that she chose to rewatch a show instead of trying out some classic games or reading. You can chose to sympathize or rebuff her, but the conversation stays on a mostly linear track.
Eventually, that conversation turns to questioning what it means to live under the watchful eye of an all-knowing deity. Does He love like we do? If so, does that mean He hates, as well? Does it matter? For Beatrice, the mere possibility of His existence is frightening. It isn’t the idea that under an omniscient god all have no privacy, even to their deepest thoughts. She’s used to that, as the Venusian Confederacy is “1984 with an anime mascot.” Instead, she fears, should He choose to care for us, to have the capacity to worry about His creations, then certainly He must have the faculty to despise us as well. It only follows that you can’t feel one without the other; contrast is necessary for emotions to be what they are. Under this omniscient gaze, is there long-held animosity, or at the very least, apathy? She worries if this fate of hers is punishment.
Furthermore, she reveals to Cortney that she pored over their fallen captain’s datalogs, and made a horrific discovery: only 7 out of 1000 soldiers deployed are human. This helps counter the computers tracking their every move, predicting outcomes, and countering tactics since humans have the ability to be impulsive, to take risks, and shatter preconceived notions of plans by breaking out of patterns. Thus, is she human? Are you? Or are you simply recounting memories crafted for you, false recollections crafted to drive a human instinct?
Beatrice doesn’t have an answer. Her thoughts turn instead to wondering if the life of an AI is something within the purview of God, something that, in death, is welcomed to heaven. Beyond the questions brought up by the idea of not understanding one’s own form of existence, is it possible for a god to love that which we have crafted? For us to have created in our own image and have the depth of emotion we do, this further reinforces her ideas of God containing the same multitudes as us. The lines of the scared and profane had to have been drawn somewhere, at some point, and her thoughts wander in the direction of wondering whether or not we’ve crossed a line for God.
Her questions present further fear within the universe shown to us so far. Once we’ve crafted a world so similar to our own that we can experience physical sensations indistinguishable from outer reality, the barrier between the illusory and the real becomes so blurred we’re unable to determine the difference. Derealization disorder is something that affects huge swaths of people, exacerbated by experiences within virtual realities. This dissociation, the obfuscation of verifiable reality, plagues Beatrice. Where does virt end and truth begin? What constitutes as a worthy life for a god? When we exist so deeply within ourselves and the reality we’ve constructed, God has to feel some sort of dissatisfaction with the direction we’ve gone in, to forego the things He’s made for us and choose to embrace cheap imitations of our own design. This inability to differentiate between digital humanity and our own is even reinforced in the credits song. Vocals are sung by a Vocaloid duet, their velvet tones near-identical to a human’s.
On this desiccated Earth, the truest gift from God we could imagine, we’ve poisoned the air. Cortney and Beatrice are screwed regardless of their fuel line predicament, as their power supplies would eventually drain and shut down their life support, choking them to death on a miasmic atmosphere. In her final moments before shuffling off this mortal coil, Beatrice plans to throw open her airlock and breathe deep. Should she survive, she can know for sure what she is. She’ll still die from the explosion, but at least she can die with closure as to what her existence has been.
Leading into their closing moments, Beatrice talks to Cortney about the biblical Moses, and his desire to look upon the face of God. He’s denied, however, as those who gaze upon God die. It’s then, in her pursuit to determine whether or not she’s human, that she is choosing to look upon the face God. In death, she leaps into the void and hopes outstretched arms can catch her, that she can be worthy of salvation.
In the end, Can Androids Pray never chases answers to these questions. It feels much more like a conversation starter than a conversation. It ends on a quiet note; no explosion or brush-with-death escape for the two. Its cut to black and leaving this place behind suggests that, perhaps, regardless of what these people were, their death allows for a final peace. The game opens with a voiceover of Matthew 5’s opening verses, and its conclusion is fitting here: “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.”
Beyond the veil, we come to an absolute rest, where our fears and worries no longer take shape. God or not, death provides a warm blanket for us to fall asleep under. It doesn’t matter if androids can pray, as their reward will be the same as ours: leaving behind the turmoil of our world for the long sleep.
Can Androids Pray is currently available on itch.io, in two versions featuring differences in color.
Catherine Brinegar is a trans game developer and filmmaker who explores the surreal and abstract in her work. Beyond her creative endeavors she enjoys losing herself inside other worlds, interactive and not. Finding inspiration in everything, Catherine aims to see all the world has to offer, through the continual conversation of art. You can keep up with her on twitter @cathroon.