When showrunner Mike Schur explained the numerical point system that determines the fate of the characters in his new show, The Good Place, he likened it to a video game. Sure, it’s a comedy, but it’s deceptively complicated, and when Schur explained the rules of his universe, he opened a can of worms; his breezy explanation activated a discussion about simulation theory, glitches in the matrix, and whether or not The Good Place is actually the season’s most terrifying new sci-fi show.
Kristen Bell plays Eleanor Shellstrop, a woman mistaken for a much better (and recently deceased) woman. The attorney on the other side of the mix-up was basically a saint, having spent her career defending innocent people on death row and helping child refugees escape the horrors of war. Despite not actually doing any of those things, Shellstrop’s incredible stroke of luck landed her in a place that turned away “every U.S. President except Lincoln”: The Good Place, aka the show’s version of Heaven. Shellstrop — or, the woman for whom she was mistaken — earned the trip to “The Good Place” thanks to a super-high numerical score that represented the balance of all her good and bad deeds, which were tallied upon her death.
This point system determines the fate of every single one of The Good Place’s denizens, and as such was a key focus in the show’s pilot. Schur (who co-created Parks and Recreation) gave Entertainment Weekly the lowdown of how he designed an inherently and purposely flawed system. As viewers will discover, there is something wrong with the Good Place if it extends an invitation to people like Eleanor Shellstrop while shutting out the likes of modern saints such as Florence Nightingale.
The closest theological comparison to The Good Place’s point system comes from the Indian notion of karma. The basis of several important Asian religions, Karma, in its more simplified form, is the accumulation of one’s deeds in life. Good deeds are paid forward and determine the person’s reincarnation. If they chain together enough lifetimes worth of good karma, then they will be freed from the cycle of life and death.
However, The Good Place’s point system has an even closer cousin: video game morality systems. Games like Mass Effect, BioShock, and Fallout give players the chance to make personal decisions based on a sliding scale of good and evil. If a player chooses to, let’s say, murder an innocent person for an in-game reward, that decision will negatively impact the character’s karma.
This makes a pretty strong case that The Good Place takes place in a world where human life is a simulation. There’s a good chance their world follows the same system of data-crunching algorithms that grade its participants based on a preprogrammed set of rules. It’s why arbitrary values are added to actions like +1.04 points for eating a sandwich, or -3994.96 points for poisoning a river. While the correlating morality of the points make sense on paper, they follow traditional assumptions about what constitutes good and bad behavior.
Video games often use these numerical points and predetermined values to make up for the fact that most games lack a truly intuitive method for learning a players personality and moral standing. By that logic, the power that oversees The Good Place suffers from a similar shortcoming, potentially explaining Eleanor’s case of mistaken acceptance.
If the world of The Good Place is a simulation, then its rules indicate it could be a flawed one, or at the very least a shallow one. If those logical leaps are true, then Schur might have made a case that even if the world is a sophisticated simulation as Elon Musk hopes it is, then it might not be a functional one.
This is based on the idea that as human civilization creates more and more realistic simulations — like the ones seen in VR and video games — it’s not unreasonable to assume that our current world isn’t also just another highly advanced simulation.
Some sci-fi stories like The Matrix co-opt a messianic narrative to explain away the glitch that allows Neo to overcome the collective simulation. By contrast, Schur might have an even simpler, more depressing explanation: The simulation is just a little shoddy.
While The Good Place is so far setting itself up as a show about a woman whose case of mistaken identity is causing her to re-examine her own life, Schur’s show could go down as an apocryphal text in the sci-fi canon regarding the simulated existence.
Seemingly uninterested in labeling itself as a hardcore sci-fi show, The Good Place masks the existential horror of its premise with jokes and absurdity. But behind the show’s sitcom veneer is the implication that even the most exclusive and seemingly perfect version of the afterlife envisioned in fiction is a buggy mess. What chance does that leave for our own reality to be any better?