My God has more hitpoints than yours

Video games cover an array of different themes and elements (some of them even cover current affairs) from time to time when the developers are pushing their product to be something other than an action sequence. In this endeavor, they might actually hire the fabled “writers” to put in a coherent back story, add depth to the setting, and then put a twist on it. Usually, however, developers just pick a coder’s name out of a hat from a fanfic selection night and dub him the writer. That, or just hire some monkeys and sit them in front of typewriters and hope for the best. Either way, a story within a game is obviously commonplace in today’s market. But let’s look at a specific element that only a few ballsy writers actually try to take on. In this case, I’m talking about religion.

Sometimes, when the scope of a game is quite large, a writer may inject a creative idea that the people in the setting have a religion. Perhaps it’s a needed part to the story, maybe it’s an intended twist, or, most likely, it’s just the writer trying to poke fun at religion (I hear that’s what all the cool kids are doing). Regardless, he creates a divinity or a pantheon of holy (or unholy) immortals that persist on either being rather neutral and non-confrontational or they roam the lands and set people on fire. However, religion in a video game is never brought in as a tone or a soother. Some way, some how, the writer insists that religion must equate conflict.

Who can blame them though? If fiction is the allusion to telling a story about reality, then obviously some elements of our reality would persist into a fictional religion. And, in our reality, religions often conflict (we even have an era named after it). While we perhaps are no longer on a “holy war” scale, you still have your “ethnic cleansing” going on in some parts of the world all at the behest of one group of people’s beliefs do not align with another, so, by some twisted logic, they then must die. Of course there’s still a slight of hand between the clergy of major religions (all of whom insist if you don’t believe in their specific religion then you’re going to spend the days after your death in some fiery pit), despite that the holy books from each one insist treating others with kindness and respect. Should we then be so surprised when writers often throw religion into a matter of conflict within games (perhaps even as the main focus point of the plot) when our own history is rife with its share of conflict? Probably not. So let’s take a look at some of the good (and bad) religious designs in video games.

By the Nine!

Bethesda’s Elder Scroll franchise is a rather old video game series full of its own lore. While there are clear and distinct allusions to racial tension and obvious from-our-own-reality influences, Bethesda manages to twist it around with one unique element–religion. Religion is dynamic in the world of the Elder Scrolls, where some mortals can even achieve godhood if favor can be won by what are called the Nine Divines. However, just like in any classic story, there is always a polar opposite to the side of light, which, in the Elder Scrolls case, is really more of a shades of gray and then later plummets into the abyss of darkness. Still popular (and yet outlawed in some provinces) is the worshiping of the Daedra, gods of old who do wicked deeds. Unlike the Nine Divines, who believe in doing good, seeking justice, and respecting nature, the Daedra are flexible with their beliefs. You have Sheogorath the Madgod, Daedric Prince of Madness. While we, in reality, put the nutters in the nut house, in the Elder Scrolls, the nutters find religion with Sheogorath, whose “holy” symbols include heads of lettuce, balls of yarn, and wheels of cheese. There is no order to Sheogorath (unlike a traditional sense of religion, which usually can be the epitome of order); the only constant is change for believers, and doing some of the most random things can appease the Madgod.

Still, the Elder Scrolls throws a twist into the mix by differentiating between the Nine Divines and the Daedra by one simple feature–the Nine Divines are silent, while the Daedra can even assume form and walk the mortal realm with great powers. That is to say that you may pray to the Nine Divines, but you’ll never hear them answer your prayers, while the Daedra, on the other hand, can even have conversations with you and ask favors for you to do. Yet another element of interest is the idea that the Nine Divines can actually be killed, while the Daedra (through repeated proof) cannot. This is a common argument put forth by Daedric worshipers–how can the Nine Divines be true gods if they can die?

These elements are what make the Elder Scrolls franchise unique. While worshipers of the Nine Divines emanate typical belief in that they can’t see it, they can’t touch it, and they don’t know it, but they believe in it anyways (which is more akin to religion in our reality), there is yet another element of a darker nature that influences the fabric of the world (which is where the main conflict comes from in each Elder Scrolls game) who are more powerful than the good guys. But seriously, if some of your bad guy gods include Sheogorath, who’s the combination of the Mad Hatter and a schizoid and enjoys having cheese rain from the sky, to Sanguine, the Daedric Prince of debauchery, who would rather have a royal party amongst prudes become livelier when he removes all of their clothes. Of course not all Daedric Princes are benign as the previous–you do indeed have your typical death, destruction, and murder gods. But what’s interesting is that they’re not passed off as the “devil worshipers” as the trope may suggest, but instead embody some philosophical ideas (Vaermina is the Daedric Prince of dreams and also nightmares; Mephala is the Daedric Prince of fate; Azura is the Daedric Prince of dusk and dawn, whose powers allow the transition from night and day). Without the Daedric Princes, the reality of Tamriel would unravel and the world would be undone, thus bringing in the ying and yang concept.

There is a Promised Land

Say what you will about the game, but Final Fantasy VII is perhaps the best-known Final Fantasy title from Squaresoft (now Square-Enix). Known to few detractors, however, is that the game’s main plot has everything to do with religion and belief. In fact, the creative minds behind the game did a good job at slipping some different religious beliefs in the game even with the names of a few characters (Cloud’s name, in full, can be a reference to what is happening during the game’s time line–the planet, considered holy, is dying, thus Cloud Strife). What is above all else a central idea in Final Fantasy VII is the philosophy behind nature.

While most (if not all) games put you in the shoes of a hero, most of them take it a bit further to exclaim that your character is the shining example of good. Final Fantasy VII, on the other hand, puts you in the shoes of an apathetic mercenary who gets involved with eco-terrorists. Eco-terrorists whose beliefs reflect that the planet is holy, and thus the corporation Shinra, which draws power directly from what is known as the Lifestream of the planet (the Lifestream is a makeup of recycled life force energy that comes from plants, minerals, animals, and even humans), is an enemy. And despite blowing up power plants and causing general distress amongst the population, the game makes you believe that you are the good guys on the main premise that you’re fighting for a higher cause. Even the Big Bad of the game, Sephiroth, is genetically engineered by a mad man who wishes to find the Promised Land, a fabled area within the world that apparently contains the highest concentration of Mako (what the Shinra corporation calls the Lifestream–tapping into it allows the company to transfer it into Mako energy to power cities and devices on the world).

Even the planet itself fights back with its own creations, known as WEAPONs, in order to protect itself from eminent danger. The game climaxes when the party follow the Big Bad to the center of the earth, where the Lifestream is the greatest, in an attempt to thwart his plans that involve manipulating an asteroid to strike the planet and wipe out all life all at the behest of religious ideas. Even after he is destroyed, the asteroid known as Comet cannot be stopped until the number of people on the planet begin to pray for their lives, at which point the planet itself turns the Lifestream’s energy and throws it towards Comet, destroying it and saving the inhabitants of the world. Without even knowing it, a number of fans to the game hold it up on a pedestal where the central theme behind it is faith and religion, making it perhaps the most well-known video game to include such elements as the main plot behind what made it popular in the first place.

Not even death can save you from me

Aptly named Diablo, the franchise that has forwarded Blizzard’s success is mind-blindingly dipped and smeared in religious overtones (as if you didn’t already know that diablo is Spanish for devil). The adventure starts in the first game when your hero delves into a crack in the earth under a church, where, literally, all hell breaks loose, and ends with your character facing the demon spawn himself, Diablo. Things pick up to an even greater creative medium in Diablo II when he returns with friends–he’s got himself two brothers to help him in his ways of dealing pain, death, and anguish to all humans upon the realm.

The story puts on a twist with things from our reality concerning the rhetoric and mythology of religions and cultures respectively when it comes to the topic of evil. Not only do you have Diablo, the Lord of Terror, ruler of Hell, but you also have his brothers, Mephisto, the Lord of Hatred (taken from context of Mephistopheles legend, in which Mephistopheles’s actions are fueled by hatred), and Baal, Lord of Destruction (Ba’al most likely refers to the old Canaanite god Hadad, who presided over storms, which is symbolic of itself with destruction). Their intentions are simple–dominion over the mortal realm, and to accomplish such goals, they unleash their demon armies upon the lands to cause chaos and destruction. But there is always a polar opposite to evil, and, in this case, you have your textbook archangels to help and guide you on your way to attempt to thwart evil.

It’s the twists to these common elements that make Diablo truly interesting, such as the Soulstones that each Prime Evil contains and that must be shattered so that they can never roam the mortal realms, or the Worldstone, an achor to the mortal realm to keep the full forces of good and evil out, which is eventually shattered. Diablo immerses you into the dark elements of demon dungeon delving by throwing at you some of the most interesting artwork in setting and enemies to ensure that there is enough reference to reality in the game but, at the same time, enough creative lore to truly separate it as being different.

Wicked, false, tricksy!

So I mentioned three titles that took unique twists on religion. How about the other games that are doing it wrong? I mean, it’s one thing to inject religion into a game, but then it’s another for it to be there as part of the story, rather than part as a cheap shot at religion in general. Of course, that may be your cup of tea and all, but even the previously mentioned titles do a good job at that in some way. No, what I speak of are the titles that include religion and yet have no imagination or creativity behind them–that the concept of religion is just present to give the game some sort of parallel to reality as a means to a writer who couldn’t come up with something more creative than that.

Dragon Age: Origins —- By the Maker, we have enough Christianity in our own world, thank you. The touch of Joan of Arc was doubly dubious for being a downer. “Sin of man,” yes yes, tell us something new.

Fallout 3 —- The Church of Atom! Praise ye to be, for we are an obvious pot shot at religion and also a throwback to a terrible Planet of the Apes sequel!

God of War —- Alternate reality on an existing pantheon of mythology! How original…NOT. Seriously, you can’t be assed to even change the names?

Fable —- Good accepts gold, and evil accepts sacrifices…but they’re not real anyways, so what does it matter? Oh, right–to affect your player’s alignment.

Black & White —- Peter Molyneux sure does like his cliches, doesn’t he? Even better when played straight in this series that even lets you sacrifice babies for power.

Alpha and Omega

Despite what beliefs you subscribe to, it’s pretty clear that religion is making a big splash into video games these days. I mean, if Dante’s Inferno can be a hit title, then you know that even the common element of strife between good and evil forces is something people can get behind and either shake their fist at or either pick a side. And while only some games do that in philosophy, others bring out the supernatural beings of awesome power and throw them into the mix of video games. It’s only natural, really. I mean, if we, as humans, subscribe to philosophies of beliefs, wouldn’t it only be natural that the people in fictional settings also subscribe to some sort of system of belief as well? The question is just whether those people find the oh-so-cliche religion that has been basically transcribed from our reality to the next or if it is a unique creation of its own. But still, if developers insist only throwing it in as a means of a game mechanic, then you’re going to lose sight on what can be a driving force for your game that could even make it a critical success. But only time will tell if we can be converted to the church of video games. After all, when some of your gods include EA and Activision, I don’t think I’d want to hear those sermons either.

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About Agamemnon
Started blogging back in 2007 amidst that whole Hellgate: London fiasco on a blog known as flagshipped.com. Eventually moved on to do my own thing in December 2008 at gameriot.com and started Caveat Emptor there. Wrote there for six months, gained some notoriety, and then left. Now I'm back.

3 Responses to My God has more hitpoints than yours

  1. Heretica Neue says:

    Hrmm…

    I’m surprised you were critical of the way God of War used/portrayed religion. What’s so wrong about using a popular pantheon and writing your own story with the characters? It’s like mythology fanfiction, and I think a lot of people enjoy that sort of thing. Time after time we’ve seen Greek mythology rehashed and spit out and I’m actually getting pretty tired of those stories. But show me a new story with some of my favorite characters/creatures (gorgons! titans! sirens!), and at least it’ll be something new.

    • Agamemnon says:

      Obviously as someone who enjoys mythology, you would have thought I would have enjoyed God of War, right? Except the trouble with fan fictions from settings and stories that are older than recorded history is that they attempt to extrapolate the story and then apply it to today’s story-telling elements. The notion of a mortal being able to overthrow Ares, son of Zeus, is beyond farcical if you look at it in lieu of the true mythology. Any mortal that defied the gods always got theirs in the end. The idea behind that was always: “The gods are eternal, all-knowing, and powerful.” I didn’t like how God of War just took the cheap attempt of giving you the sense of “being a god” all at the expense of original mythology.

      Some things are just better left to literature.

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