By Jeff Wheeldon
I’ve recently discovered the greatness of Extra Credits on PATV (as apparently has James, according to his recent article on Angry Birds and propaganda), and I’d like to applaud them for approaching topics such as faith and religion, and for doing it so very well. For example, I didn’t expect to find such a well-articulated apologetic for faith and science on a video game website. Well done!
That episode was a response to another thoughtful double-episode on the subject of religion in video games, which will serve as the jumping-off point for this article. In part 1 they note that games explore religion in three ways, expanding on two of these: religious lore, and religious mechanics.
In regard to religious lore, they insightfully point to the incessant use of religious symbols, myths, and characters by video games essentially as branding: why design a boss monster for your new game, when you can use Cerberus, the mythic three-headed dog that guards the realm of Hades? That brand already exists, and it’s not under copyright. I remember seeing Cerberus in Parasite Eve, of all places, not to mention his appearance in Harry Potter by his little-known nickname “fluffy.”
To their credit, the Extra Credits team sees the sad truth that this is probably the most shallow use possible of our cultural riches, noting that even games filled with rich symbols fail to explore the concepts they depict. That’s where Extra Credits leaves the topic of religious lore in video games, but there’s a lot to think about there, so let’s unpack it a bit.
Religious Lore, Square Enix, and Inter-Textuality
Games are full of religious lore: anyone who’s ever played Final Fantasy, in any of its incarnations, has witnessed an intermingling of pantheons from around the world. Square does this better than anyone, capitalizing on the power of archetypes (symbolic figures) and inter-textuality (playing off of different religions, myths, writings, and stories) in order to create worlds that carry a sense of being ancient, magical, and full of the deep questions of human existence.
Square recognizes that they can only make a believable world if they populate it with the mythology and motifs of our own world, giving the player the ability to instantly relate to the game characters through their shared context: religious lore. Square also has the cojones to not only use the same lore in multiple settings (every Final Fantasy game has a Leviathan or Behemoth, both straight out of the Old Testament book of Job, which itself is borrowing them from other contexts), but to also use characters of their own creation in many different games, deepening the sense of continuity throughout most of their catalogue. Because what is any Final Fantasy game without Cid, Wedge (himself borrowed from Star Wars), or a moogle or chocobo?
Perhaps the greatest example in their library of this kind of inter-textuality and continuity in the midst of discontinuity is Kingdom Hearts, which combines the world of Disney (who uses religious lore to great effect already) with characters from the Final Fantasy series, developing an interesting plot that manages to still play second fiddle to a string of cameo appearances from these two very different realms. The plot of Kingdom
Hearts contains deep and powerful concepts and depictions of good and evil, but I don’t know of anyone who picked it up for any reason other than the star power of its many side characters.
The reason this is so successful is not due to any particular attribute of any of these star characters; it’s that each of these cameos carries with it a sense of that character’s entire context, the game from which they originate. Just as Cerberus carries with him a sense of the entire realm of Hades and the rich Greek mythology surrounding him, a brief interaction with Cloud Strife carries a sense of the amazing sensation of playing Final Fantasy VII – which itself had a strong sense of continuity with Final Fantasy III due to similar elements (e.g. airships, summons/espers) and characters (e.g., Cid).
Now add to that the many decades of context that Disney characters bring to the game, along with thousands of years of context that religious lore brings to both Disney and Final Fantasy, and it’s almost too much. The story of Kingdom Hearts spans multiple worlds; in this sense, its content is a product of its marketing.
All Things in Moderation
The critique of this use of religious lore is very valid, and exemplified well in Kingdom Hearts: the player drowns in the collected contexts that come with all of the lore packed into the game, to the point where the game’s own story is easily obscured by it and none of the concepts that come with this jumble of lore has enough space to be examined or experienced. In this way, those rich symbols, characters, and archetypes are actually robbed of their meaning.
How many people are quite familiar with Cerberus the three-headed dog from seeing him in video games, but make no connection to Greek mythology, Hades, and questions of mortality? How many people, like me, were disappointed to find that Cloud and Squall, taken out of their own context in Final Fantasy games, are actually pretty boring?
Because Kingdom Hearts had too much lore in it, the greater sense of context that each of the cameo characters brought with them was actually squeezed out, and they became somewhat generic characters with little relevance to Kingdom Hearts’ story. Cerberus and Cloud became mere decoration.
So what’s the solution? Moderation. Rather than getting gamers drunk on lore, treat it like a fine wine, which should be paired with the right cuisine in order for its true flavour to come out. The original Diablo got it right: its lore came from a single (though very wide) tradition, and was inherent to the plot. They were free to play within the tradition they utilized, expanding on concepts and weaving items and archetypes of their own devising into the game in a way that gave these new additions a sense of continuity with the old.
Diablo II expanded into foreign territory, incorporating multiple ancient mythologies, to mixed effect: in one sense they were successful, because they managed to blend these different mythologies together, giving them a sense of continuity; but on the other hand, this had a homogenizing effect, reducing these diverse and powerful traditions into mere variations on a theme and making them all weaker in the process. In trying to blend its rather good wine with other vintages, Diablo II ultimately ended up just watering it down.
One element of religious lore that is always left out of video games is, oddly enough, deity. Even though all religious lore comes from…religions(gasp!), God very rarely makes an appearance. And just as the inclusion of religious lore rarely comes along with a fitting exploration of it, the exclusion of religious lore (i.e., the exclusion of God) is also rarely explored by the game itself.
If God is mentioned at all, it is a distant God who deputizes the player character in the fight against evil. Many games, Diablo again being a good example, live in a context that assumes the existence of an almighty God, yet shield the player from any interaction with God through the use of intermediaries such as angels.
Occasionally there will be an explanation along the lines of the tradition that says that God’s undiluted presence would destroy the player character, and even the world, if he were to intervene directly.
A far more interesting game would explore the apparent absence of God within a context that assumes his existence, asking important questions about God’s absence or hiddenness as the plot progresses. A game that focuses on God’s absence entirely would probably be rather existential and artistic, and thus not a crowd-pleaser, but the possibility to explore such an obvious omission within an action game certainly exists, and would enrich the game far more than adding more angels with flaming swords fighting mummies.
The temptation to use religious lore in video games can be huge: use of inter-textuality can add layers of rich subtext, and make a fantasy world come alive. But over-use of religious lore actually has the opposite effect, ultimately de-valuing the rich contexts and stories we draw from by failing to examine them and recognize their meanings and themes.
A moderate use of religious lore (or its obvious exclusion), limiting it to where it is fitting and where the player can actually interact with it, inserts the player into a conversation with human history, art, philosophy, and literature, and even with faith.
Ultimately, that’s way cooler than intellectually cheap images of giant three headed dogs or angels with flaming swords could ever be.