The Best (and Worst) use of Religion in Video Games

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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.

There are three targets!

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.

A burning ring of fire, like the song!

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.

Conclusion

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.

 

15 Responses

  1. James

    January 20, 2013 4:29 am

    Great essay. I love how old myths and legends are laced into our generation’s culture. I honestly had zero interest in such things until I started playing games such as Final Fantasy.

    The mythological references we find in our video games are more like cameo appearances. It’s fun to wiki the variety of deities that come up here and there.

    I agree that these cameo appearances are a bit shallow most of the time, but I have to give credit to Final Fantasy for creating their own unique pantheon for each numbered release. The most recent would be the Fabula Nova Crystallis mythology, which I think is based off of a creation myth from an ancient tribe in Japan.

    Games such as these that are made with such depth and detail will remain timeless. I love RPGs.

    • Jeff Wheeldon

      January 23, 2013 10:17 pm

      Agreed on all counts! Thinking of how amazing the FF series has been, and then realizing that they’ve only been scratching the surface of the significance of the characters and creatures they’ve been using, is almost enough to make me weep for what might have been.

      Thanks for reading, and for commenting!

  2. Joshua McKeon

    January 27, 2013 10:09 am

    The problem I have with the later FFs use of religious iconography is how shallow the references are because really the later FFs are cannibalizing the early FFs without consideration of why they were used. Modern FFs use these references without acknowledging the authors’ intent which is ironically much like how religions will borrow older religions stories to be a part of their own mythology and it comes off as just that, shallow references to the past FFs, any possible religious meanings were lost long ago.
    An overabundance of religious iconography and mythology can be a great when done well and I’ll give you the reason why; the Shin Megami Tensai series. Never has been a game series that uses mythology so liberally, from any religion if there is a god, a demon or even just an idea no matter how obscure it will be in at least one of these games and yet they fit perfectly. Now I’m not going to go too in depth here otherwise this will end up as an essay but I think why this works is simply this; relevance. The ‘creatures’ exist because the Megaten series treats all mythologies as true and never uses an idea that isn’t relevant to the plot at hand, for example the Tower of Babel in Devil Survivor and the Akashic Records in the sequel, not one idea is wasted, the plots are extremely focused and that is not only surprising but pretty masterful storytelling.

    For religious iconography to work it has to be tight and relevant. As many games show overindulgence and shallow depictions of religion can confuse or even ruin a story, a steady hand really is needed to keep the writers focused on the whys and hows and so they don’t fall in to the trap of ‘Crosses look cool so let’s throw them around everywhere’ mentality.

    • Jeff Wheeldon

      January 28, 2013 9:07 am

      Amen! I would rather see one or two meaningful and relevant uses of lore than a thousand superficial or “cool” uses of it.

      I’ll definitely have to look into the Shin Megami Tensai series, thanks for the heads-up!

  3. O'Shea

    January 27, 2013 11:33 am

    Very nice reading. I’m an anthropologist and been fascinated over myth and religion in games since I was child. It’s true what you say that most appearances of these themes on games are shallow. When a game can show the player via myth and religion that other worlds ARE possible; that they have been possible in humanity’s past, in other parts of the world…that’s the kind of broadening experience I always expect to find in a game; and that today is mostly relegated to books and some movies.
    I still fondly remember games like the snes Final Fantasy; or Planescape: Torment. They were moving experiences for me. In my view the degree on which a game lore is moving for the player comes down to the game’s perspective on humanity: its horizons, its limits, its inner workings. It doesn’t even need to be very deep, just the right amount to give your world consistency and make you think questions beyond the game mechanics. In most cases the presence of the pertinent of god in-game ends up being very disappointing. I guess some things are meant to be represented. But hell, there are no limits on the questions you can ask. A single question -what can change the nature of a man?- or a quest -the water one on the original Fallout- can set up a whole world in motion around them.

    • Jeff Wheeldon

      January 28, 2013 9:13 am

      I hadn’t thought of it from an anthropological perspective (theology is more of my area), but there’s plenty of material there. Write a book about it (or maybe just a guest essay for Push Select!); I’d love to read it :)

      I think to a certain extent more subtle uses of lore in video games are required just to make a game’s world believable. We’re accustomed to a certain amount of plurality, and even a certain amount of syncretism, and so a world without any kind of religious diversity is simply unbelievable for us. Perhaps this implies that religion is somehow inherent to humanity, because we have difficulty imagining a world without it.

  4. Nikhil

    January 28, 2013 4:13 am

    Great read. I think one game that dealt really well with the concept of an omniscient, omnipotent God was Dragon Age: Origins. I liked the way how the world followed this one particular line of thought projected by the chantry, but then you would always have unique differing opinions where characters questioned the origins of particular things, things that had a clear-cut origin story explained by Chantry lore.

    The God in DA:O is pretty much the God of Abrahamic religions, but appears to be smaller in scope and more human (in terms of his/her foibles). Also, in spite of being omnipotent, the game’s tone doesn’t make him/her appear to be morally irreproachable. Then there’s the fact that any character you roll, is almost certainly either a lapsed Andrastian, or an atheist or agnostic. Yet, most of the missions you carry out are in the name of Andraste or the Maker.

    In my opinion, this was the first time a game world accurately represented the ecosystem around monotheistic religions without forcing you to pick between destroying the God, or embracing him/her. As a result, the characters I rolled every time I played were extensions of my belief system, i.e. I didn’t believe in the Maker’s existence, but everyone else around me did, so if it gave them peace, I let them be.

    And really that’s how I am in the real world too.

    • Jeff Wheeldon

      January 28, 2013 9:34 am

      Thanks Nikhil! I’ve been meaning to dig into Dragon Age for quite a while now (see Friday’s rant for a primary reason why I haven’t yet) – I’ll definitely make it a gaming priority now :)

      It’s nice to hear of a decent treatment of a monotheistic worldview. I’m just awaiting the publication of an article I wrote about superheroes, and how graphic novels are a new form of the ancient genre of apocalyptic literature. Studying the Marvel and DC universes, it’s pretty clear that they can’t actually include the type of all-powerful, personal God of a monotheistic faith. Their story arcs depend on a constant stream of ever-more-powerful beings; the direct intercession of an all-powerful creator God, which is precisely what Judaism and Christianity argue has happened, would disrupt or ruin the cosmic scale that superheroes operate on. Such a universe can only tolerate God if he’s distant and uninvolved, or only involves himself through intermediaries. It’ll be interesting to see how Dragon Age balances those concepts to produce a realistic portrayal of monotheism in a somewhat magical context!

      • Nikhil

        January 28, 2013 11:05 am

        It’ll be great to read your take on religion in comics. I agree that a single God entity can’t exist in either universe. If anything, religion in Marvel and DC is more “pantheon-ic” in nature, along the lines of Hinduism (and more obviously) Grecian and Roman. Where deities represent different facets of human nature or just nature, as a whole.

        I thought Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy did a fantastic job of criticising monotheism and to an extent, in comics, so did “The Preacher” series.

        Hope you enjoy DA:O when you get around to it.

    • Jeff Wheeldon

      February 20, 2013 4:50 pm

      Agreed! To a certain extent, use of lore and tie-ins with previous games is highly creative, but past that point it’s simply evidence of a complete lack of creativity. It really can be done well, but it’s a gamble, because it’s a fine line between awesome and awful.

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