Published Sep 26, 2011Videogames settings have become played out with most defaulting to urban, fantasy, war or space. But a host of titles have been digging into scripture to create unconventional game worlds, led by the visually arresting and biblically inspired El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. Religious-themed games have long been a rarity, dating back to the NES era when such imagery had to be digitally scrubbed in order to get Nintendo's Official Seal of Approval. Wisdom Tree famously created unlicensed NES bible games for sale in Christian book stories, and other religious publishers eventually followed suit, despite evangelists accusing games of being the devil's plaything. But much like Christian rock, they were (poorly made) propaganda tools to win over the kids. This has continued to this day, with poor reviews dogging the Left Behind real-time strategy games (where you can kill-or-convert the heathens left stranded in a post-Rapture apocalypse) while GodStoria, a massively-multiplayer browser-based bible strategy game, has been all but ignored.
The few mainstream games to mine Judeo-Christianity, like the Painkiller franchise, generally used hell as a dungeon-crawler variation for the player to roam and slaughter demons. Dante's Inferno returned gaming to the underworld a couple years back, taking liberties from the most popular book of the Renaissance poet's Divine Comedy trilogy. In this adaptation, a Templar Knight must navigate the nine circles of hell to save his soul-napped girlfriend Beatrice. The stylish, campy Bayonetta similarly pulled influences from Inferno (as well as Purgatorio and Paradiso) in its looking-glass tale of a hell-powered witch waging war against angels and defeating Jubileus, the Creator. Yes, the game's final Boss Battle is basically with God.
This summer's Shadows of the Damned also headed down into the devil's underground lair in a twisted action collaboration from self-styled punk designer Suda51 (No More Heroes) and survival horror maestro Shinji Mikami (Resident Evil). Following the old-school Zelda/Princess Peach continuum, a demon hunter must descend into hell to rescue his girlfriend. The journey that follows is a grotesque grindhouse wonder pairing black humour with disturbing imagery.
Shadows' hell may be more creative than most other hellscapes, but its demonic stomping grounds still feel familiar. What really opens the gates up to new vistas is the heavenly El Shaddai, which is a masterwork of surrealist visual design from Takeyasu Sawaki, the character designer on Okami, who takes this opportunity to stuff every artistic idea he's ever had into these heavenly dimensions, from two-dimensional cartoons to black-lit vector graphics to d-lysergic playgrounds.
The game is based on the Book of Enoch, an ancient Hebrew text long since excised from the Old Testament proper, and now considered part of the biblical apocrypha followed by mystic sects. Enoch was the great-grandfather of Noah, but he is called up to heaven to be God's scribe and eventually evolves into his right-hand archangel Metatron.
In Shaddai, Lucifel, a pre-Fall Lucifer wearing designer jeans and anime hair, is your guide – in fact, you save the game by having him dial God on his cell to report your progress. Other angels have rebelled, though, and Enoch must track down and do battle with seven of the fallen to stop them from helping humanity build the Tower of Babel and prevent a divine Flood.
The abstract visuals give the game its style, but the Judeo-Christian metaphysics provide its foundation. While studios have played with the way-back mythologies of Greece, Japan and Norway, amongst other cultures, the most prevalent North American "mythology" has largely been kept at controller's length from gaming until now. And hallelujah, because the bible is full of epic stories that can inspire modern pop-culture like the past few seasons of Supernatural or Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials book trilogy.
The publisher Ignition has made a point of wanting to avoid "the stigma of a bible game," but the trick that Shaddai and these other neo-God games pull off is to root themselves in scripture without succumbing to a religious agenda. Perhaps that's because they're primarily being developed by studios in Japan – where Christianity is as esoteric as Taoism is here – and therefore the creators can treat the bible and its apocryphal offshoots like any other mythic source material filled with Gods and monsters.