By Giving Religion Short Shrift, Video Games Ignore Part of What Makes Us Human
The lack of religious engagement in games is frustrating, because it's an avenue of human experience that the medium could certainly do justice to.
One of the first people you meet in Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is a rare figure in video games: a clergyman. His name is Jeremy. He's presumably an Anglican priest, serving the small town of Yaughton for the Church of England. He's a decent, if flawed man, susceptible to local politics and the interpersonal bitterness that seems to occupy so much relational space in his parish.
At the end of the game's first act, you enter his church, a tiny, modest sanctuary built to hold a couple dozen people, max. Mystical, twisting light reaches into the sky from the extinguished candles behind the pulpit. Here, you can see him pray, tearful and afraid. He believes the world is ending, brought upon by the power of the Christian God. He might be right. In his final moments, he seeks a connection with God, terrified and awe-struck and pained. In this brief moment, makers The Chinese Room captures something true about Christianity, about the way its hope for the return of a triumphant God can clash with the mortal fears of His adherents. In the Gospels, when the angel came to Mary, to tell her she was to carry Christ, she was, most importantly, afraid.
As I said, Jeremy is an unusual sight in video games. Games depicting followers of real-life religions are hard to come by. Which isn't to say that religion, as a concept, doesn't appear in video games. It just takes stranger, more distorted shapes. Enemies are often zealots, worshipping imaginary religions that demand they kill all humans to satiate the gods. Either that, or the gods themselves are active presences, also usually murderous. (I can't count the amount of JRPGs that have asked me to murder God, the Judeo-Christian one or otherwise.) They're images of a warped religious sensibility, one used as window dressing or as an overly simplistic justification for action.
Not that religions don't sometimes encourage or justify violence—quite the opposite. But these standard game-y uses of religion barely scratch the surface of what religious faith actually means to people. Religion is one of the important functions of human culture, a way we've developed to make sense of large questions about values and our place in the universe. It's simultaneously personal and collective, a way of retaining individual connection to something much larger than the individual. It's part of what makes us human.
I was in early adolescence before I first darkened the door of any religious institution. It was a Christian church; I was there for a wedding. Over my teenage years, I became more involved with organized religion, spending more and more time in churches. For a person of faith, a church is a place separate from the rest of life, a physical representation of a value system and a site for a unique kind of community. I find places of worship soothing and special. They carry echoes of people I love and things I hold important.
Most times I see churches in games, I'm fighting in them. The Dark Souls games do this a lot, and even through its fantasy dross it makes me a little uncomfortable. It feels like a fundamental violation of something I care about, and it's a perfect microcosm of the way games see religion: as literal set pieces, to spice up the proceedings, a way to add flavor and maybe inject some excitement with a new setting.
I wouldn't go so far as to say games as some monolithic whole don't respect or understand religion. But when Resistance: Fall of Man contained a massive shoot-out in Manchester Cathedral, I don't blame the church for being incensed. Portrayals like that have a way of diminishing their subject matter.
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Everybody's Gone to the Rapture works hard not to diminish its religious subject matter. Christianity is treated with an eye toward how it shapes people's reactions to increasingly desperate circumstances, both in Jeremy's plaintive prayers and in the judgmental "holier than thou" attitude displayed by many of his parishioners. The religiosity of this tiny British country town is emphasized and distorted by its nearness to the bizarre light that has overtaken the area and apparently vanished all of its residents. The light is an expression of religious anxiety filtered through a science fictional gaze; it's an entirely other being, moving in ways incomprehensible to us, possibly capable of destroying us. Its presence turns the whole game into a meditation on how people respond to the nearness of the potentially transcendent.
The Chinese Room's first game, Dear Esther, is similarly concerned with the numinous, framing its lonely island journey using Christian texts and metaphors, couching the short, emotive experience in a framework of death and rebirth. They're one of the only development teams I can think of that consistently treats religious concerns as worth discussing in games and works to find ways to include them that do justice to what these ideas actually mean to people.
I don't particularly buy the line of thinking that because games are young, we should cut them slack on how and when they cover nuanced, intelligent subject matter. Games can and have told intelligent, emotionally involved stories. Games can convey empathy and make meaning in powerful, distinctive ways. That's why the lack of any sort of religious engagement in most games is frustrating to me, because it's an avenue of human experience that the medium could certainly do justice to, were more developers willing to try and more audiences willing to engage.
Related, on Motherboard: How Would the World's Religions Respond to the Singularity?
My favorite use of religious ideas in a game might be what we see in 2006's Ōkami. In Clover Studio's celebrated adventure game, you play a god. In itself, this is not unusual, and gets back to the problems I discussed above; most games only consider godhood in terms of power. That's why most "god games," wherein you control and develop a civilization or world, are not, in my mind, satisfactory engagements with religious ideas. They're less concerned with questions of metaphysics, faith, or the way we make meaning in human experience and community and more with the way we use power to help or hinder, which is a topic that I think dovetails with direct religious concerns but is separate from them.
Not so in Ōkami. In it, you play as the wolf god, Amaterasu, released after eons of slumber to vanquish an old foe. This foe has colonized your world with its power, draining life and happiness from it. It is, literally, black and white. As Amaterasu, your power comes with a purpose: to help these people and redeem their world. As you use your divine paintbrush to heal wounds, solve problems, and chase off evil, color returns vividly to your surroundings. The world gains a wonderful painterly flair. Flowers sprout.
This is redemption, as it appears to many faiths of the world: freeing man from that which binds and drains, and restoring the dead to life. God—or whatever numinous force you believe in—bringing color back into the world. Ōkami's gameplay is an image that captures something true about the way we believe and think. If games want to do more to engage with the totality of what it means to be human, they should go and do likewise.
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