Video Games & the Nature of God
By drew dixon
September 26, 2011
The nature of God remains a subject largely untouched by video games. Games like Assassin’s Creed, Red Dead Redemption and Dragon Age: Origins ask significant questions about religion. Japanese games have a history of appealing to pantheons of mythical gods. From Dust asks the player to act as a tribal deity protecting your worshipers from natural disasters. Spiritual forces, mythical gods and religion are common subjects in games, but serious, thoughtful explorations of faith in a singular, omnipotent God are largely absent from the gaming industry. El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, a game based on the Dead Sea Scrolls’ Book of Enoch, breaks new ground in this realm.
One of the first Christian game studios, Wisdom Tree, put out a number of games in the '90s, including Bible Adventures and Exodus. More recently, Left Behind Games, an overtly Christian game studio, released a game that gives players the task of converting or killing heathens in the tribulation. Neither of these studios, however, succeeded in presenting the player with a nuanced picture of God. The God of Bible Adventures is cheesy and potentially legalistic, and the God of the Left Behind games is borderline offensive. “El Shaddai” is Hebrew for “Almighty God,” and true to its name, the game presents an appropriately mysterious God. While based on an Apocryphal text (the Book of Enoch was probably written sometime around 300 B.C. and is not considered Christian canon), El Shaddai is the most nuanced and thoughtful treatment of faith in God that I have seen in a video game.The game centers on the Biblical figure Enoch, who is charged with the task of subduing the fallen angels who have been mating with humans and building the Tower of Babel as a testimony to their independence. If Enoch, the only human being never to die (God “took him” Gen. 5:24), fails to overcome the fallen angels mankind will be destroyed by a flood.
The Christian who approaches El Shaddai as if it were biblical theology will be continually frustrated. It’s not based on Christian canon and even takes some modern liberties with its apocryphal subject matter. Enoch wears designer jeans and, in one stage, drives a motorcycle. Enoch’s guide through the game is the angel Lucifel (if it’s not obvious, think "Lucifer"), who also wears designer clothing and talks to God on a cell phone. In El Shaddai, Lucifel has not yet fallen and is one of heaven’s most powerful angels. Some of the game’s most interesting sequences involve Lucifel. He rewinds time to save Enoch, equips him with armor and speaks to God on his behalf. Christians should be slow to discredit the game based on these liberties for two reasons. First, the game was made by a multi-faith team and consequently we should not expect the game to mirror an orthodox understanding theology or faith. Secondly, due to its interactive nature, authorial intent in games is far more open than other mediums.
I spoke with Shane Bettenhausen, director of New Business Development at Ignition Games (developers of El Shaddai) about the game and he warned me that when playing El Shaddai, “it is a little hard to completely understand everything the game is trying to tell you and some of the storytelling is purposefully vague. There are some holes that were left in there that the director actually wanted the player to fill in with his own ideas.” El Shaddai’s plot is confusing at times and other times outright baffling. This appears to have been intentional on the part of the developers and the result is a refreshing treatment of God and faith.
Much of the critical discussion about El Shaddai has centered on its art style. The game’s lead designer, Sawaki Takeyasu (art director for Okami and the Devil May Cry Series) has created a fascinating world. Everything around Enoch is constantly moving and changing. The game has chosen an otherworldly setting and the art succeeds in conveying to the player a sense of foreignness and wonder. When you first approach the Tower of Babel, it’s hidden in a shroud. As you get closer, its extravagance is further and further revealed. Another portion of the game has Enoch descending into Hell which is depicted in an appropriately dark, foreboding and deceptive fashion. The environs of the game morph both to deceive and amaze. It’s an appropriate setting for a tale about fallen angels, God and the heavenly realm.
The game itself is a combination of hack-and-slash fighting, 3D exploration and 2D platforming. But the mechanics of each of these tasks are complimented with heavenly elements. When Enoch falls off a platform, you hear the sound of someone snapping their fingers, referring to Lucifel rewinding time to save Enoch. When Enoch falls in battle, he is revived by the archangels and given new armor. Each time he is brought back to life, he remarks, “No problem, everything’s fine” as if he expressing determination to complete the holy task that lay before him.
El Shaddai takes some liberties in its treatment of God, Lucifel and the archangels. However, it is some of these very liberties that allow the game to shine in its treatment of God and faith. Take for instance Lucifel’s conversations with God on his cell phone. Enoch is never privy to what God is saying, in each instance Enoch only hears Lucifel’s side of the conversation. What is God saying about Enoch? What is God going to do? Is God going to help Enoch or is He testing him? When driving a motorcycle, control of Enoch is taken away from the player numerous times as he miraculously evades certain death. Is this the hand of God orchestrating Enoch’s fate? At one point when a battle seems to be going poorly for Enoch, a beam of light pours down from the heavens and consumes his enemy. Upon witnessing this event, Enoch shudders and asks, “Was that the power of the Lord?”
Observing Enoch attempt to discern the hand of God is not far from reality. Most players who complete the game will certainly find themselves with more questions than answers. Is that not true of the Christian’s walk with God? While far from strictly biblical, El Shaddai’s treatment of God is appropriately complicated and mysterious. Enoch’s faith, despite these complexities, perseveres. Much like life, exactly how God’s hand was at work in guiding Enoch through his quest remains a mystery. While far from perfect, it’s refreshing to play a game that treats the nature of God with the nuance and complexity that the subject deserves.