The Varying Depictions Of Religion And Mythology In Games

I should probably start out by stating that I’m not particularly religious, but as I write this post I am heading towards a pre-wedding interview with a Catholic priest. No, I’m not going to talk about Catholic or Christian games – I’ll spare myself going down that rabbit warren – but I have found myself pondering how deeply religion and mythology has seeded itself within video games.

Christian mythology in games is very often more concerned with showing us hell and the horrors that come with it than leading a virtuous life. Dante’s Inferno is the obvious choice, for reasons that I don’t wish to remember, as is Darksiders’ use of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, but perhaps the most interesting example is how The Binding of Isaac twists the tale of Abraham and Isaac. Instead of a word for word retelling in either of the three versions of the story, the game opts to put a personal touch that, while disturbing, has a feeling of overwhelming sadness about it.

But if you want the full Christian iconography of what God would look like, there are few examples and only one real version in games springs to mind that bears any resemblance. I am, of course, referring to the secret boss in Dragon Quest VII that, while he shares no connection to God outside of his physique, is the closest visual representation I could think of.

Kratos-IL

However, it feels as though the games industry is far more interested in exploring and adapting other cultures. Greek mythology with warts and all is paraded before being promptly slaughtered in the God of War franchise, while Norse mythology features in numerous games such as Valkyrie Profile, and even the Persona series has links to Japanese Shinto religion in relevant and interesting ways.

Egyptian mythology is less common beyond the likes of the aptly named Age of Mythology or Lara Croft & The Temple of Osiris, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn of Egyptian themed armour that has been added to Destiny in its latest expansion. Even in Puzzle & Dragons Z there is a Dragon called “Anubisis” – an incredibly tough foe that can kill you with one hit. Given how Anubis is associated with the afterlife, the behaviour of this creature is quite fitting.

With such strong ties between gaming and Japan, it’s no surprise that their mythology is often featured within games, with Okami a clear example. Amaterasu, the Sun God, takes the form of the wolf in the game, but you also have Tsukuyomi, Susanoo, and even the antagonist Orochi, all of whom have deep and fascinating stories attached to them that offer a great insight into another culture.

Developers constantly borrow and adapt these figures, with Final Fantasy drawing on disparate religious figures from around the world. Ifrit hails from Arabic folklore, Odin from Norse mythology, and of course there’s the Hindu god Shiva, all of whom make regular appearances through the series. Liberties are honestly taken with a lot of the summons, but they certainly are probably most Western gamer’s first exposure to these cultures.

FFOdin-IL

There are, of course, more than a few examples of interpreting these cultural backgrounds poorly. Gypsies in Assassins’s Creed II are essentially prostitutes, with the source material based on slander originating from the 16th Century, while voodoo merely has the likes of Aku Aku and Mumbo Jumbo to work with. It was Hollywood and the world of film that popularised the connection between voodoo and zombies, but being reduced to being mascot characters is an injustice, all the same.

Thankfully, there is often a great deal of depth and nuance far beyond what I can judge, as I honestly know very little about the subject. If you’re curious about any religion found in games, people have been researching and sharing their discoveries, with ne of the most fascinating examples comes from Gaijin Goomba’s Game Exchange, where he talks about how the universally panned Sonic The Hedgehog from 2006 features not one, not two, but three different incarnations of the devil.

But what about the religions getting the snub that are fascinating in their own way? Ninja Blade’s forthcoming Hellblade will finally be exploring Celtic myths, for example, alongside a bold attempt to depict psychosis and mental health issues, but I also feel that even some of the more common religions tapped within games could use the full God of War treatment and a thorough exploration of said mythology. At the very least, such games open the door and encourage me to learn more about cultures from around the world.

– PAGE CONTINUES BELOW –

8 Comments

  1. Lovely topic and fascinating every step of the way. You could literally create games about something suitably wonderful/bombastic/harrowing from a religious text or use it to simply create a world (and/or creator) in a game where it helps to supplement the lore and general mythology of environmental design.

    With the “big” religions being so obvious to so many, I’d far prefer to have the marginal ones looked at more closely. Even just simple dashes of spirituality (think: Never Alone) are a damn good start as it helps us to understand a different culture and understanding can often lead to tolerance, acceptance and a myriad of other positive feelings.

    • Never Alone is a fantastic example of a dive into the mythology of a relatively little known culture – or more accurately, a poorly stereotyped one. This was more a piece about the various religions, mythologies and games that sprang to Dave’s mind, but it’s really just the starting point for something that pervades so many aspects of innumerable games.

      • Agreed. It’s a shining example of how our society can learn so much more about the world around us. Equally, that people creating such games have an almost untold wealth of untapped history (be it fact/fiction/myth/etc).

  2. I have long been intrigued by the use of religion in the Shin Megami Tensei series. In this case the forces of heaven and hell are not looked on as ‘good and evil’ but as representations of ‘order and chaos’ with both sides having their good and bad points.

    There is a layer of depth to their usage that could be put to good use elsewhere in the entertainment industry I feel.

    • Huh, that actually sounds a lot like Bayonetta from what I remember of it.

      Of course, mostly what I remember of it was hair & a bit of nudity here or there, but I am sure chaos & order featured somewhere. ;)

      • All I remember of Bayonetta is playing the first four levels, hating the combat system and trading it in so I can’t really comment on the plot. Hated her bloody voice though.

  3. I don’t feel like you actually said anything in this article.

    • This article was more of a starting point for discussion about which games people felt did the whole religion/mythology thing well for them. Maybe I will revisit the topic in more investigative detail in the future, but for now I just wanted people to discuss.

Comments are now closed for this post.