A quick heads-up before diving into our latest feature – there will be plenty of spoilers for JRPGs both old ad new.
You know how it goes: you and your friends are investigating a murder mystery, trying to save your home from an invading mechanical army, or taking down a fascist corporation leading the planet to ecological ruin. Then before you know it, you’re at the final battle fighting God.
I first encountered this well-worn trope in 2000 with Grandia 2 on Dreamcast, incidentally during a time when I did still believe in the idea of an omniscient creator. Besides being known for its unique turn-based battle system, I was drawn into the game’s good versus evil plot as you fight on the side of the god Granas and his church to prevent the return of the satanic Valmar.
Naturally, being the naive youth I was, the game did a real number on me when it turned out that in the ancient battle between good and evil, Granas had actually died while the church in his name and its pope were actually secretly seeking to revive the evil god Valmar. All that business about faith and prayers was therefore a sham, and by the time our heroes emerge triumphant, protagonist Ryudo proudly proclaims, “We will depend on gods and miracles no longer. We will rely on none but ourselves.” It was a bold, humanist message that left an impact on me.
Of course, it’s a plot device I would see again in other games, from Persona 4 to Xenoblade Chronicles, and indeed most JRPG fans will be familiar with this trope. It also unwittingly entered the mainstream during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests when a Fox News segment erroneously described one of the aims of a radical-left organisation as to “Attack and Dethrone God”. Frankly, a JRPG trope manifesting in real-life couldn’t be more apt for the turbulent script of 2020.
So what’s with the obsession with killing God – are JRPG developers just atheistic deviants?
First, we should probably back up a bit because fighting or killing God in most cases is just a bit of an exaggeration. More often, you just happen to be fighting a very powerful being, who might seem comparably godlike in powers, but hardly a deity. More likely, the antagonist is seeking to become immortal or a god themselves, such as Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VII, or all those Ashina samurai and beasts perverting nature by seeking immortality in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.
Taken that way, defeating these ‘false’ gods almost seems in line with doing the will of the Judeo-Christian God, whose first two commandments are after all about having no other gods before him nor making or worshipping any graven images. After all, as explicitly stated in the book of Exodus, “I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God”.
But take this angle from a Japanese perspective, and just what kind of petty, selfish, egotistical God is this? If JRPGs reflect Japanese culture, then monotheist ideas in western religion are completely at odds with the principal beliefs in Japan: Shintoism, where kami (both divine spirits and gods) exist in the millions to the point of infinity, and Buddhism, where there isn’t even such a thing as a supreme being or creator.
Instead, one may reasonably suspect that the jealous god claiming to be the one true god may in fact be a false god himself, such as in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books, whose supreme deity the Authority is merely the ‘first’ angel that came into being before claiming to be the creator of everyone else that came after him. In Gnostic Christianity, there’s even a lesser god called Yaldabaoth who is responsible for the creation of material things including mankind yet views himself as the one true God whilst ignorant of the superior god – he’s incidentally the name of the true final antagonist in Persona 5, described as the god of control.
JRPGs then aren’t necessarily anti-religious in theme but more accurately anti-monotheistic, which makes the Judeo-Christian God an obvious target. You can see this with Deus in Xenogears, which SquareSoft had originally planned to name Yahweh, though fears that it would anger Christian fundamentalists led to it being changed to Yabeh in the Japanese version as a pun to the Japanese word to describe something dangerous. The thoroughly demonic Shin Megami Tensei series however throws caution to the wind, explicitly naming one of its most powerful bosses YHWH just like the Hebrew Tetragrammaton.
Even when names aren’t explicit, the connotations are still there. Grandia 2’s Church of Granas is clearly an analogue of the Catholic Church – it’s even got a pope – while Final Fantasy VII’s Sephiroth (who’s named after the 10 nodes that form the Jewish Kabbalistic Tree of Life) eventually takes on the form of an angel, represented much like in Christian imagery – his iconic theme is also called ‘One Winged Angel’, complete with choir vocals intoning in Latin.
Of course, negative connotations or appropriations of Christian imagery aren’t limited to video games. Fans of Neon Genesis Evangelion will be familiar with the frequent use of the Christian Cross throughout the anime, usually linked to the arrival and destruction of alien beings referred to as ‘Angels’, also named after angels from the Old Testament. (If appropriating Christian iconography sounds problematic, consider how the Swastika, an ancient religious icon used in Indian cultures has been permanently tainted by its association with Nazi Germany.)
This kind of fair game approach to Christianity may seem subversive for Western audiences, but it does get problematic once you get into Japan’s history of persecuting Christians, particularly during the Shogunate period in the 17th century, when many who were tortured and killed for their faith, the subject matter of Martin Scorcese’s 2016 film Silence. That these are considered foreign threats that need to be put down for the sake of national unity may also give such narratives a jingoistic undercurrent.
I would argue however that the anti-monotheistic narrative is less an attack on Christianity but rather the idea of any absolute person rising to power above others to rule selfishly, which comes into direct conflict with the collectivist ideals in Japanese culture.
In Persona 5, a game where you summon all kinds of beasts and deities to do battle, the final true antagonist Yaldabaoth is a god who wants to rise above the rest and assert complete control over the weak-willed masses. It’s his arrogance and overstepping of boundaries that has been the cause of all the chaos we’ve seen, and as Morgana puts it, “When a god plays naughty, then it’s a demon lord’s duty to punish him.”
In contrast, there are games where you play as benevolent gods such a Amataresu in Okami who spends the game helping out villagers whose praise become a source for improving your stats or the titular goddess in Sakuna: of Rice and Ruin who learns what it means to be a harvest god by feeding and caring for a small village.
We see these collective values reinforced time and again in JRPGs, from the way you’re incentivised to help local communities with quests or strengthen bonds between your friends and allies. Even if some stories fall into the chosen one trope, it’s telling that these JRPGs are ultimately about a group of heroes coming together as a collective to defeat the individualistic threat.
Although stamping out an abnormal adversary to restore harmony could also be considered a rather conservative narrative, JRPGs are also commonly about free will and battling against fate. And if you’re going to fight to change the course of history, then how better to represent that then a battle against an omniscient figure who controls fate.
Christianity may view predestination as a good thing, where everything is part of God’s plan. For JRPG plots however, such as in the Persona games, such a higher figure leans on the malevolent side, the gods only too eager to step in to destroy or take control of a world where humanity has strayed beyond redemption and would rather surrender to despair and apathy. In an even more meta twist, Final Fantasy VII Remake has you fighting against the so-called Arbiters of Fate as the final boss, where you’re not just trying to change your fate but break free of the narrative and fan expectations of the original Final Fantasy VII.
Challenging God is then the means to reverse this fate and for humanity to reassert free will and carve out its own path. Which leads to the next question: if you’re the master of your own fate, have you in fact become a god? Become as gods!