Sympathy For The Devil

Sympathy For The Devil
Games Are Modern Morality Plays

Jeremiah Leif Johnson | 21 Sep 2010 07:50
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And so it goes with modern videogames featuring hell. Doom 3's fire-and-brimstone version of hell seems fairly uncommon to videogames; developers instead tend to opt for the "hellish," as in the warped and horrifying landscapes of Silent Hill and zombie apocalypses of Resident Evil and Left 4 Dead. When it does appear, the storyline almost always runs something like this: a capable meatshield swaggers into hell, kicks some demon ass and emerges triumphant. Almost without exception, these pit the game's hero - occasionally a nameless "everyman" as in Doom 3 - against the worst that hell can offer, and much as in a morality play, the hero usually escapes. But there's an important twist. Take Kratos. The idea that any of us could truly relate to the grumpy Ghost of Sparta is laughable, but nevertheless he starts out as one of us. Much as in a morality play, he is besieged to the point of tragedy by worldly temptations (it's not hard to imagine Kratos being pestered by Arrogance and Revenge), dies and goes to Tartarus no less than three times over the course of the series. But here's the thing: While Kratos occasionally gets a helping hand from fellow gods, he has to fight his way out of hell by himself. There's no Mercy interceding on behalf of Kratos. Kratos' path to personal redemption is the edge of his blade; his Castle of Perseverance, a slaughterhouse.


Elsewhere, in Dreamcatcher's Painkiller, Daniel Garner goes to purgatory while his wife goes to heaven. It's not exactly hell, but it's enough of a drag that he eagerly accepts an offer from Samael to kill four of Lucifer's generals in order to ascend to be with his wife and prevent a war between hell and heaven. After Garner accomplishes this task, Samael is shocked when Garner insists on going to hell to finish off Lucifer. He succeeds, and (if you beat it on the Trauma difficulty level), joins his wife in heaven. In the Diablo games, a band of human heroes on the world of Sanctuary are caught up in a war between the High Heavens and the Burning Hells. Over the course of two games and some expansions, these heroes defeat Mephisto, Diablo and Baal, and set things right in Sanctuary, for the time being. Visceral Games' Dante's Inferno tosses the literature from the late medieval epic, and simplifies it into the story of, well, a capable meatshield who swaggers into hell, kicks some demon ass, and emerges triumphant (to purgatory, anyway). Even Earthworm Jim manages to squirm his way into "Heck," battle some lawyers and demons, and cap it off by defeating Evil the Cat.

Where's God in all this? Heavenly beings figure prominently in some of these games without an appearance from the man upstairs (as in Diablo), and in God of War III Kratos unceremoniously dumps Zeus' corpse on the rocks. The single path to deliverance in medieval morality plays, God now gets stuck with bit parts, if he shows up at all. The new star is mankind, with all our gritty imperfections, and the focus is not so much on redemption as it is on - oh yes, here it comes - the resilience of the human spirit. In medieval morality plays, mankind was treated as a pawn in a game; in contemporary videogames, we control the game. It's a very humanist message (in the classical sense of the term), and despite the overwhelming use of violence, it's a very positive one. If Kratos had been King Life, there's no question who would have won the duel.

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