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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Tolkien once lamented that we have no modern mythology. But the use of a struggle through hell in videogames succeeds precisely because it's built on a belief set with which we're all familiar. Even the most hardened atheist in the Americas or Europe must admit to some basic knowledge of the concepts of hell and heaven (even if it springs from Looney Tunes reruns), and as such, hell's imagery stirs our emotions much more than foreign concepts. The seminal FPS Doom was made into a throwaway movie back in 2005, but the director ditched the hell and demons for some tripe about humans with an extra chromosome. Since much of the horror of Doom's already thin storyline involved confronting the confident hubris of science with the surprise that all those Sunday sermons were actually right, the movie's impact was considerably diminished on this count alone. (Never mind the hellish acting.) The idea of hell has power precisely because it's so familiar yet so unknowable.


Lately there has been much discussion of whether videogames can be art, and it's worthwhile to remember that a similar question was once asked of medieval morality plays. Indeed, part of the reason for Robert Potter's book was his eagerness to prove that these plays had an "art and a purpose." So, too, with videogames featuring hell. Both often have simple storylines (you're excused, Diablo), and both address the question of how we, as fallible, imperfect human beings, can avoid hell's horrors. In our secular and democratic age, fighting our own way out seems far preferable to relying on a greater power to save us. (It's also not too much of a stretch to imagine some players envisioning themselves destroying the whole Judeo-Christian religious establishment as they battle through hell.) Both forms resonate on a global level, and both possess the power for personal meaning, much as I found on those cold, dark nights playing Doom 3 to defeat my own demons.

Dismissed as trash for centuries, morality plays ultimately paved the way for the great secular tradition in European theater that eventually led to the triumphs of Shakespeare, Beckett and Molière. Videogames, like drama in the Middle Ages, are still very much in their infancy despite great strides over the last 30 years, and talk about their place in literature has chiefly focused on games of the art house variety like Braid or ideological nightmares such as BioShock. As this debate intensifies, should we ignore games with simplistic hellbound stories when their subject matter is so similar to the plays that fostered modern drama?

Heaven forbid.

Jeremiah Leif Johnson abandoned his Ph.D. studies at the University of Chicago to get a real job - and now he writes about videogames for a living. Follow him on Twitter.

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