As a storytelling medium, there is no doubt that gaming has come a long way. From the early years of navigating pixelated plumbers on to the revolutionary cut scenes of the late 90’s and finally to the high definition narratives of today, gaming is truly growing up in more ways than one.
While there are those out there that will always claim that gaming is not and can never be art, or that gaming can in no way tackle deep issues, I propose that those people have not been emotionally moved or impacted by a game before. Even though gaming is still an adolescent in terms of its medium, some great strides have been made in storytelling that place video games right alongside some of the best books or Hollywood blockbusters.
This is why it came as a surprise to me this morning when I read an article at Gameplayer titled Why God and Games Don’t Mix. The point of this article was to assert that stories that shoulder religious issues or themes have little to no value in the realm of gaming. According to the writer, games are the only medium that can not and should not mingle with religion. Apparently, games will never be equipped to handle this. I couldn’t disagree with this idea more.
To limit games in such a way is not only a misunderstanding of games that have excelled at quantifying deep human issues, but also a gross underestimation of the possibilities of gaming storytelling. I’m not arguing that games need to be more religious, not at all. What I am arguing, however, is that to say that video games can’t deal with religion (or any taboo subjects) in a meaningful way is to put gaming in a box. I think Fox News has done enough of that for us.
One needs to look no further than some of the greats in the last few generations to see that gaming is mature enough to handle heavy issues. Games like Final Fantasy X and Braid have shown us stories of sacrifice, love, and loss, while Metal Gear Solid 3 and 4 were dissertations on war and duty. Likewise, Shadow of the Colossus presented what I believe to be one of the most poignant and powerful sermons on death that any medium has shown us in the last few years.
So why would religious themes or issues be out of bounds? Are they really all that different than any other weighty issue? Yes religion is a touchy subject, but our favorite TV shows, books and movies are steeped so deeply in the same stuff, and we don’t seem to bat an eye at their willingness to address these subjects.
As some of his evidence for games and religion not making acceptable bedfellows, the author offers up a couple of examples. Namely, some of the awful evangelical games such as Left Behind. While these games don’t work on many levels, they fail first and foremost as well designed games, rather than just the subject of their content. Sure, the content’s ridiculous too, but the content would be just as ridiculous on any other platform, and that’s not just limited to video games.
Truthfully, there are already many prime examples of games that do the tango with religious themes. And some good ones, in fact. The most recent Prince of Persia game, for instance, was all about the battle of good versus evil, with Elika being a practitioner of a faith that sought to banish the dark lord Aruman. Throughout the game, the Prince and Elika get into discussions about Ormanz, the god of light, and whether or not he truly helps his followers. Why should she keep believing, the Prince asks, when no help seems to come to them?
Likewise, Assassin’s Creed even deals with a league of assassins at war with the Templar Knights, and takes place in Jerusalem at the time of the Third Crusade in the Holy Land. If that’s not a touchy subject, I’m not sure what is. Assassin’s Creed pulls the narrative off surprisingly well, even incorporating events from the Bible as well as a device that creates miracles.
I think Halo is another strong example of a game shouldering the religion boulder fairly well. Not only is the game set amidst a total holy war of an alien race against humanity, but it is also ripe with religious symbolism. Referring often to Biblical language such as The Ark, the Covenant, prophets and even the number 7, these things are no accident. While I’m not saying that Halo is some allegory for the Bible, I am saying that these symbols were chosen carefully, because our culture is already familiar with them. Even the old school Gregorian chants that fill the title screens of each game in the series attest to this intentional design.
The funny thing is, the list goes on and on, even more than you might realize. Final Fantasy X, Xenosaga, and Indigo Prophecy, for starters. Not to mention the countless stories about faith, forgiveness, redemption and salvation that embody religious ideals without necessarily even being about religion. These are found in stories everywhere, regardless of the medium.
The point is, gaming has been tackling these issues for years, and shows no sign of slowing down in the near future. As the methods of storytelling continue to develop and become more refined, game developers will continue to tell more engrossing and more meaningful stories. Just like any of the other volatile and contentious issues out there, it will be met head on by video games given time, and I believe our pastime is more than capable of handling it with flying colors.
To shut the door on it is to stunt the growth of this medium that we love. At some point, one of these stories will be about religion, just as they have been already in the past. And you know what? I’ll keep on playing.
So what do you guys think about this? Is religion too big of a taboo for video games? Would video games be able to deal with it the same as any other medium, or is it different?