It's hell out there as games tackle religious themes

Wed, Oct 27, 2010, 01:00

Games developers have been criticised for having a negative attitude to religion, though the subject is taken seriously, writes JOE GRIFFIN

RELEASED LATE last month, Halo: Reachhas been a phenomenal success, making more than $200 million (€143 million) in its first 24 hours.

In that first day, it eclipsed the opening three-day takings of the biggest films of the year so far. The millions of fans of the Halo series will be familiar with its theme and content: it doesn’t paint organised religion in a flattering light. In the series, the villainous Covenant, an alien alliance, wages a pointless, bloody intergalactic war motivated by nothing more than religious belief. They even use suicide bombers.

Halo’s sombre criticism of organised religion is not atypical. Another of this year’s biggest titles, God of War III, took a different (though still negative) approach to the subject.

Set in ancient times, the series tells the story of Kratos, a Spartan warrior who makes a deal with Ares, the god of war, to win a battle with barbarians.

Over the course of the game and its sequels, Kratos loses his family and his humanity.

Deities in this series are painted as vain, power-hungry, selfish and vengeful. Kratos didn’t have to sell his soul to a devil for him to end up in hell — he was damned the minute he made a deal with any god. The list goes on, in Final Fantasy Tactics(just one of a huge series of Final Fantasy games), there is a villainous religious organisation which is clearly based on the Catholic Church. They even hold violent “inquisitions”.

The game Thiefcovers a war between two large religious organisations and the Fable series has holy men cast as comic characters.

Though less fantastical, the popular and acclaimed Assassin’s Creed games skip through history from the Crusades to the present day.

The games, set in places like Damascus and Jerusalem, criticise man’s interpretation of religion, with assassinations of public religious figures commonplace. Elsewhere in the game, ordinary people who practise their faith are portrayed as decent and humble.

When it comes to violent religious imagery, Dante’s Infernois in a league of its own.

You play as Dante, a knight who fought in the Crusades. Although he had been assured by his church that he was killing in the name of god, the devil has other ideas: Dante must descend into the bowels of hell to save the soul of his late wife. This game is not short on hellish imagery. Condemned souls flow into the underworld like water bursting through a dam, feral non-baptised babies scurry around among the forsaken and grotesque personifications of the deadly sins wallow in misery.

Last year, EA, the developers of the game, staged a fake protest against Dante’s Infernoand its portrayal of hell, which generated real anger from Christians. Catholic video game blogger Andy Kirchoff wrote: “Instead of engaging in a shamelessly anti-Christian stunt to promote your poor excuse of a product, maybe you ought to work on making this game better than a blatant God of Warrip-off?”

Video games are not all fire and brimstone, though. While Dante’s Infernois not for the faint-hearted, Civilizationcan be enjoyed regardless of your coronary condition. The games in this series are slow-burning strategy titles in which you build a society from the ground up, expanding and evolving, while learning.

In Civilization IV,players are encouraged to create temples and churches to enhance society’s happiness and culture. Faiths available include Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam.

The religion of a civilisation also has a bearing on diplomatic ties, technology (it’s easy to forget the separate technological advances made by different religions) and internal peace. The game also suggests mainstream religious societies are happier and more productive than secular or pagan ones.

Some games have been criticised for having a flippant, negative attitude to faith and religion but, aside from a few exceptions, the subject is usually dealt with seriously.

It’s interesting to see that the most modern form of popular culture pays such attention to religion and that gamers aren’t put off by the subject matter.

When sermons and homilies are delivered, one wonders how many of the young flock would rather be at home learning about scripture through their computers.

On your knees: religion in games

Civilization IVIn this popular world-building strategy game, players are encouraged to create monuments and places of worship. Seven major faiths get a look-in: Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and Taoism.

Dante’s InfernoA knight must atone for the blood-letting of the Crusades and descends to hell to save his innocent wife from damnation. Blasphemous, horrific imagery abounds.

HaloArguably the biggest game franchise in the world, this sci-fi saga is set during – you’ve guessed it – a holy war. Mankind must protect itself from annihilation by an evil alien alliance known as Covenant.