In my last post, I wondered whether video games can be art. They’re fun, sure, but can they be anything more?
My own belief is that video games have artistic potential. Whether they actually fulfill that potential is an entirely separate question. For the most part, they favor fun over artistic expression, leaving weighty subjects to other media.
Religion is an especially weighty subject, and its effect on art is incalculably great. Christianity in particular has inspired art for two thousand years, and some of it isn’t particularly religious.
Of course, much of the art informed by Christianity is overtly religious in nature: works by Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, classics like The Pilgrim’s Progress and Dante’s Divine Comedy, music like Handel’s Messiah, and countless more. However, Christianity has also influenced many secular works—watch nearly any movie by Quentin Tarantino or the Coen brothers and you’ll see what I mean.
Yes, the influence of Christianity has reached some unlikely places. It begs the question: If video games have artistic potential, have they used any of it to explore the subject of Christianity?
The answer is… hardly.
Christianity has informed many video games, but its influence is mostly superficial. Many games draw upon Christianity for its cultural or symbolic flair—or, if I may put it another way, its flavor.
The Legend of Zelda, one of the most important games ever made, uses Christian iconography not to make a point, but rather to convey an impression. For example, the game’s protagonist has the symbol of a cross on his shield.
I don’t know why the game’s developers put a Christian cross on the shield. Perhaps it was inspired by the cross designs on shields in medieval Europe. Maybe it was supposed to represent nobility, righteousness, or heroism. Either way, this symbol of Christianity is literally front and center in one of the greatest games of all time.
Incidentally, the game features another Christian symbol: the Bible, whose title was translated for Western versions as the Book of Magic. In the game, the Bible empowers the protagonist to throw fireballs, which isn’t something Bibles generally do. (At any rate, mine doesn’t.)
I’m going to discuss a few more games in this post, but for full disclosure, I should admit that I haven’t played most of them. I know them mostly by reputation, by reading about them, or in one case by following the game’s story on YouTube.
Christian imagery shows up occasionally in video games, many of which avoid association with the religion itself in order to avoid controversy. This has led to fictional religions that bear outward resemblance to Christianity—particularly to Roman Catholicism.
Video games such as the Final Fantasy series sometimes feature Christian (especially Roman Catholic) elements such as priests, churches, cathedrals, holy water, and baptisms.
A few games even tackle the subject of religious corruption, but always within fictional religions whose resemblance to Christianity is only superficial.
Of course, some video games take a more direct approach, depicting Christianity itself (instead of a fictional religion) for its imagery, culture, or history.
The Hitman series—which, as its name suggests, is all about assassinations—uses “Ave Maria,” a song based on a Christian prayer, as its theme. It may be meant to evoke a somber mood, or perhaps to suggest an ironic parallel between the Church and the syndicate that employs the eponymous hitman. Either way, the series doesn’t have anything meaningful to say about Christianity; the games merely borrow from it.
The Assassin’s Creed series uses religion as a backdrop to its fictional history. The first game takes place in the Holy Land during the Crusades, and the second in Italy during the Renaissance. That second game apparently ends with the player beating up Pope Alexander VI, which seems weird to me. What developer, when given the limitless possibilities of game design, decided to make a game that climaxed in a fight against a fifteenth-century Pope? Did that developer just assume that all Christians are evil? Should I be offended?
There are a few games—just a few—that try to say something meaningful, whether good or bad, about Christianity.
The Binding of Isaac is an indie game named for the biblical account of Abraham nearly sacrificing his own son. It follows a young boy through an underworld of twisted imagery: much of it Christian. The game seems almost blasphemous with its lurid imagery and grotesque monsters.
I’m not sure what point The Binding of Isaac is trying to make. The game definitely has something to say. It may be an exploration of how religion can be abused, or maybe an outright censure of Christianity. I’m in no hurry to find out; I prefer my video games not hopelessly gloomy, thank you.
The most interesting treatment of Christianity I’ve seen in a video game comes from Bioshock Infinite, a story-driven first-person shooter. (For the uninitiated: a first-person shooter is a game in which the player shoots things from a first-person perspective, simply enough.) The game doesn’t focus on religion itself as much as on what it brings out in people.
The original Bioshock game is set in Rapture: a ruined underwater dystopia. It was built by an atheist who was convinced he could harness the potential of humankind in an enlightened society. The city fell apart, its remaining inhabitants fighting for the survival of the fittest.
By contrast, Bioshock Infinite is set in Columbia: an airborne city bustling with religious folks and overseen by Father Comstock, a self-proclaimed prophet. Despite its bright exterior, Columbia is also a dystopia. It reflects not a Darwinian struggle for survival, however, but the ugliest blunders of American Christianity.
The religion in Bioshock Infinite is the Christianity that excused slavery, oppressed Native Americans, reviled foreigners, and mistook love of country for love of God. It’s an exaggerated picture, but also one based on history.
I appreciate that Bioshock Infinite doesn’t blame Christianity for Columbia’s problems, but acknowledges how it has, throughout history, sometimes brought out the worst in people. The game suggests the problem is not with faith, but with human beings.
Fortunately, Christianity also brings out the best in people. The game’s debt-ridden protagonist, Booker, is hired to rescue a woman from Columbia on the promise that his employer will “wipe away the debt.” As the game unfolds, it becomes clear that Booker’s debt isn’t just a matter of money. He needs to be forgiven.
Besides forgiveness, Christian themes in the game include baptism and longing. The latter is beautifully expressed in the hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” which is part of the game’s soundtrack.
Bioshock Infinite isn’t a perfect game, and its depiction of Christianity is definitely upsetting. However, it’s a more ambitious and nuanced take than I’ve seen from any other video game, and I respect it for that.
While a few games offer thoughtful explorations of Christian themes, others exist simply to appeal to a religious market. They’re the worst. They often steal their ideas from other games, and they’re nearly always terrible.
What are your thoughts on Christianity in video games? Let us know in the comments!
I’d add at least a footnote for Bioshock 2, which — in contrast to Andrew Ryan’s plans for an objectivist utopia in the first one — features new antagonist Sofia Lamb coming from the opposite philosophical direction by attempting a different kind of rule through a unifying yet twisted form of faith. It’s not strictly aimed at Christianity, but her commands to her followers that frequently reference variations on “sheep” (plus their occasional candle-filled tribute spaces that dot various hallways) point toward a “religion = bad” paradigm, as if trying to balance out the original’s atheist-follies perspective.
I’m glad to hear Infinite finds yet another way to go. I’ve been putting it off, but your descriptions make me a little more excited about getting to it. Thanks!
Thanks for bringing up something I missed! I don’t actually know much about Bioshock 2, except that it’s set in Rapture, features a playable Big Daddy, and is apparently a game that exists. 😛 I really should play the Bioshock games sometime… I’ve heard they’re good, and I love their creative settings and thematic complexity.
According to the Internet, opinions are divided on whether the story of Bioshock Infinite is cleverly complex, or just plain complicated. The gameplay is apparently fun but repetitive. It’s definitely a game I want to play for myself.
I’m glad my post reignited a spark of your interest in Bioshock Infinite, and I hope you enjoy it whenever you get around to playing it. 🙂