Dethroning the Almighty: Or, the "Unfinished Battle With God Syndrome"

Note: This editorial is filled with spoilers, ruining the surprises to many games. Even listing these games here and now could be considered a spoiler, given the topic of this editorial. Therefore, unless you are a seasoned gamer (or do not mind being spoiled), you may not want to read further. Consider yourself warned.

It's a safe assumption that nothing is more controversial in the gaming world than use of religion. Violence? Sex? Stick the letter "M" on there. But when you bring God into the picture, you now run the risk of offending whole segments of the population in such a way that the publisher can't hide behind the rating sticker to escape trouble. This is especially the case in America, where religious symbols have been digitally censored when RPGs make the transition from Japan to the US. A crucified Sagi in Baten Kaitos Origins is removed from a cross and put on a golden cube in the US version. The very first Final Fantasy had crosses removed from buildings and giant heart-shaped icons put in their place.

But even with the notion for censorship, many religious themes remain intact in the conversion from Japanese to English. Games like Xenogears, Xenosaga, Shadow Hearts, Final Fantasy Tactics, Lunar, Grandia, and many more have all explored religious issues in-depth, giving both positive and negative portrayals. One could write (indeed, some have written) dissertation-length arguments discussing these issues. Today, I'm going to narrow it down to one topic:

Killing God.

Well, actually, "dethroning" God (killing is just a subset of this overarching "dethroning"). There are other ways of removing God from your fantasy world. You don't always have to kill him/her/it.

Today, it is my goal to take a look at why these deity-dethroning scenarios are placed in games. I will argue that there are only two reasons why these scenarios are placed in games. The first reason is a logical extension of the "supply and demand" market. The second reason is that there are developers attempting to change people's worldviews with these unique scenarios.

But first, let's take a look at some games that pit you against your Maker.

The earliest God-killing I'd done in my youth was in Final Fantasy Legend (Makaitoushi SaGa, the first of the SaGa series). You control the four heroes, sent out to save your world, as well as the worlds around you. Along the way, you kill the four lowercase "gods" (lesser deities, in this case representing the four seasons), followed by the Hindu/Buddhist deity Ashura. You do all of this because you believe that the world is in peril, and that (as legend has it) it is your place to do these things.

Then, once you're done doing all that, and you think your journey is over, you are called to travel a new tower, a literal "stairway to heaven." You reach the top, only to be welcomed and congratulated by God himself (translated in the US version as "Creator"). This top-hat-wearing Willy-Wonka-wannabe informs you that the entire adventure you just finished was a part of his grand design. He did it to test you, to see if your were worthy of becoming heroes, the favored guests (or pets?) of Paradise. This, apparently, makes you very upset, and you refuse the Creator's offer to join him. Indeed, your whole party is infuriated at the thought that this entire adventure was just God's little game. So you fight him, and you kill him. God is dead: the end.

Squaresoft did not make clear, at this point, whether or not the Creator you kill is the creator of everything. One may be led to believe that SaGa presents a monotheistic worldview, but if (as some have hypothesized) the killing of the Creator opens the path to new worlds (as seen in Final Fantasy Legend 2), then indeed this Creator had only been ruler of your particular locale, and not an omnipotent controller of all things. Whatever he was, he becomes your enemy in a rather unexpected plot twist, and he dies against his will so that his creation would be free.

Now, say this one along with me: Shin Megami Tensei. That, and everything that falls in and around it, is so off the deep end with religious themes that it held back the earlier installments in the series from ever reaching the US. The SMT universe is naturally polytheistic, and it likes to use all gods from all religions in one massive battlefield. In one SMT installment, the villain is YHWH (the God of Judaism/Christianity), and you will use the deva and devi of Hinduism to help you in your battle against this wannabe-monarch-deity.

And then there's Xenogears. Oh yes, we can't forget about this one. Now, there is a lot of "backdrop" to Xenogears, and I won't go into all of it. What's important to recognize here is that the God of Xenogears is captured and physically embodied. "Deus" isn't even the final boss of Xenogears: Uroboros is. What does all this mean?

In the context of Xenogears, all the God-killing and religion-debunking is tantamount to one message: liberation. Liberation from an oppressive regime, and from a "divine" will that seems contrary to what its creation wants. The humanist overtones of Xenogears are obvious. Now, this isn't the whole of the Xenogears plot. Our chief villain, Krelian, was a person who wished to play God and ultimately failed. This is another theme we see commonly throughout gaming, with other prominent examples including Final Fantasy X and Legend of Dragoon. The desire for one mortal to become God and rule over the rest is prominent. Why is this? We will explore soon.

But first, let us consider other ways in which God is "dethroned." One such way is for God's choice to abandon his post as Creator and Sustainer. We see this idea presented most clearly in Game Arts' "Lunar" series. The creator of the Blue Planet and the Silver Star, Goddess Althena, has a long history behind her. But in the two games "Silver Star" and "Eternal Blue," we learn something very important about Althena. After a time, she decides that her creation no longer needs her to answer every beck and call. Free to do as she pleases, she incarnates herself. She becomes the young girl Luna, heroine of the first game. At the end of the first game, Ghaleon manipulates Althena, calling out her divinity to bring wrath upon the world. But ultimately, Luna's experiences and memories with Alex (the hero) bring back her sanity.

In "Eternal Blue," humanity is seeking Althena and her power, but it seems no one knows the truth of what happened 1000 years prior (in "Silver Star"). There is a crucial scene in Eternal Blue where Hiro and the others learn, straight from the horse's mouth, that there is no "Althena" anymore. A recorded video of an elderly, and quite content, Luna lets them know in no uncertain terms that Althena has become a mortal and no longer watches over her children. Instead, she believes that her children need to learn to grow up on their own. Again, the humanist message is clear.

In Lunar, God (actually, Goddess) doesn't exactly "abandon" her people. She leaves them, but she believes in them, and through them much is accomplished. In other games, we see God literally abandon all of creation, either out of apathy or else outright disgust with humanity. This is indeed the case with Grandia II (another Game Arts title). You are told, through early-game narration, that there was a classic battle between good and evil. The good god, Granas, versus the evil god, Valmar. The truth of the matter is revealed slowly, throughout the course of the game. What you learn is that this battle did not end with the "good guy" winning. Valmar won the battle, and the church that claims to serve the good God is actually in the service of Valmar. What's that mean? The "good" one is dead, and the God you serve is bad news. He hates you, and you'll need to take care of him (or at least his henchman, the pope) to allow humanity to live freely.

There is one other way to remove God from the picture: never put him there in the first place. Certain RPGs paint a clearly atheistic world, and still others include a church that claims to worship a deity, which is later (thoroughly) debunked. This is a less-common way to play out the "God and religion" story in an RPG, but it has been done. One noteworthy example is Final Fantasy X. The vast majority of the world believes in and follows the teachings of Yevon. At the game's opening, it is not clear who or what "Yu Yevon" is. But there is a church that follows the teachings of Yevon. One can surmise that Yu Yevon is the God of this world. As it turns out, "Yu Yevon" is just a really smart guy who uses the notion of "Sin" to create a monster that allows him to live (like a parasite) for eternity. Of course, Tidus and crew put a stop to it.

Granted, Final Fantasy X does not have a "naturalist" world. There is such a thing as the afterlife, and there are plenty of vaguely "spiritual" entities, including the Fayth and the Aeons. Ultimately, however, what we're left with in Final Fantasy X is an unmasking on the same scale as the Wizard of Oz: behind all the mirrors and smoke, it's just a clever old guy doing as he pleases.

With that lengthy list of prominent examples out of the way, it's finally time to ask the big question: why do game developers offer up these "God-killing" and "God-dethroning" scenarios in their games? As I said earlier, I believe there are two answers to this question; it is difficult to say the answers go "hand in hand," but that is up for you to decide.

Answer number one is simple: "it's what the customer wants!" This answer goes two different routes as well. Why would someone want to kill God? One is, simply put, the shock value. Perhaps developers think, "alright, gamers want things that will surprise them." So they put in some grotesque violence, maybe some sexual themes, and add a touch of blasphemy, and they're in business!

But I doubt that's how it goes. At least, I hope not. The other answer to the question "Why would someone want to kill God?" is because they are frustrated with God. This, too, means one of two things. One, it means they believe in God and they are angry with God. Two, it means that they don't believe in God and are tired of people subscribing to the false notion of such an absurd concept (I'm not calling belief in God absurd: I'm merely bringing the opinions of others to the table). I think that both of these answers may be sufficient, and perhaps developers do think in these terms when designing their God-killing games. I mean, it's fun to remove authority from our lives, but the notion of destroying our very Creator is ... taboo, to say the least. Nonetheless, some psychologists believe that there is a deep-seated need in all of us to break free from oppressive religious traditions. In this case, the cathartic act of "killing God" in a game is more a toppling of man-made religion, though it may also be a way for a person to lash out against life itself, and the proverbial "cards" dealt to them. Example: your mother's a drug addict, your dad's in jail, you have no money, you've resorted to stealing things in the past, you hate everyone (even your "friends"), and one of the few comforts to your name is a PlayStation 2. You may think "my life sucks." If you want someone to blame, hey, why not blame God? In this way, catharsis is achieved. The same goes for those intellectuals among us who think that belief in God is extraneous to a good, civil society. For them, killing God means freedom from the past, with all of its primitive ideas and its mistakes. Note that I'm not saying all intellectuals think of God as extraneous, I am merely bringing up that some do indeed feel this way.

Okay, that was pretty heavy. Take a breather. Breeeeeaaaathe. Okay, good, moving on.

We've only presented answers 1a and 1b of the overarching "Why?" Let's move on to answer 2.

Presenting the question again, in case you were lost: why do game developers offer up these "God-killing" and "God-dethroning" scenarios in their games? The second answer is, in many ways, the opposite of the first. The customer does not want to kill God. Not in the least. Or at least, they don't think they do. Rather, the developer (in particular, the scenario writer) has a story they want to tell. And with the story comes a very apparent lesson. What that lesson is, of course, depends on how God is dethroned.

In the case of intentional God-killing, a developer is essentially suggesting what Nietszche suggested over a century ago: God is dead, because we killed him. We live in a society that operates just fine without God, and he is completely useless. Here, the act is again cathartic, and it appeals more to the intellectuals in our midst.

If the case, however, is more like what we see in Lunar, what we may have is either a deistic or agnostic worldview being presented to us. Here, religion is tolerable, but it is best understood as a thing of the past. The result is still, for the most part, a secular humanist message.

Of course, I don't want to peg down any one person for the game they've created. For all I know, some of them may be deeply religious and have a firm belief in a "Supreme Being" of some sort. Why such a person would offer up a God-killing story may be, in this case, performed simply because it can be. The writer is flexing his/her creative muscles and considering all the possibilities. If that world's God is harsh, oppressive, controlling, etc, that God has to go. But, if in reality, there is a benevolent God, then by all means go ahead, believe and worship, etc.

There is a final point regarding the answer to the big "Why" question. Many conservative leaders (be they political or religious) are startled by this sort of shocking, open-minded storytelling. The concept of dethroning God (or any figure of ultimate authority) might scare them. So, as a result, Nintendo of America decides to censor religious imagery, or hold back the release of games like Terranigma.

My encouragement to you, dear reader, is this: don't be afraid to confront an idea. I am a Protestant Christian, and a "believing" one at that. But I'm not afraid to play a game like Xenogears or Grandia II from start to finish. When you "kill God" in a videogame, all you've really done is process some data on your home console. If God really exists, then He's still there, and chances are, He's not mad at you for considering/confronting the ideas of rebellion and overthrow (or, in other modes of thought, freedom from oppression). And if there is no God, then no harm done playing a game that lets you "kill" God. After playing a game, you're still in control of your thoughts, and you can decide what it is you think of this or that game's worldview.

- Patrick Gann