After my recent marathon of Legend of Grimrock, a few gears started turning in my head. Like any form of art, video games draw from our shared cultural heritage and have the ability to make powerful statements about the human condition. This is accomplished through many story telling devices that have stood the test of time, such as allusions to other works (as seen recently in the Witcher 2′s extended reference to Lord of the Rings), parallels to contemporary issues (Mass Effect is practically built on these), or through good old fashioned symbolism.
Symbolism is one the strongest ways that humans have to communicate thoughts and feelings on the abstract. It’s a cornerstone of many facets of our culture, such as visual art, music, religion, and everyday speech. With video games, a fairly new form of expression, one has to sift through some of the silt and mud to find real gold. What follows are several games that have knowingly or unknowingly employed symbolism to sometimes great or controversial effect for the audience. A warning right now: there are about to be many spoilers to the games mentioned in this article.
Resident Evil 5
This game perhaps one of the most recent examples of a publisher ignoring the parallels that certain images can create and the emotions that they evoke. Players assume the role of Chris Redfield, a muscled Caucasian male who must capture an arms dealer before he can sell yet another biological weapon (how many is that now Resident Evil?). Upon arrival the protagonist is greeted by hordes of zombified Africans and must fight his way out. Now, given the circumstances, that may not seem entirely offensive but allow me to rephrase: a white male is fighting for his life in a fictional African city while surrounded by drooling, mindless, black cannibals. By the way, the black cannibals are dressed in tribal outfits and given spears to chuck at you later in the game. It doesn’t exactly help that Redfield’s sidekick is a light-skinned female who does everything the player tells her to unless controlled by a coop partner. Capcom’s utter ignorance of the history of these images and what they mean to people is far more disconcerting than any actual racist statement they could make.
The Binding of Isaac
There’s a long history to the use and occasional inversion of religious themes in art. The Hero’s Journey, with its parallels to messianic mythologies in many cultures, serves as one of the cornerstones for epic storytelling. With the inversion and darker approach to these themes we have also created many works that explore our fascination with perverting the sacred. The Binding of Isaac takes the titular biblical story and brings it into a more realistic context. Instead of an act of faith and trust in God, the opening cinematic shows a faithful servant of the lord driven mad and becoming obsessed with the sacrificial and brutal themes in the Old Testament. Abraham is replaced with a mentally unstable stay-at-home mom who believes God wants her to kill her own son. Isaac escapes the sacrifice by sneaking down into the basement through a trap door and then begins his descent into the mysterious passages. His journey deeper and deeper takes him further away from the danger of sacrifice but also closer to hell. He battles various incarnations of the sins his mother hoped to absolve him of and at the beginning of each new level, Isaac experiences a dream that recalls his alienation from others as he strays further and further from God’s plan to sacrifice him. His tears are his only weapons and further emphasize the sorrow of his separation from the divine (or the truth about the compassionate God he may have once believed in).
At several points, he is offered a Faustian bargain to exchange some of his health for powerful upgrades that usually transform his body into a more demonic form and give him faith (the games alternative health system). The religious ambiguity around his mother who is simultaneously the frenzied servant of God and the fact that she is eventually revealed as the final boss of the game that lurks within the depths of Hell is not unlike Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses(where the belief that incongruous accounts of the words of the Prophet are explained by temporary possession by Satan). It’s in exploring the duality of salvation and condemnation to Hell that the Binding of Isaac embodies the proper way to approach symbolism in gaming.
The Silent Hill Series
When gaming as an art form is brought up, the conversation will often lead to the beloved second entry in the Silent Hill series. After all, what’s not to love? The protagonist embarks on a journey of self-discovery after receiving a letter from his dead wife. He discovers subconscious motives to the love/hate relationship with his wife while battling peculiarly Freudian monsters (a pair of female mannequin legs that has an upper torso comprised of another pair of legs is probably the most heavy handed of these). He also sees a hyper-sexualized version of his wife get impaled with a big stick. And this is all wrapped up in an atmospheric horror game that has few equals. While this is all well and good and any gamer is doing a disservice to themselves by not playing Silent Hill 2, the rest of the series has a very different story.
Like the binding of Isaac, Silent Hill 1 and 3 present a very perverted version of Christianity. The town of Silent Hill itself seems to be the driving force in the second game while in the first and third titles emphasize a larger religious nightmare created by the townsfolk. The cult that controlled the town in years past is of mysterious origin but has borrowed Christian and Hebrew names for their blasphemous pantheon. Their interpretation of God perverts the immaterial quality often associated with religion and presents a deity who can not only interact with the world in a physical way, but can also be harmed by conventional means. The story of Alessa also has a messianic tone to it. Alessa is the daughter of the cult leader Dhalia Gillespie and in the first game is the one who will serve as the vessel for God. Alessa was forced to bear the burden of being the savior of her religion. Like Christ, she seeks some sort of salvation and begs for her life to be spared, but the nascent God must first consume the unwilling Alessa’s soul to manifest himself. Alessa thwarts this plan by forming a part of her soul (the part that embodies innocence) into a child named Cheryl (a rather God-like act of creation). Dhalia is furious and decides to keep Alessa alive with magic while she burns her entire body, hoping the intense suffering brings the other part of Alessa’s soul back. This is ultimately why the entire “Otherworld” of Alessa’s creation focuses intensely on fire and suffering. Thus we have a female Messiah who suffers greatly at the hands of those who she is to deliver to paradise and must ultimately die after bringing God into the world. For this bleak perversion of Christian symbolism and for the blasphemous manner in which it transforms the sacred and metaphysical into the profane and tangible, Silent Hill serves as one of the greatest examples of thoughtful writing in gaming history.
Man that was bleak. I’ll try to find something a bit more pleasant next time.