Without fail, every year my grandmother on my mother’s side takes my two older brothers and myself out Christmas shopping when December rolls around. I remember when I was younger I always looked forward to the day Grandma would take us out and she would spend twenty whole dollars on each of us. That was just about any toy I could have wanted in my pre-pubescent years, and almost any used video games I could have wanted in the years following. Fast forward a decade and… well, twenty dollars doesn’t seem to buy as much as it used to.* But it remains that my grandmother still takes my adult brothers and my adult-ish self out Christmas shopping.
The other part of this story that remains a part of the Christmas shopping experience with my grandmother consistently every year is the “demonic stuff” she buys us. Many years ago, my brother desperately wanted a Darth Maul birthday cake (this was around when Star Wars: The Phantom Menace had come out), and at his insistence my parents obliged. My grandmother’s eloquent and well-informed response was, “Why is the Devil on your birthday cake?!” Ever since this, our playful joke has always been that her gifts indulge our “demonic” influences, from the Fable video game she bought my brother one year, to the $6.66 price tag of a comic she bought the next.
While this is all a fun and games in my family, I’ve grown up with friends in Christian families that often were more serious about “demonic” influences in their media. From Pokemon to Harry Potter, nothing is left untouched. Now this can be a touchy subject, which I know quite well, so I will attempt to tread with caution here. But please note that I am also sharing my personal convictions on the matter. Every person and every family has a different level of tolerance, and it is not my place to tell you what you can and cannot handle, but I can provide a bit of my own perspective on the matter.
I was recently reminded of this matter by finishing a book by Thomas Cahill entitled, How the Irish Saved Civilization. Besides being simply a great book about ancient and medieval history, it also provides an interesting perspective on an oft-ignored group of Christians responsible for much of modern Christianity: the Irish. The reason I raise this seemingly unrelated point is that the Irish underwent one particular practice that often reflects my own view on media consumption. The Irish Christian movement (or the Celtic movement) accomplished one enormous task missing between the fall of Rome and the rise of the Dark Ages: preserving literature. The Irish monks, according to Cahill, furiously recorded and copied literature of all kinds, valuing the importance of literacy to the illiterate age. Part of this movement included the copying of pagan literature, with which the monks openly disagreed.
But here’s the kicker. The monks openly disagreed with the messages of pagan literature, sometimes even noting this in the literature itself, but they still copied it. That is, with proper discernment, anyone can consume media that sets itself against the readers own beliefs… or at least that’s what the Irish believed… and what I believe.
This drawn-out introduction brings us to the meat of today’s article, and the topic referenced in the title: the brilliance of the “Souls” video game series (this is probably the first time this video game series has been introduced by a personal story about someone’s grandmother followed by the history of the Celtic movement).
Now in case you’re unfamiliar, the “Souls” series is a unique series of Japanese video games that date all the way back to 2009… okay so maybe “all the way back” is a bit of an overstatement. It is a unique series of Japanese video games that dates moderately back to 2009 with its first entry, Demon’s Souls.** It was a bit of a sleeper hit, starting with poor sales but ultimately becoming a video game classic, ultimately resulting in a “spiritual sequel” (an entry that obviously follows another entry, but is technically a separate entity, in this case for legal reasons) entitled, Dark Souls. After its success, the series has now resulted in 2014’s Dark Souls 2 and 2015’s Bloodborne.
While every game features a different story set in a different world (the Dark Souls games arguably take place in the same “universe” per se, but the difference in time and content makes them practically distinct with only minor overlap***), the mechanics and, most relevant to this article, the atmosphere remain the same. Each game features elements that can often bother Christians, such as magic, pagan gods, undeath, and the occult (particularly Bloodborne, which features a distinctly Lovecraftian cosmic horror story). But, as I always stress in my articles, though these topics can bother some Christians on the surface level,**** what deeper meanings and values can be extrapolated from the complexities of the entries within this series?
As I mentioned, every game has a unique set of characters set in a unique story set in a unique world. In a word, each game is unique. Yet each game maintains a consistent atmosphere and, perhaps more specifically, method of narrative. Without getting into specifics, lest I spoil anything, each game tells its story in a rather similar way:
You play a character of seemingly little consequence, nothing but one more person in a stream of failures.
In Demon’s Souls, this takes form as another hero vying to save the mysteriously devoured and expanding land of Boletaria. In Dark Souls, you take control of an undead cast into an asylum away from society, along with many others ostracized for the same reason. The other two entries exhibit similar introductions.
You are thrust into a story much larger than yourself based on an enormous, complex, but necessarily developed world.
Unlike most narratives in popular culture, the story does not begin with you, you begin in the midst of something that has been moving without you. The “story,” as mainstream media would have it, takes a backseat as it fits into the larger and, frankly more important, world that the story is developing. The world has existed for generations before you ever arrived. Societies have risen and fallen, leaders come and gone, and now the world is stuck in its present depraved state. As you play, you slowly begin to realize that many have come before you and have failed. Sometimes it seems as though you are doomed to failure like your contemporaries, until you realize that…
You are different. You seem very similar to the people who have come before you, but you just know that you will succeed where they have failed.
In each game, while you seem normal at first, by the end you slowly reveal that there is something distinctly different about you that carries out the narrative differently, but, and this is crucial, also brings out a long-awaited conclusion. In some ways, depending on your interpretation of each ending, this is an unprecedented victory.
In regard to Christianity, this three part narrative raises two major relevant points:
- How do you interpret a story steeped in the context of an established world.
- How do the Gospels fit into this?
Let me answer the first question with a question: “How do you interpret a story steeped in the context of an established world?” That’s not the general “you.” I literally mean you. Yeah, you in front of the computer screen.
I rephrase this into a more personal question because it’s a question worth asking yourself. Have you played any of the games in this series? If you did, did you understand the story? My general assumption when I talk to people about these games is that they don’t really understand. That’s not a knock to their respective levels of intelligence, but merely an acknowledgement that they haven’t put in the time required to fully investigate a story that is based on lore and mythos. And that last sentence is the answer to the question, with the general “you,” isn’t it? You interpret a story steeped in the context of an established world not by simply experiencing the story, but by also investigating said established world. Which brings me to question two…
How do the Gospels fit into this, “this” being the intellectual framework that demands outside investigation?
It was only in penning this article that I began to fully realize the importance of my point, or my thesis if you will. What can a Christian learn from this infamously “demonic” video game series? How to interpret the most fundamental piece of Scripture that separates Christianity from all other religions in the world: the Gospels.
Like Jesus, the player fulfills the destiny of a line of people before. In the more immediate sense, Israel has seen so-called “Messiahs” come and go with little greater effect (and Israel continued to see self-proclaimed “Messiahs” even after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ). In the broader sense, however, much like the player brings closure to land with hundreds or thousands of years of history (perhaps an “unprecedented victory,” as mentioned above), Jesus also brings closure to thousands of years of Jewish history (in what is absolutely an unprecedented victory).
This parallel is, of course, interesting, but I would be loathe to carry this Jesus analogy further, as the vastly different contexts make the main character of each Souls game anything but a Christ figure. However, it serves to introduce the true consideration necessary of any discerning Christian who consumes media like this. Stemming from question one, if only a vague understanding can be gleaned from a “Souls” game upon playing without further investigation or consideration, how much more so is this true in the Bible?
Much like the “forced” narrative of the “Souls” series (that which the player is required to see to clear the game), the Gospels provide everything, yet also simultaneously very little. Both give you everything you need to understand the significance of what has happened, yet neither can be fully understood without its context.
The Gospels celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ, Son of God (however that is to be interpreted), ushering in the Kingdom of God as Israel’s, and humanity’s, true savior. Yet how can this be understood without the thousands of years of Jewish history and lore that preceded it? Jesus himself quoted Scripture to a world of people steeped in Scripture, but we do not live in First-Century Israel. We live 2000 years in the future, which might as well be as far a removal as from the fantasy lands of Boletaria, Lordran, Drangleic, or Yharnam. Not only are technology, geography, and customs different, the very fundamentals of thought are different.
If you ever happen to have the time to play through any of the aforementioned games, realize how much you are missing if you simply play without additionally-spent time nor intellectual effort. But also realize that it is just a video game. For a Christian to read the Gospels in the same way is not only dangerous, it is irresponsible. So do yourself a favor and crack open the Old Testament, or maybe a couple good biblical commentaries. You’ll be glad you did.
Oh, and maybe check out some Dark Souls lore videos and interviews while you’re at it.
*Not only is $20 literally worth less now due to inflation, but as an adult who has now worked several jobs and paid bills and developed more expensive hobbies, $20 has also lost its relative value.
**It has “demon” in the title, so it must be evil, right? That seems to be a fairly common sentiment, which I suppose I understand, but simultaneously don’t understand. C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters is nothing but “demonic” material, albeit from a Christian perspective. In any case, I will rest back on my statement of discernment.
***Though perhaps the relationship of Dark Souls 1 and 2 could be its own post on the connection of ancient literature separated by thousands of years.
****Don’t get me wrong, as a Christian I am also bothered enough by “surface level” components of media to abstain from them completely. The two most notable examples are live action violence and any sort of explicit sexual content, which is what prevents me from watching Quentin Tarantino film and the Game of Thrones HBO series, respectively.
If you’re curious about the most recent entry in the series, check out Geeks under Grace’s Bloodborne review!