El Shaddai as a Roadmap to a Religious Game

Richard Clark writes about El Shaddai as a roadmap to a religious game.

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“To me it seems like only yesterday. To you, it could be tomorrow. It’s the story of a man.”

So begins the introduction to El Shaddai, an action-adventure game in the same style of Devil May Cry and Bayonetta. But as often turns out to be the case, the game’s narrator, Lucifel, is not telling us the whole truth. This is more than a story about a man. El Shaddai is a story about God, faith, doubt, sin, tragedy, and the forces that pull one away from their center. 

Lucifel’s right in that it is a personal story, about one man’s personal struggle – but Enoch, the protagonist of the game is a stand-in, not for men, heroes, or even people of faith, but for the entirety of humanity. This is more than the story of a man. This is the story of humanity and the unseen systems that we find ourselves embedded in. 

Or at least, if you believe in religious and supernatural concepts of God, angels, and spirits, it is. El Shaddai, whether it believes all of this stuff or not, at least takes it all seriously. What results is perhaps one of the first truly great games with the Judeo-Christian perspective as its focus.  

sidebarReligious games have struggled in the past to make their mark. Back in the days of the Nintendo Entertainment System, religious folk with an affinity toward the pedantic would make bad Bible-themed re-skins of existing games and sell them in Christian book stores without the Nintendo Seal of Approval. The result produced neither a fun videogame nor insight into religious truth. 

Japanese developers, on the other hand, has never been one to shy away from religion. In fact, while Noah’s Ark led a string of failed games that attempted to convey the principles and teachings of western religion, eastern spirituality bursts from the seams of most Japanese RPGs, often conveyed with genuine sincerity. The result for western gamers was an awareness of and empathy for an otherwise unknown set of beliefs. 

In the meantime, most western developers made games that were largely agnostic, if not atheistic, in their treatment of spirituality and belief. In games like Assassin’s Creed, Red Dead Redemption, Dead Space and others, priests and pastors are often portrayed as evil or cowardly, and followers as misguided or insane. Genuine faith is, for the most part, absent from western games. 

It took both national and religious outsiders to demonstrate how valuable and interesting a game about faith could be. Wittingly or unwittingly, a group of Japanese developers led by Takeyasu Sawaki created a game that fascinated the irreligious and struck at the heart of the religious. 

The way they pulled this off is simple: they took the mythology of The Book of Enoch seriously, and more importantly, as if it may have (at least within the fiction of the game) actually happened. They included the player in the story in a way that implies possibility and validity. While the introductory cut scene may open with the words “Let me tell you a tale,” it’s just as important that the words that follow are “it took place 360,000… no, 14,000 years ago,” implying historicity. The character of Lucifel stares straight at the player, implicating him, not only in the events of the story, but in the telling of the story.

The player is challenged to either accept or reject the foundations of the story itself: the existence of God, His inherent goodness, the origins of Lucifer, the goals of humanism, and the need for a Messiah are all examined, lived out, and called into question before us. And while The Book of Enoch, on which El Shaddai is based, itself is viewed by almost all major religions (excluding the Ethiopian Orthodox Church) to be firmly outside of the cannon of Scripture, it nonetheless shares a number of crucial beliefs and implications with Jewish and Christian religious texts. 

God is a major character in the game, all-powerful and beyond reproach, though he remains absent throughout. Lucifel is presented as God’s helper, a reference to the Christian belief that the fallen-angel Lucifer was once a crucially important angel who let his desire to be like God get in the way of his duties, and ended up going to war against God. It also contains Enoch as a character consistent with his biblical counterpart: a man who walked with God, and was taken up to Heaven without dying because of it. Or, as Lucifel puts it in the most understated manner possible: Enoch was “a pretty good guy.”

The balance between Enoch’s humanity and near-perfect godliness adds a distinctly Christian aspect to the story. Because Enoch is human, he has both the ability to disobey as well as a unique kinship with the rest of humanity.  And yet, his mission to rid the world of the specific kind of humanist evil that it faces requires Enoch to be in virtual lockstep with The Lord – a commitment that wavers during the climax of the game, particularly when he sees what his mission means for his best friend, Amaros. Ultimately, though, Enoch must sacrifice both himself and his own will for the sake of the world and its relationship to God. 

If that sounds familiar, that’s because Enoch is an extremely close analog to Jesus, the one the Christian religion refers to as the Messiah of the world and the Son of God. Philippians describes Jesus in a way that very much articulates the ongoing struggle of Enoch as well: “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” 

They say that Satan, or Lucifer, often tells as much truth as he can get away with, but never the whole truth. In this case, Lucifel was holding back when he introduced El Shaddai as the story of “a man.” It’s more than that: it’s the story of a Savior.