Rise of the Tomb Raider

A look at religion in Lara Croft’s latest adventure. By Pat Davet.

Adventure games always grapple with religion. A hero is usually after some ancient city or treasure, almost always cursed or guarded. There they must confront difficult truths that may fly in the face of their beliefs. Indiana Jones, arguably the greatest icon of adventure in media, had this experience multiple times. Another great adventure icon, Lara Croft, is in the same boat.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is the sequel to Crystal Dynamics’ 2013 reboot of the classic series. The new Tomb Raider games are darker and grittier. Lara is less of an adventurer than she is a survivor. There are human tolls to her exploits. Rise finds her to be psychologically damaged from her previous near-death experiences. It’s no coincidence that this game decided to take a religious route in exploring the nature of good and evil in the world.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is about Lara’s search for an ancient, messianic figure known as the Prophet and his Divine Source. This trek takes on a personal tone, as it is the last mission that her father ever left to complete. He never returned from his journey to find the Divine Source. In Lara’s adventure, she finds a group of people known as Remnants, who believe that the Source is the soul of God. The Remnants are not kind. They are wary outsiders and they refuse to give Lara aid until they receive evidence of her trust. They are much like orthodox religious groups we find in the world today - isolated, and incredibly devoted. Lara, after a while, becomes a part of this group, and they take her in with open arms.

It’s a game that doesn’t just look at the goodness of communal worship, the villain of the game is a highly religious individual. Konstantin, the big bad of Rise, actually believes that God is on his side. Often we see him praying for divine help. He is powerful, corrupt, and wholly convinced he is right. What is more powerful than having a God on your side? It’s all the evidence he needs to kill innocents and destroy villages. If it’s a part of God’s plan, why hold back?

The Arbiter & Doubt

A look at Halo’s Arbiter through a religious lens, by Pat Davet.

The saga of the first Halo Trilogy is one of gaming’s all-time greatest stories. It’s a battle of humanity against a religious crusade of aliens. Such a plot could run the risk of being a mindless shooter, but impeccable writing by Bungie has cemented Halo as a classic. It’s a story of one species against several united species. What makes Halo incredible is the depth that we explore the alien Covenant. Our guide through their world is The Arbiter, a disgraced alien general who has serious doubts about his faith.

The definition for the word Arbiter is “one who judges,” which fits the religious significance of the rank in the time of the Covenant. The title of Arbiter was reserved for the greatest warrior-rulers of the Sangheili, or the elites.

In effect, the ancient Arbiters were practically autocrats, who wielded untold authority and influence due to their superior combat capabilities. They are comparable to the Pharisees in Biblical times. 

The rank of Arbiter is held in high esteem and possesses some degree of military command, due to their skill often being used to keep the Covenant from fracturing. The Arbiter during the Halo saga failed to defeat the Master Chief, or player character, in the first game. As a result, his rulers send him on a suicide mission.

The Arbiter’s ritual humiliation, ordered by the Hierarchs and carried out by Tartarus, is visually evocative of the crucifixion of Jesus. It culminates with the Tartarus stabbing the Arbiter with a brand of the Mark of Shame, similar to how Jesus was stabbed with the Lance of Longinus. His old life effectively “dead”, he is then figuratively resurrected as “the Arbiter”. Just as Jesus passed through Hell, the Arbiter passes through the Gravemind’s lair in the pit underneath the Library. The Arbiter then returns and saves the other Elites, just as Jesus brought a message of truth to humanity. Through these experiences, we play as the Arbiter. We see the world as he does. His doubt and eventual rejection of the Covenant is mirrors the story of Jesus Christ, who also had his own doubts. He brings greater truth to his people, even though it caused him great pain.

SOMA

A religious analysis of SOMA by Patrick Davet.

What makes us human? It’s a question that’s been pondered by philosophers since the dawn of civilization. From Socrates to Aquinas to Nietzsche, we have wondered about humanity’s place in the world. John Dewey is a philosopher that coined Somatic philosophy, that is a philosophy of the “body-mind.” Dewey asserts that the mind is only a part of our flesh and bone, formed by primal instinct. It is not, in other words, given to us by a God or higher power.

Enter SOMA, a 2015 survival horror experience from Frictional Games. You play as Simon, a man who was engaged in a fatal car crash that left him with severe brain damage. After agreeing to a brain scan at a laboratory, Simon awakens in an underwater research facility several hundred years into the future. There are no signs of any living humans, only robots that are either confused about their mechanical identities or hostile robots. After working your way through the facility, avoiding death, there is a revelation…

And this is a spoiler, turn back now or forever hold your peace….

You’re a robot, and every human on earth is dead. Well, you’re not exactly a robot. You’re a brain scan of Simon’s consciousness, taken over a hundred years in the past. Your brain is the foundation of artificial intelligence. Mankind on earth was eliminated in a meteor strike, leaving only those underwater to survive.

In blog posts and interviews, Thomas Grip, creative director of Frictional, has expanded upon his vision for SOMA’s. In his first blog post for PlayStation in October 2013, he explains the premise of SOMA:
The subject that SOMA will discuss is consciousness. Personally, I find it the most profound questions that it is possible to ask. “How can the feeling of subjective experience arise from a chunk of flesh?” Exploring this further takes us to questions such as “Can machines be conscious?” and “Do we have free will?” It quickly gets very disturbing and is ideal for a futuristic horror setting. It is the kind of sci-fi that we want to make.

Do machines have free will? They certainly don’t seem to be subjects of predestination, or, fate. In that case, they are not the subject of any God. It’s a dark question. But we need to ask whether or not consciousness is truly what makes us human.

In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, SOMA is an antidepressant. It provides a false sense of happiness to the citizens within his book. Within the game, SOMA could be the “ark” that it the end goal of the main campaign. This ark is a refuge for artificial intelligences that is in the end launched into space. It is a virtual reality. So now we must question, is that refuge a false hope, a false happiness? Is it a false hope that human minds can exist without a human body? Does our body make us human? According to old Catholic doctrine, yes. We need our bodies when we are resurrected. Without them, we are damned.

That Dragon, Cancer

A religious analysis of That Dragon, Cancer by Patrick Davet.

That Dragon Cancer is not like most video games. In fact, it’s not like any experience you’ll have this year, with any type of media. It’s a video game created by Ryan and Amy Green and a small team at Numinous Games it’s the death of Ryan and Amy’s infant son Joel who was diagnosed with terminal cancer in November of 2010. It’s a game that received a lot of attention for its subject matter. Websites were flooded with arguments as to whether or not it was really a game. I mean, sure, you play through it but but little bit of playing that you do is mostly pointing and clicking or just experiencing life through Joel’s eyes.

It’s a powerful game. NPR’s segments on it from This American Life had JJ Sutherland from the podcast  Shall We Play a Game on for their website. To quote Sutherland in the NPR article, “This isn’t like most video games. You aren’t shooting people here or running a race. You’re moving around a hospital. You can look at pictures in cards. Oh, you do fight dragons at one point. But most of it is clicking on ordinary objects like a cell phone to hear a voicemail.

Ryan, the developer of the game, used recordings of Joel’s laughter and other audio collected during his son’s life in the game. It’s a part of a growing trend in games that focus more on the narrative rather than the experience of the experience of the game itself. Much like Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, it’s a game that focuses on connection and emotion, but it still revolves around death.

As the game progresses, the religious elements stick out more. Both Ryan and Amy were devout Christians, so it makes sense that their game would take on a more religious aspect as it went on. Sam Zucchi at Killscreen wrote a review of the game that highlighted its religious elements. He said that “grief is eminently relatable, while faith is considered potentially alienating.” The game is meant to be experienced at these points from Ryan and Amy’s point of view when it switches to this religious element. We hear them quote the Bible. They give lessons to Joel about God and why hope is necessary. They console themselves. In the game’s art style, which is beautiful pastel-shaded forms, nothing is really whole. It’s as though you’re looking through Joel’s eyes but you see that the world is beautiful anyway.

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LIMBO

A religious analysis of Playdead’s LIMBO by Patrick Davet.

LIMBO, a 2010 game by Danish developer Playdead was released on the Xbox Live Arcade, is one of the most successful independent games of all time. What it tells is a disturbing story of a young boy who awakens in a forest at the edge of hell. Its title actually comes from the Latin word “limbus” meaning “the edge.” 

The game and surprisingly simple: there’s no text, no dialogue, and no explanation. You are only able to figure out these puzzles by… well, dying. A lot. You die a lot in this game and you don’t just die, you die violently. It really does drive the point home death is horrific and because you’re playing as what looks to be a child, it’s all the more terrifying every time you are killed by one of his fears. He faces drowning, darkness, spiders, and in the end, death all over again. All of these obstacles that he has to face represent different fears that the boy must have faced during his life on Earth. 

This boy has and has awakened in Limbo. It’s the world between life and death in traditional Christian philosophy. Dante highlighted it the best in his Divine Comedy: it’s one of the first chapters of Inferno. In Limbo unbaptized babies or souls whose bodies have not yet been buried reside in this place. This layer of hell isn’t traditionally considered to be a layer. It’s not torturous. In fact, the only reason it’s a layer is because nothing really happens. Christian religions also teach that anyone who died without knowledge of the Bible, or the Gospel are sent to Limbo. Ancient Greek philosophy holds that Limbo is just Elysium, an enormous field where you just hang out. Just think of the word Limbo without its religious connotation. It means held up. The game plays with this and its states of death: you’re constantly being held up. The only way to overcome this is to keep pushing on, to keep dying, and eventually the game ends exactly where you started. 

The game’s ending is left wide open for interpretation. The developer Playdead wanted fans to figure out exactly what was going on for themselves. A lot of people believe that the game is an interpretation of some kind of religious purgatory. Another theory believes that it’s to find closure for his sister’s death, who he encounters at the end. All of the game all these theories exist online and Playdead has been open to all of these theories. They want people to dig deeper… into themselves, and into the game.

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Ultima IV: Quest for the Avatar

“The day is warm, yet there is a cooling breeze. The latest in a series of personal crises seems insurmountable. You are being pulled apart in all directions.” So begins Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, the very first video game to concentrate on religion as a main theme. It explores a theme so rare in games that few have ever even attempted to discuss it, let alone make it the main feature of a game. Ultima IV centers around a hero’s quest to achieve a virtuous life. The quest for Eight Virtues is the goal of the game, with the end result turning the player-character into an Avatar, or prophet. The game is, in other words, a journey towards enlightenment.

“Religion is a quest for meaning, and gameworlds mirror this fact by being assemblies of quests,” states William Sims Bainbridge in eGods. Religion is meant to be a path of discovery, even self-discovery in certain religions. Self-discovery in religion is famously discussed in Inferno, part one of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. Game scholar Jimmy Maher compares Ultima IV’s opening to that of Inferno: “In this the midway of our mortal life, I found me in a gloomy wood, astray, gone from the path direct.” The idea of losing one’s identity is a difficult method of storytelling that Ultima IV embraces.

The hero of Ultima IV does not become a mage or rogue like so many other famous RPGs. Rather, he strives to attain eight noble virtues: Compassion, Honesty, Honor, Humility, Justice, Sacrifice, and Valor. The player-character is not tasked with fighting off some great evil threat. The world is not collapsing. The hero is not even all that important in the grand scheme of things. The world is in a golden age and the player must give hope to its people. Much of the game feels like the Catholic Church’s response to the evil of the Great War in Europe. Things fell apart, and when time came to rebuild, religion was there to help give comfort.

The player’s quest to become an Avatar of Virtue represents only one half of the game. Later, one must enter the Stygian Abyss, a remnant of the Dante-inspired Hell that was originally the main focus of the game, and find the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom. “The final dungeon serves to hammer home the game’s rhetorical message via a series of puzzles which require you to apply what you’ve learned about the system of virtues, but everything that happens after you become an Avatar is otherwise much less interesting than what happens before” (Maher).