If 2012 was the year of self-loathing, then 2013 is the year that humanity collectively waged war against God.
No, this isn’t a “war on Christmas”, quasi-conservative argument about video games turning our children atheist or some bullshit like that. I’m saying that the general thematic element of some of our biggest titles this year featured a metaphorical battle between humanity and various representations of godlike forces, or in some cases God himself.
Take for instance BioShock Infinite. Probably the most apt game for this article, it depicts a literal battle between a single man and the religious construct of a purely American God. In some cases the boundaries blur as to who God is in the game. Is it Elizabeth; the idol of the city and God’s chosen child as per the gospel of Comstock? Is it Columbia; the massive sprawling utopia cult that strangely parallels Booker’s own search for the truth?
I’d argue for the latter personally. The deeper Booker gets into the heart of the twisting, breathing, mechanical city, the more it seems as if we’re getting closer to the heart of two men instead. Or maybe one man. Or several. Whatever the case, BioShock Infinite acts much like a quote Comstock spits out at the player early on in the game:
“The Lord forgives everything, but I’m a prophet…So I don’t have to. Amen”
The god is a construct in this game. Built not only through fanatical zeal but with gunpowder, steel, social hierarchies. But it’s also built on regret, guilt, shame. The idea of Columbia built in BioShock Infinite acts as the best metaphor for a god in the game because on one layer it’s a social commentary on the socio-political aspects of religion, but on a deeper level, it’s a deconstruction of why people personally go towards religion for salvaging their souls. While Elizabeth is set up as a god-like figure within the game, Columbia is the reason behind many of its characters motivations and even their existence. Its attempt to destroy and protect (the many sides of) Booker Dewitt is such an engrossing metaphor for religion. Understanding that Columbia is both a representation for theocratic nationalism and a personal escape from one’s sins; the city serves as both a symbol decrying the hypocrisy of religion while finding truth in its somber meditations of the weakness of human’s will.
Or we can look at The Last of Us, in which the enemy isn’t so much a clear-cut idea of God like in BioShock, but a biblical plague in the form of the virus that destroyed the world. It’s a narrative that finds a society in the aftermath of the apocalypse. Yet the idea of two people, flesh and bone humans, fighting against an insurmountable wave of ungodly teeth and claws acts as the sort of metaphorical epic for the game. This isn’t so much a world terrorized or obstructed directly by a god such as in BioShock: Infinite, but one that’s left abandoned by God. This is probably why the most terrifying moments in the game isn’t when Joel and Ellie face the clickers, but other humans.
In fact, the most interesting idea here is presented in Ellie, the Christ figure of the world that will save (sever) humanity from the last remaining traces of God . It’s a wholly human story that is never angry at its ruined situation. This a world abandoned save for one thing: The virus that tears through people and society. It’s a grim yet surprisingly hopeful look into a world that for the first time has to rely on itself in the face of a wrath that could have only be described as “unholy.”
But then we also had games like Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs where a man, angry at this world filled with all manners of filth and ruined by greedy leaders and politicians he deemed “pigs.” To correct the sins of man, Mandus aligns himself with a greater force by creating a “God”. In Amnesia‘s sequel, Mandus (Man) creates God (…God) as a machine. This machine was built to pass judgement on the pigs and by doing so, Mandus becomes both the progenitor and later main opponent of the machine “god” he built. It’s a harrowing story of a man who understands completely the monumental scope of the machine he built and labeled a god, versus the horror that comes with understanding his failure to control that same power. Exploring the dynamic of servant and creator, god and zealot, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is more about God and Man as a tandem force rather than ones at odds with each other.
It also really depends on what you can consider a “god” in the first place. In fact, Tearaway introduces a world where the player essentially plays a benevolent god. Less literally, one might argue that you are a god in the immigration simulator Papers, Please in which you pass judgement on those that come before you only to return to your own home as human. Or even The Stanley Parable which creates the idea that the game itself might be a sort of god only it relies on you to be complete as a game. The funniest example and possibly the most literal could be Saints Row IV where you are basically a god and choose to just fuck around rather than do anything substantial with your powers.
Strangely enough, and without going into too much detail (this is a video game website after all), this theme invaded various other mediums as well. Pacific Rim and Man of Steel both featured heavily ideas of man and gods (though one of them replaced man and god with giant robots and kaijus and was a super awesome movie). Additionally the anime Attack on Titan made similar strides with a narrative based on humanity’s struggle against large beasts called Titans (that have their own mythological references).
Not all games this year featured this idea of man v. god, just like not every game last year made us feel like a piece of shit about ourselves. However some of the biggest games to have come out this year introduced the idea that the topic of humans and God is an idea that goes beyond religion. No matter your beliefs, the idea that there is a power greater than yourself is a human experience, and fighting, or becoming larger than this power is additionally a very human desire. Our relationship to the idea of God is so readily understood by many of us that story-tellers can feel comfortable using this dynamic to tell stories that have nothing to do with religion at all. They can be personal stories, or epic ones, but regardless; these are the stories that dominated the year 2013.