“Game on the essential Hellscape really resonates with people now for some reason, ”a recent title on the satirical news site of the video game Hard Drive read. The story referred Hell, The successful action game from Supergiant Games in which Zagreus, prince of the underworld, repeatedly tries unsuccessfully to escape his father’s kingdom. Every attempt – even those where you beat the last opponent in your path – ends with Zagreus’ death. In this fate, between the failures of Zagreus, the player lives. In hell.
This is how I’ve tried to relax for the last few weeks, with a controller in my hand and hell in my head. “We live in hell” is a running line on the internet (social media flattens rhetoric as well as rhetoric), a mantra for our era of picking your own disaster used by those privileged enough to comment.
Already the metaphors are mixed (again: thank you internet). Millennial hell posting through the apocalypse is meant to conjure up an idea of hellfire, brimstone and torment – Christian hell – while hell in Hell is simply the afterlife of Greek mythology, a place of punishment, of course, but also of reward, and perhaps banality in between. This is, in large part, an exception in video games. They have long preferred the old hell, if only because it’s coded as unmistakably bad, a place where violence that would be unsettling in other contexts reads as quite acceptable. Unless, of course, you are a Christian and concerned about portraying such things.
Heck-Fire and Brimstone
Growing up an evangelical, I was brought up in fear of hellfire and brimstone, so I avoided such hells and was actively forbidden. The first ones I remember are substitutes, of which there are many. The Kingdom of the Netherlands Mortal combator the “What the Heck” level in Jim earthworm (both experienced in other people). It would take many years for me to go to the actual and more popular hells of the game, like the halls of Condemn or waste from Diablosurprised to learn that they weren’t very interested in evil in a qualitative sense, but simply quantitative. Hell is other people, soulless, who must be exterminated.
There is a catharsis in there, which is why these two games spawned several sequels that barely deviate from an established formula. This year Eternal doom is identical to that of 1993 Condemn: You are an unstoppable, heavily armed man on a journey to hell and back, mowing down hordes of demons along the way. Likewise, the years 2012 Diablo 3 is basically the same game as 1996 Diablo, a descent into a demon’s domain widely regarded as an excuse for looting and arming that turns you into an even more effective demon killing machine.
In times of difficulty, these games offer something that is often lacking in your real life: momentum, structure. The evil in these games is not complicated; it is an obstacle, and fragile in addition. You have an endless array of tools to remove it with the push of a button, and you’re only challenged to break the rhythm of constant domination. It can be calming, a form of escape, to trade one hell for another.
Yet the hell we live in, as it may be, is not built by generic evil, nor supported by mindless drones just waiting for someone with the courage to sweep them away. Our ills have a name; they are systemic and pernicious, changing over time. They are complex, perhaps more than our tools to discuss and combat them. The hell that is being built on our real earth – where asylum seekers are abandoned, where children are stolen from their parents, where the actions of American citizens are stripped from them in a way that is both blatant and terribly mundane.
In this, the hells of video games are often lacking. Villainy in video games is also lacking – in big budget games like the Far cry or Metal Gear Solid series, you are for the most part opposing antagonists who are unarguably wrong, but maybe a point or two understandable – albeit completely twisted – like a villain from one of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies.
Devils you know
Many big budget games need a revolving source of villainy, and Hell or Hell’s analogue is an easy answer to that. In Dragon age it’s The Fade, where demons embodying the worst aspects of humanity cross our world. In action games like The devil can cry and Bayonetta, demons force their way out of the underworld en masse to be a web of creative destruction. Again, I understand why. But the vague and simple hells of video games are starting to lose their appeal to me now.