Already, a good many of my readers will be wary, made uneasy by just that one word. Understandably so. Religion is by far the single most powerful force to have shaped history. Pick any nation, any of the world?s problems, and if you are patient, you will find that religion had a hand in the creation and shaping of nearly every one of them.
Even within gaming, it is a force, if an often overlooked one. What kind of force, and should it even be one are two excellent questions that are almost never asked. That in itself is a little bit strange. One of the most popular games of all time, The Sims, consists of the gamer essentially creating and ordering the lives of individuals… a role often given to a Creator that is generally considered to be a Deity. I would think that since a best seller has such a powerful parallel to many religions that a discussion of of the role of religion in gaming would have come about for marketing purposes if nothing else. And yet, the industry almost seems afraid to glance in that direction.
The Sims are not alone in these parallels. In Black and White, you are a god. The gamer takes on the role of a god, whether good or evil depends on the actions of the gamer. In the city-builder series by Impressions, Pharaoh and the others, you build temples or risk the gods anger. In Age of Empires, churches and mosques had to built to acquire monks, who served as healers, and to allow for the relic method of winning the game. In short, in these three games select elements of modern religion are taken and made into a core game element, another type of risk control, and a key troop producing structure. In Civilization 3, building temples early in the game ensures that each city will see its sphere of influence grow. In Diablo 2, a shadowy history of warfare includes heaven and hell, good and evil, angels and demons. In fact, the list of games that include elements of religion as plot, game, or artistic elements is about as long as the list of games itself.
Fewer are the games that do not take elements of religion but actually try to create religions within the structure of the game. I think the best example may well be the various Star Wars games, of which Jedi Knight 2 remains my favorite. It is a bit of a stretch, maybe, to call the Jedi and the Lords of the Sith to rival religions, and maybe less of a stretch to call them two branches of the same religion, but both groups do have an almost religious portrayal in the game. This role is independent, I think, of the good versus evil fight that is played out using those two groups as soldiers. That good versus evil fight does not spawn the moral codes, the hierarchies, or the very human confusion of Kyle Katarn, a man unsure where or how he fits in. These things come from something else… from the two sides themselves, and from their almost religious natures.
In Shogun, religion is only strategic consideration, but nonetheless, the creators placed within the game religion intact, and not just in part. Temples are more than troop producers. They also strengthen the bonds of the people in that province to that religion. Build a Buddhist monastery in a province, wait several turns, then convert to Christianity. There is a very good chance you will be rewarded with a minor revolt. Religion even factors into how certain unit types will react to facing other units in combat. Even though it is a strategic thing first, religion has been dyed into fabric of the game at nearly every level. Though the gamer never sees it, the effect is the same as religion being practiced among the people behind the scenes.
But, of course, I must come back to the world of Diablo, to Sanctuary. Diablo ends with the hero sacrificing himself to save the people of Tristram from the evil of Diablo. Only when Diablo 2 came out did we discover how spectacular a failure that attempt was. Regardless of the eventual failure, that sacrifice resembles a great many tenets of a number of religions. Likewise, there are similarities between the demonic hierarchy, the big three and everyone else, and the stories of ancient Greece. That mythology was their religion. To me, the story of Diablo and kin resembles strongly the story of the rise and eventual fall of the Titans, predecessors to the Olympian deities that the world came to know in myth. It is a story line that fits. It is not hard to see how Sanctuary could be a world in transition from one religious structure, the powers of heaven thrown against the three, to another… one that emerges after the collapse of the Worldstone. There are suggestions in the various legends of Sanctuary that are found in the game book and on Arreat Summit that both the Barbarian ancients and the Zakarum hold (or held) to a higher allegiance to something or someone further up the food chain. Fuel for the fires of Diablo 3? Hopefully. But for now, it is merely speculation.
As is the question of the place religion should have in gaming. For now, that too is merely speculation.
Disclaimer: Salem?s Fire was written by Luke Blaize during 2002-2004, and hosted by Diabloii.net. The opinions expressed in these columns are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Diii.net.