Use of Mythology in Games – Darksiders

Please Note – There are MANY SPOILERS in this article.  There are also MANY TYPOS.  Read at your own risk.

Many games over the years have used mythology as a basis and a platform to tell a story.  The great part about using myths and legends, is that there are some universal appeal in all of them.  no matter who you are culturally, to hear the tales of other areas in the world can be a very interesting proposition.  Sometimes it’s very informative to see what kind of values a culture puts emphasis on, and even more fascinating is seeing the similarities between your culture and another.

What is also interesting, is seeing how different individuals use these mythologies and change them around to use some of the themes and values in an effort to tell a particular story.  We see it all the time in video games, in obvious and in not so obvious ways.  Clearly, someone can look at the game Dante’s Inferno and see that they tried to use some portion; albeit small one, of Dante’s classic epic poem The Inferno from The Divine Comedy.  Although, some of those overtly obvious choices can sometimes leave a weird taste in your mouth.  Yet what these games and stories can do is expose some of the themes that made that piece of mythology so poignant in the first place.

In the upcoming weeks and months, I will attempt to show you some of the interesting ways that video games are using religion, mythology, legends, and other cultural tales in an effort to create an effective storyline.  By this you will see some of the smart, interesting, and downright awful ways game designers have used these mythologies and see if we can start a dialogue on what we as a community think about that.  With everything that has been going on around me as of late, I felt it appropriate to look into the ideas of Heaven and Hell, Angels and Demons, Good and Evil.  Therefore I’m going to focus this first discussion, on the Vigil Games 2010 hit, Darksiders.

At the highest level, Darksiders is a story that has been told to us before; The realms of Heaven, Hell, and Humans.  Heaven is filled with Angels, beings created by an omnipotent God that created the entire world and universe.  Hell is filled with Demons, former Angels that took offense by God’s decision to create Mankind and to give them free will.  Mankind is fairly straight forward; that’s us.  Human Beings of blood and flesh that go about our lives, with the opportunity to bend the world that was given to us in any manner that we deem necessary.

The beginning of Darksiders is quite literally the Apocalypse. While I could bore you with the specific story details of how the game plays out, I will instead focus on the interesting choices made by Vigil, and some of the smart connections created based on the various mythologies.

Character Naming Conventions

This is where I think Darksiders really shines.  As a game master who tends to over think everything, I can appreciating a writer who names their own characters after individuals and groups found in the collective mythology.  Almost all of the characters that are in the game are based off of older ideas, and it’s really refreshing to see that they took the time to bring those characters into a modern setting, but also that they didn’t just go out and make up a bunch of crap.  They at least showed some desire to build around the story’s theme.

Front and center to all of this is of course, the main character of War, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  The mention of War in the Bible, is rather short.  This is something that is difficult to base an entire character around.  After all, how do you give human characteristics to an event or idea?

When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come and see!” Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. To him was given a large sword.Revelations 6:3-4

As the passage states, War needs to carry a large sword and ride a fiery red horse.  OK, that’s not so hard, and sure enough, those features are present in the game.  It was interesting to see that Vigil Games decided to personify War as someone bound by a code, similar to a Knight or Samurai.  Playing as War, you spend the entire game trying to clear his name of wrong doing.  To War, his honor means a great deal to him, and that brings up that long forgotten aspect of actual wars that can many times get lost in the horrors of conflict.  War is never pretty. Many were fought to stand up for something people believed in.  The character of War is charged as a protector, part of a mediator group that is aiming to keep the world in balance between Heaven, Hell and Mankind.  You really feel like War took his job seriously, and is devastated that he has been framed.

It would have been really easy to make the character of War into a brutal savage, but that doesn’t give the character any sort of progression.  How can you care for a character that mindlessly battles his way through everything?  I mean even Conan had a character arc!

War as a character, is fairly straight forward.  However the character that had me the most interested in writing this piece was Samael.  In the game, Samael has the appearance of a demon from Hell, yet he seems to know and understand both sides of the heavenly conflict.  This makes a lot of sense, after all in Paradise Lost we are shown the idea that Demons who reside in Hell, were once Angels that served in Heaven.  It’s possible that Samael is simply a resident of Hell that still remembers many people from Heaven.

Yet what makes Samael interesting is that he seemingly never picks a side in this entire conflict.  He is instructing you to kill Demons from Hell and bring back their hearts so that he can break free of the bonds that hold him to Earth.  Although, throughout this process, it feels like the writers are setting you up for a situation where you find out the Samael has been using you this entire time and he is the great evil, or The Destroyer, that has been spoken off.  However, once you finish in getting the hearts for Samael, he puts you on the path to kill The Destroyer, and simply leaves, never to show up in the story again.

Characters like this always fascinate me.  Here they are, big, evil looking, and asking you to do some really messed up tasks.  You are sure that they are going to double cross you at some point, but instead nothing of the sort happens.  Sure, Samael is probably up to no good, but he honors his agreement with War and simply goes about his business.  Relating this to religious themes, what is interesting is that the name Samael shows up in many different religions and spiritual philosophies.  Interestingly enough, there is no common theme that follows that name.  Some Hebrew writings seem to imply that Samael may very well be Satan himself, a being of Evil that used to do good.  Other scholars though refute that, and say that Samael refers to the Angel of Death, but also a ruler and leader of many Angelic beings, and ruler of the Seventh Heaven in Jewish lore.  Some state that he aims for mankind to do evil or unjust things, yet he is still a servant of G-d.  Just who is this guy?!

That confusion in lore itself, really seemed to fuel the writer’s for Darksiders to make a character that seemed ready to be the end of you, but was actually one of the few to live up to his word and bond.  It was really fascinating to play around with that and to dive deeper into the lore as I researched this.

The attention to detail on characters and name really shined through in other ways as well.  Abaddon takes on two roles in this game.  When first introduced to him, he is the leader of Heaven’s angelic army.  At the end of the game though it is revealed that he is in fact The Destroyer, the entity responsible for bringing the Apocalypse early.  Although he did this with a “noble” goal in mind, fearing that if anymore time passed, the hosts of Hell would grow too powerful and Heaven would fall.  Unfortunately for him, his hope to save Heaven, also brought upon the destruction of Mankind, and possibly made him the very creature that would destroy what he once protected.

This is a very clever name for such a character, because like Samael, Abaddon is an entity that is debated upon in many different religions and myths.  Sometimes that name is associated with the title of Destroying Angel of the Apocalypse.  Some argue he is the King of Death, equivalent to Satan or a being of pure evil.  Others would debate that he is simply a skilled Angel.  Darksiders does a great job of using this character and this name, as a means to show someone playing both sides of Good and Evil, effectively being on both.  Abaddon has the best of intentions, but gives in to temptation and betrays the ones that he swore to protect.

Imagery & Story Hooks

When you follow the story in Darksiders closely, you will notice some entertaining occasions where the writer’s spent a good deal of time utilizing religious lore.  The game goes with the premise that there are seven seals, and only when the seventh seal is broken will the Apocalypse take place and the Horsemen be called to duty.  Darksiders makes these literal objects, actual seals that people attempt to protect or destroy depending on their affiliation.  The seals are almost used as a measuring tool for Mankind.  Theoretically, once the seventh is broken, Mankind should be strong enough to defend themselves against Heaven and Hell.  Of course, nothing is that easy, and both sides of the war jockey for position and attempt to use the seals for their side, hopefully giving them an edge in the great battle ahead.

Comparing this to the seals that are described in The Bible and Revelations where each seal brings upon a new event or atrocity.  The seals still bring upon the end of the world, but in Revelations it is much more of an escalating situation, and not protective gates.  For the passages in Revelations, the first four brings a new Horsemen, which are described as beasts that seek the destruction of the world, not it’s protection like in the game.  The final three seals bring upon the end of the world, and the judgment of the people present.

The fact that Darksiders even used “seals” at all really shows an attention to detail that you sometimes don’t see in writing.  Each story has a different spin on what a seal is, but the detail is still presented.  It’s creative license, but still showcases that the writer’s did their homework, and researched what the collective mythologies believe will happen at the end of the world.  They then took those ideas and themes, and used those to build a world with it that would be fun and interesting to play a video game in. Not only that, might learn something too.

As a game I found Darksiders very surprising.  One can easily point to the fact that it’s gameplay, which borrowed heavily from titles like Legend of Zelda, Portal, Devil May Cry, God of War, and others made it a success.  What aided all of that was a story that people actually felt was engaging.  This was a story of revenge and redemption, told in a world where Heaven and Hell vied for dominance.  The story was exciting for the same reasons that the gameplay was successful.  Sure, it borrowed heavily from other places, but the execution and entire package made everything just so interesting and fun.  You could tell as you played that the people making this really enjoyed what they were doing, and that they put a lot of effort into making something special.  They created a world that felt familiar, but completely unique.  It built on what other stories had done, but created its own special niche.  Darksiders was a game that paid attention to mythology, legends and religion.  It then took those themes and ideals and made an entirely new world for us to explore in and care about.  Darksiders shows that this kind of attention to detail is the difference between a good game, and a horrendous one.

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Joseph Valenti

Founder of g33kWatch, Joe is the guy who makes sure nobody hurts themselves. Connect with me on Google+

5 Comments:

  1. Post Take #2 – dang connection.

    As a man of etymology, anthroponymy, and mythology I do find that when a writer for a book, show, movie or video game has ‘done the research’ I get a warm feeling in my belly. I like people taking their spin on a character, but keep the core the same as the source, even if they go wildly different, if there is a link back to who/how they were before that matches up then it just shows they didn’t pick a cool name out of a hat or default to ‘The Devil’ for an end boss.

    American Gods that took the concept of Gods following their faithful to the new world where they adapted to suit the times, but there was always something Gaiman had found in the source material to make someone familiar on the deity go “Ah-haha!”

    On a personal level, linking to the thread of the Heavenly Host, my first experience of someone taking the subject and forming it very well to suit their story was Kaori Yuki’s Angel Sanctuary, and I will try not to go too indepth, but Yuki did the research extremely well, she gave her interperation of the Angels and Demons she found in the Biblical apocrypha, the Kabbalah, and other texts and built upon what existing material to suit her story. One of my favourite examples is her take on Michael and Lucifer.

    Brief of original text we should be familiar with: Lucifer rebelled against YHWH and Michael struck him down to end the rebellion.

    Kaori Yuki’s version: Lucifer and Michael are twins, prophecised for one to become the Angel of Light and the other to become the harbinger of destruction. Michael resents Lucifer because he is seen as the inferior of the two and as such Lucifer (name meaning Light Bringer) is assumed to take the mantle of Angel of Light, leaving Michael to be the harbinger.

    Events transpire leading to Lucifer to rebel against YHWH and in the ensuing war many Angels cast down from Heaven to the underworld, the last of the bunch is a battle where Michael strikes down Lucifer and becomes the Shining General of Heaven’s Armies, he fufils the prophecy.

    This is all before the series and is told throughout the story as the characters learn what happened to bring events to where they are now. What I liked was the fact that Michael and Lucifer were siblings and treated unequally, Michael is seen by everyone as inferior despite his great deeds and his character is battle-driven because the only time things made sense to him is when he is in a fight, his resentment of Lucifer is to mask, initially, the respect he craves from Lucifer, the elder superior brother, and then after the rebellion for what he feels was a personal betrayal of the one person he idolised.

    The core is the same, but the interpretation is great, Michael is the fire of YHWH and leader of Heaven’s Armies, but he is given reasonable faults and traits to suit the story. Lucifer’s arc is much more spoiler-filled and a whole different matter, but gives a different light on the Betrayer/Deceiver sign usually hung over the name’s head.

    I look forward to more of this Broseph.

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  2. The way this game treats Samael is strange yet interesting. He is believed to have been a Roman patron god of the Empire, and in Judaism is regarded as an (sometimes as the) Angel of Death. In later Judeo-Christian teachings, he is one of the Archangels named by Saint Gregory. He is often thought to have one foot in the door of good and the other in evil, but most texts I have found studying him in Roman context (from which he was likely poached for inclusion into the budding Judeo-Christian religion), he was almost certainly an “evil”, vengeful demigod who struck down enemies of the Empire; yet is described as a “collector of souls” for God in Jewish teachings, while simultaneously residing in the 7th heaven and ruling the 5th in Talmudic lore. He also has been named as the guardian angel of Esau, son of Isaac.

    In other words, most religions don’t seem to know what to make of this guy, and the way this game treats him seems to reflect that confusion rather than attempt to define him.

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    • It would be interesting if Samael returns in the sequel, but continues to be an entity that follows its own agenda, whatever that may be.

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      • I believe that the developers have said that Samael will be back and play a more prominent role in the sequel(s) so that will be exciting. I agree and I hope that they retain his ambiguous motivations.

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        • The star of the second game will be Death, correct? Theoretically he and Samael would be rivals, as they both compete to collect souls (Samael ostensibly for God, Death for balance). This would create a more interesting dynamic for the PC and Samael, as most of your goals as Death would be goals shared by Samael for different reasons. Death may theoretically be of higher station and greater power than Samael, but not even Horsemen want to tangle with Demigod/Archangel mash-ups. I can easily see Samael becoming a late-game “villain” you must defeat or otherwise incapacitate in order to complete a goal.

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