How Video Games Get Religion Wrong

*Sources of screenshots are listed in their respective file names.

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Outlast 2 transports players to a rural hellscape where Southern Gothic slasher horror is tied to religious fears of the Christian variety. The official marketing synopsis says as much, stating:

“Outlast 2 introduces you to Sullivan Knoth and his followers, who left our wicked world behind to give birth to Temple Gate, a town, deep in the wilderness and hidden from civilization. Knoth and his flock are preparing for the tribulations of the end of times and you’re right in the thick of it.”

Based on this alone, I feared Outlast 2 would turn out like every other game I had seen explicitly twist the ideas underlying my faith into a pretzel. Namely, that it would be another in a long line of titles that take advantage of the power of Christianity’s symbols, without contributing anything meaningful in their use of them – without saying anything, aside from the usual “religion is pretty scary and also maybe bad???” According to Adam Smith of Rock Paper Shotgun, those fears were justified. The game falls into this exact, well-worn hole, pairing it with a dose of Kentucky-fried incest for good measure.

As I said earlier, this use of religious imagery is not unusual in gaming. However, what never ceases to amaze me is how talented teams full of brilliant, otherwise empathetic people continue to use religions (real and fictional) in their universes while missing the entire point of these belief systems. Without answering a single, critical question:

Why?

If your religion is based around torture, pain, and general unpleasantness, why on God’s green Earth do people want to join it?
Why do the people in your fictional universe continue to stay in negative religious situations?
What needs does a given religion serve (or deny) in your world?
What is the history underlying your systems of worship?
Who are these worshipers, anyway? What are their motivations? Hopes? Dreams? Doubts?

How can games use religion as a critical element of their worlds while denying the innate humanity of those who worship?

I am a Christian. I have evangelized for my faith, hid it, and been shunned for it. I have hurt people in and out of my faith, and been hurt as well. I have joined cults, to my shame. The common element of every one of these experiences is people. Before you even approach the subject of deities, these are the folks that tend to bring us to (or repel us from) a given interpretation of faith in the first place.

Faith is not a character motivation in and of itself. It’s an amplifier, a present part of people’s daily lives that affects everything from the way they see each other to the way they see the world. It can draw goodness from the hearts of people who no longer believe they have it. It can distort your view of events, leading you to follow idea after seemingly good idea until you’re left in an oppressive religious situation with no exit in sight.

Yes, I have watched religious presences rise and fall, betrayed by their own hubris. The people left confused, and lost in their wake. Yes, I have seen faith tear families apart, even as they attempted to save each other’s souls from damnation. It’s easy to create a purely negative religion, or cast one in an exclusively negative light, because we’ve all heard the horror stories that conjure these images. However, again, using this approach ignores the reality of humans as complex beings with faith as a part of their lives – a critical element, but still only a part of the whole. Flawed founders, present-day leaders with differing goals, and your fellow worshipers…In every belief system there is a great cloud of folks, with an innumerable amount of factors affecting everything they do, all making choices that will affect themselves and others for years to come.

I know what it is to fear a bolt from God – one you feel you rightly deserve. I’ve walked that great, spiraling, religious descent into Hell with a smile frozen onto my face. I know what it’s like to quietly share doubts with a friend on a summer evening, and hope the conversation won’t make its way back to the pastor.

I’ve seen faith give people the simple will to live, when a bathtub and a knife seemed so much easier.

I am one of those people.

Games, for all of their incredible potential, continue to make the same mistakes in their treatment of religion time after time, because they seem to forget people like me exist.

When you create a religious depiction, or a religion, that does not take into account this massive tangle of factors and motivations – the messy, fundamental humanity of belief – you create a hollow shell. A series of empty plot points, with empty people spouting them. You don’t just do a disservice to the people who actually believe in the concepts you so thoughtlessly use. You become a philosopher of bullshit, screaming religious imagery into a void…

CROSSES BURNING UPSIDE-DOWN
MESSIAHS
NEW GODS

ANTICHRISTS
THE END OF THE WORLD

…and meaning less than nothing.

That’s the real loss, here. Not only are fundamental pieces of people’s lives being bastardized, but nothing is being said in the process. Concepts that have changed the face of the world are reduced to a tired jumpscare, or a simple, boring means to a narrative end.

Predictable.

Creating respectful religious depictions doesn’t require making said religion the focus of your world. It doesn’t even mean being positive about the given faith you’re depicting! It just requires you to do your job well.

Make something that shows how fear can trap a person in a religion/institution that no longer resembles the world they fell in love with. Make something that forces me to confront WHY I believe what I believe, and what actions a so-called unshakable faith may justify. Make something that shows me how belief systems are made, and the human choices made by the people who follow them that can twist these well-meaning systems to the breaking point. Show me cultists joking around, and the doubts of die-hard fundamentalists – the humanity of people I may not agree with.

There are so many unexplored avenues related to this subject, that it’s actually agonizing seeing these possibilities ignored. Ways to depict faith, belief, and religion, that go beyond a cliched apocalyptic sermon, or yet another confusing cult that exists simply because you need an enemy.  This issue isn’t limited to Outlast 2. It’s a disappointing mandate found in almost every title out there.

If you’re going to twist the symbols that define essential pieces of people’s lives, at least be interesting.

Early this year, I was hired to work on the Intrigue Manual of Aethera RPG, a Kickstarted setting for the popular tabletop role-playing game Pathfinder. I had functionally abandoned this website, scrubbing it from my branding and public identity in hopes it would aid my career in game development. And you know what? It seemed to be working. My titles SCREW YOU, BEAR DAD! and Mazurka – A Ghost in Italy did well enough for me to attend AdventureX in London. I was getting freelance work, collaborating with people I respected…

…And miserable.

I was counting down the days when God would abandon me, and the small industry reputation I had built up would shrivel when people found out I spent a large portion of my life writing about the Bible. Making the mistake of mentioning that I had some religious experience when assignments were handed out for Aethera, I somehow found myself fleshing out its main human religion, The Symphonium. This, as a terrified, paranoid, depressed Christian.

It ended up being one of the best experiences of my life.

I had spent years of my life lamenting the game industry’s use of religion. Suddenly, I realized I was in a direct position to affect how it would be depicted – if only in a single title. I was responsible. With a supportive team of editors and fellow freelancers willing to take my initial concerns seriously, I was able to flesh out an already interesting faction. By providing a Why for the people who believe, the people who lead, and the people who choose to stand aside, I could allow members of The Symphonium to be seen as the flawed, complex people they were.

I am an imperfect, multifaceted human being that found the freedom to create good religion – to express my faith – by writing for a freaking tabletop role-playing game.

If I can do it, you can too.

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About Nelson

Writer, amateur #gamedev, and Founder o' Video Games and the Bible. My interviews bring the boys to the yard. Featured from Kotaku to Rock Paper Shotgun. Dropsy.
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2 Responses to How Video Games Get Religion Wrong

  1. Nightbird says:

    If you want a palette cleanser for Outlast 2 (or the idea of it anyway, since I guess you’re skipping it) and have maybe been putting it off due to the episodic release (they’re only one away from completion now), do go and dive into Kentucky Route Zero, I don’t know if either of the team behind it are practising Christian themselves, but they are definitely from Kentucky and so know the place well outside of tropes and stereotypes. While faith isn’t an overt part of the games narrative (YMMV) it is threaded throughout it, particularly the landscape and soundtrack, the portrayal is melancholy definitely, but not negative.

    • Nelson says:

      I’ll definitely have to check that out – was a bit worried about playing it before all of the episodes were complete, so thanks for the recommendation!

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