A Video Game of Biblical Proportions
by Steven Philp
For three days earlier this month, the computer and video game industry madeits annual pilgrimage to Los Angeles, where the Electronic Entertainment Expo is held each summer. The excitement promulgated by the expo, where video game heavyweights shows off new games, downloadable content and hardware for the upcoming year, will carry the industry through the next twelve months, causing fanboys and fangirls to save their pennies for the most anticipated products. Highlights from 2011 included the next installments in high-grossing series like Mass Effect, Uncharted, The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy, as well as a new high-definition system from Nintendo called Wii U. But amidst all the excitement over high-profile projects, one game being developed by a small game publisher has caused a buzz of biblical proportion. Due to be released under Ignition Entertainment, El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron loosely follows the Book of Enoch on a quest that engages with overt Christian and Jewish themes.
The Book of Enoch is an ancient Jewish text traditionally believed to be authored by the eponymous great-grandfather of Noah. Although not included in the Jewish biblical canon–even, surprisingly, in the Jewish Apocrypha, a collection that includes other extraconincal texts such as Jubilees and Sirach–it has survived as part of the Christian tradition. Written in Hebrew, stories like Enoch were largely preserved in the Eastern Christian tradition—in fact, the Book of Enoch is considered part of the Ethiopian Orthodox and Eritrean Orthodox canon—but the influence of some of these works can be seen on rabbinical exposition. In addition, fragments of these texts – such as Enoch – have been found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The first section of the Book of Enoch, from which the video game finds its inspiration, describes the fall of the “watchers,” heavenly guardians who would father the Nephilim with human women – the “b’nei Elohim” mentioned in Genesis 6:1-2 – and illustrates the travels of Enoch.
El Shaddai’s plot follows the journey of Enoch, a man so pure of heart that G-d has tasked him with the salvation of the world. He must redeem humankind from consorting with and worshipping seven angels placed on the earth as guardians. If he fails, G-d will unleash a flood that will destroy mankind. Enoch is accompanied by Lucifel, an archangel who will ultimately betray G-d’s mission and adopt his more infamous pseudonym: Lucifer. The seven angels have crafted individual utopias that span time and space; as a result, swords and magic meet cell phones and motorcycles. The resulting aesthetic is a blend of the modern, the historical, and the fantastic. The protagonist wields a sword to fight sprites and monsters while Lucifel wears designer jeans as he guides Enoch through his battles.
This twist is the result of a contract with several Japanese designers, who were tasked with creating the look and feel of the game. Shane Bettenhausen, director of business at Ignition Entertainment, explained this decision by saying, “These stories, these myths and legends, they used to be part of the oral tradition. For us to take this ancient tale – that a lot of people in the West don’t even know – and reinterpret it is really cool.” Premier among the designers is Takeyasu Sawaki, who is credited with the revolutionary aesthetic of games such as Okami and Devil May Cry. Bettenhausen explained that the designers were given a copy of the Book of Enoch and told to adapt it to a modern audience.
While El Shaddai: Rise of the Metatron is unusual in that it refers to an actual biblical text, narratives that deal with themes of good versus evil or the existence – or non-existence – of divine beings are not uncommon. Games with biblical themes have not always been received as well as their non-Abrahamic counterparts: Left Behind: Eternal Forces, a game that sparked controversy in 2006, was derived from a book series loosely based on the Apocalypse of John (colloquially, the Book of Revelation). The game instructed the player to convert or kill non-Christians; as a result of the ensuing controversy, large game publishers have shied away from overt biblical themes. An exception to this rule was the wildly successful Dante’s Inferno. Produced by Electronic Arts in 2010, this video game is an adaptation of the 14th-century biblically inspired epic by the same name.
When confronted with the possibility of poor sales, Bettenhausen responded positively. “I think when you see this game, there are lot of things about it that might prevent it from reaching a true critical mass audience,” he explained. “The art design is abstract – and that’s by design. The character design is very atypical… There’s a few things that make this left of center. We’re not expecting to get ‘Joe Wal-Mart.’” He continued, “Once the game is out, we may find a few people who are on the fringe who may be upset but having played the game through, I don’t think that will be the case.”