What happens when you give an apocryphal religious text to a Japanese game studio and ask them to make a videogame about it? In this case, you got a narrative experience that resonates with people of many faiths, even if for wildly different reasons. Richard Clark explains his own experience with El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, and the ways it draws out the player’s own views of faith, choice, and a higher power.
Much of El Shaddai is spent literally pressing forward — we are pushing Enoch to some heavenly (or otherwise) light, some inevitable end, and for minutes at a time he simply walks. It’s in these moments, when the emphasis is on Enoch’s perseverance, that we have time to think about what has transpired. As the background swirls around us and the angels give us our marching orders and encourage us, we begin to frame the situation for ourselves in our own heads. In these moments, we’re given the opportunity to reconsider.
Enoch’s story is strange and unprecedented. Having spent his life in heaven after being taken up from earth, he is now sent back to earth to save it. He has a natural affinity for earth — it is his home. He wants to save it, and so he accepts the mission that God has given him. He will descend to earth, he will capture the fallen angels, and he will rid the world of the false evolution that takes the form of the Tower of Babylon.
According to Lucifel, Enoch was “a pretty good guy.” When the story begins, Enoch seems to be another boring, rote hero: give Enoch an end and he will acquire it by any means. Eventually, though, Enoch’s true nature comes through. Enoch is a human being, distinguished from the angels in one key way: the ability to choose.
While that ability is indeed a gift, we find later that it comes with a heavy burden: the obligation to choose rightly. Enoch is, for the player, a model of how to make the right choice with conviction and consistency. In the face of discouragement, Enoch embraces the situation as a challenge. He fights former angels, lost souls, his best friend, and aimless creatures without a second thought. I admire his strength, his conviction, his faith. I want to be more like Enoch.
But just as consistently as Enoch makes the right choice, I doubt that choice. I am privy to Lucifel’s tendency to inform, reassure and patronize God. Lucifel’s interactions with God fill my mind with questions and accusations. Everything I have been led to believe about God’s character is called into question. As Enoch dodges giant Nephilim and strives to free them from their earthly suffering, I ponder the God who would allow the existence of such beings in the first place. Mid-fight, I pause to “purify” my weapon — and I wonder why there is a need for weapons.
But there is Enoch — always moving forward. He does what Lucifel tells him he needs to do, despite Lucifel’s subversive apathy. He follows the detached advice of the angels that watch over him. He fights, he falls, he gets up in a split second. And because he is resurrected by the power of the Lord, he knows that there is no problem. He knows that everything’s fine. Enoch has made up his mind, but it’s up to the player whether they will follow him into the Tower of Babel.
It’s not merely a challenge to be overcome. It’s not a question of bravery, but of belief. This is not a call to fight off the obvious scourge of earth. We are putting an end to a “false evolution”, a type of progress that has been deemed blasphemous and unedifying to the human race. The primary evidence for this is the Nephilim, the cute but tortured offspring of angels and the human race. The Nephilim themselves represent evidence of both sides of the argument: the inevitable pain of godless progress, and the ruthless inevitability of an unblinking righteous judgment.
Even Enoch’s supernatural aid is ambiguous. At one point, Enoch finds himself with a motorcycle and the ability to maneuver his vehicle (which he has never seen, much less ridden) with a god-like ability. Every cut-scene shows him avoiding and destroying enemies not as a result of his own skills or intentions, but because of some unseen force. In one slow-motion moment after another, Enoch barely escapes harm and the enemies end up imploding amongst themselves. Who is responsible for this? Could it be God? Or is it Lucifel who, after all, specializes in manipulating time? But wasn’t it God himself who gave Lucifel that ability?
The mind boggles, but Enoch sees no problem. Everything’s fine.
El Shaddai is full of the ambiguous happenings and statements that cause us to question the assertions of the game-world on its face. As a Christian, these questions and doubts are undeniably familiar to me. In this case, El Shaddai gives me the opportunity to ask them more openly, without my faith on the line. It may seem irreverent, but it’s also true: El Shaddai gives me a sandbox in which I can play with my beliefs. Who should I trust? God or the human race? Righteousness or human progress? What is the source of reward, and what is the cause of evil and suffering? Who is to blame? Who deserves praise?
These are questions that rest in my mind on a regular basis, but rarely so cogently. When I’m playing El Shaddai, I’m forced to ask myself whether I consider Enoch to be a role model or a tragically mislead pawn. These questions, which El Shaddai encourages, are not enough to persuade me or anyone else. After all, the game is just as ambiguous as real life. What it does, though, is clarify who I am.
For some, it was clear that Enoch should have spent his time leading the rebellion against a seemingly helpless and cruel God. But for me, Enoch is honorable, because he recognized his finite ability to comprehend the infinite truths of the universe. He recognized the wisdom of accepting something and someone greater than himself. While still questioning, he acknowledges his own limits and he accepts his inevitable fate, even if it seems confusing and painful to him. For me, Enoch is the first videogame character I have ever wanted so desperately to be.
I’m walking forward, pressing hard on the joystick, wondering if Enoch has any clue what he’s doing and whether I can trust Lucifel when it occurs to me: Enoch was put on this earth a second time to carry out a mission. This mission was given to him by God. What more can he ask for? What more proof does he need? At that moment, Enoch picks up speed, he breaks into a run and quickly arrives at his destination.
Richard Clark is the editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, where he often writes about video games, and a staff writer for Kill Screen. He can be reached at deadyetliving at gmail dot com or followed on twitter @deadyetliving.