Friday, November 19, 2010

If God Had Made Revelation as a Videogame…

Far too often college students are faced with that age-old dilemma of playing an action-packed, adventure-filled, potentially incredible video game or monotonously writing a five-page paper about some topic of no particular interest. Unfortunately for these students and perhaps their professors, the video game almost always wins. However, what if college students did not have to make that choice? At least in Dr. James McGrath’s Book of Revelation course, they do not. To explain, Dr. McGrath instructed students to critically evaluate a website that comments on the Book of Revelation. While I was intrigued by this assignment, I was even more intrigued by THQ’s newly released Darksiders and its supposed connection to this apocalyptic text. I learned on the Amazon product page that the game, which can be played on the Microsoft Xbox 360, Sony PS3, and PC, is a third-person, single player action/adventure game inspired by the characters, themes and mythology of the apocalypse and the battle of Armageddon as described by the Book of Revelation.” As an alternative assignment to the website commentary, I thought it would interesting to play and critique the PC version of this game so as to determine just how substantial of a connection actually exists between it and Revelation. After first providing a basic review of the game, specifically examining the storyline, gameplay, graphics, and controls, I will do just that. While THQ’s Darksiders is an exceptional videogame, it does not, in any way, represent an adaptation of the Book of Revelation.
It is important to begin with a basic understanding of Darksiders’ storyline. In case someone is interested in playing the game, I will not reveal any “spoilers.” As the player, you control War, one of the four horsemen on the apocalypse. War is somehow deceived into prematurely coming to earth and commencing the “Endwar” between the forces of Heaven and Hell. After being slain on earth by Straga, one of Hell’s most powerful demons, he stands before the Charred Council a full century later charged with breaking the sacred law and inciting the apocalyptic battle before its appointed time. Although the Council feels death is the most fitting punishment, War convinces them to let him return to earth so as to expose the truth behind his early arrival and, naturally, take revenge on those responsible. In a game that can best be described as “God of War meets The Legend of Zelda,” War comes to discover that things are not as they appear. He is forced to ally himself with both angels and demons to discover the truth behind a conspiracy that goes far deeper than he ever imagined.
Overall, the game is excellent. The story is both original and engaging. The game is filled with puzzles that can sometimes be surprisingly challenging, giving the player a much-needed break from the sometimes-incessant combat. While the enemies are seemingly endless, the vast array of combos and weapon choices result in a very dynamic combat system. Truly, one battle is rarely the same as the last. Perhaps the most enjoyable form of assault is lifting up abandoned vehicles and launching them at unsuspecting enemies. Offering over 15 solid hours of gameplay, I have no hesitation in proclaiming that Darksiders is incredibly fun to play.
To summarize the visuals in one word, they are stunning. Jason Flick of GameChronicles concurs when he calls them “gorgeous.” The colors: sharp and vibrant. The environments: stylized and exceptional. The cut scenes: rich and fluid. Rob Thomas rightly notes in a post on Current that much of the praise for the game’s graphics can be attributed to THQ’s Creative Director Joe Madureira. I was fascinated to learn that, as Thomas goes on to explain, Madureira is something of a comic book legend, having created his own comic book “Battle Chasers” and also contributed to Marvel Comics' “Uncanny X-Men.” His passion for art is really what gives these visuals that “extra something.”
The controls, however, are not so beautiful. Jeff Buckland of AtomicGamer calls them “awkward.” GameZone’s Mike Splechta takes it a bit farther by stating that the controls make the game “almost unplayable.” According to George Damidashe of The Entertainment Deport, “The human hand simply doesn't have the digits necessary to pull off all of the moves or fight with ease.” I whole heartedly agree-these controls are painfully awful. Even after several hours of playtime, I was struggling to execute combos and even perform certain basic moves (e.g., dash) because the controls are not logically mapped out on the keyboard. Admittedly, the controls are programmable, but, as Splechta goes on to note, “No matter what configuration, there are just too many skills and abilities to map out for it to truly feel comfortable.” Many reviews have suggested utilizing a controller or gamepad when playing the PC version because of these control issues. I wish I had taken this advice.
After offering a basic review of Darksiders, the game’s connection to the Book of Revelation can be more thoroughly examined. Following only a few hours of playing the game, I began to fear that Darksiders had no genuine connection to the Biblical book I have come to adore. I found my fears to be somewhat confirmed after reading an interview on NeoGAF. ZealousD, the original poster, provides no citation for this interview, so it is largely unclear who is answering these questions. However, the quality of these answers and the date of posting seem to suggest that the interviewee is likely a developer of the game. When asked, “How closely does the story follow the Book of Revelation?” the person responds, “Darksiders takes inspiration from elements from Revelation, but is not anywhere close to an adaptation. Some names and concepts are used but ultimately the story is totally original.” This made me question whether this alternate assignment was as brilliant as I originally thought. However, with Dr. McGrath’s blessing, I pressed on.
To be clear, there are almost no similarities between the Book of Revelation and Darksiders outside of general concepts. For example, there are seven seals in both works, but the symbolism and purpose of the seals is vastly different for each work. Additionally, there are four horsemen in both works. However, the identity, allegiance, and purpose of the horsemen are very different for each work. To better understand these differences, consider a post on GamesRadar, in which Mikel Reparaz attempts to give a broad overview of some elements of the Book of Revelation and how they are depicted in Darksiders. To first examine the seven seals, recall that, as outlined in Revelation 6-8, these are seals on a scroll that only the Lamb is capable of opening. When broken, each of these seals releases horrible judgments upon mankind (e.g., famine, pestilence, war, etc.). The first four seals actually release the four horsemen respectively. These four horsemen bring forth the wrath of God, clearly showing that their allegiance is to God, or Heaven more generally. Compare this to the seven seals in Darksiders, which are literal “hunks of metal” that symbolize a peace treaty between the forces of Heaven and Hell. When all seven seals are broken, the truce is also broken, thereby officially commencing the battle of Armageddon (i.e., the “Endwar”). As the Council explains, this is only to happen when mankind is properly prepared. At the breaking of the seventh seal, the four horsemen (Death, War, Strife and Fury) are simultaneously released to essentially maintain order during the battle. They have no allegiance to Heaven or Hell; instead, they serve the Council.
Reparaz rightly hints that another difference between the book and game lies in the power structure. In the Book of Revelation, there are essentially two primary figures of power: God and Satan. God, effectively the leader of Heaven’s forces, is the one and only omnipotent figure. He is undeniably in full control. While very powerful, Satan, effectively the leader of Hell’s forces, is inferior to God. In Darksiders, there are a “Creator” and a “Destroyer” (read: God and Satan), but both the forces of Heaven and Hell (along with their leaders) are at the mercy of a third (supposedly objective) party, the Charred Council. This trio of enormous fiery stone heads has served as a de facto moderator between Heaven and Hell since the dawn of time. Although they never directly flaunt it, the player quickly gets the impression that the Council possesses incredible power and therefore should not challenged.
Another difference between the two works concerns fatalism. Many would argue that within The Bible, there is a very prevalent idea that God is in ultimate control and everything unfolds according to his plan. Even when something goes “wrong” (e.g., Adam and Eve eat fruit from the Tree of Life in Genesis 3:6), God is not shocked because he knew it was going to happen; he is omniscient. As stated in Romans 8:28, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” This idea is also present in the Book of Revelation. Although not explicitly stated, the reader understands that everything in the book (the judgments, the false prophet, the dragon, Heaven’s victory) is all part God’s plan and nothing deviates from that plan. However, this is not at all the case in Darksiders. As previously mentioned, the Charred Council is arguably the most powerful force in the game, but even they are not in complete control. Unlike the Biblical God, they have no divine plan to which everyone and everything adhere. Quite the opposite actually, they are in a constant struggle to maintain power and order. The Council is actually schemed against and even deceived by Heavenly forces. Furthermore, while War is initially bound to serve the Council and do their bidding, the game concludes with War breaking his link to this corrupt trio and subsequently planning their demise.
The Book of Revelation and Darksiders also differ in their narration. The Book of Revelation is narrated by John of Patmos, a mysterious figure that has sparked much debate. Many have speculated that this is actually the John of the Gospel of John, but most scholars agree that this is highly unlikely due to, among other factors, a difference in word choice and spelling. Quite simply, little is known about this man. John makes it clear though that this narrative is revealed to him (hence the book’s title) by God via angelic beings. For the overwhelming majority of this narrative, John is simply describing a vision that was shown to him. In other words, John is rarely an actor or even directly involved in the revelation. This can be contrasted with Darksiders, which does not have a narrator per se. The game follows War with a third-person camera, but War is not telling the story. No one is, really. However, War is very much involved in a direct way with the unfolding of this story. He is not watching the story unfold; he is making the story unfold. Quite simply, he is the primary actor, which is the exact opposite of John. In all actuality, Darksiders does not represent a revelation in any sense of the word.
  To be clear, Darksiders is very fun game that should not be overlooked. Although it is plagued by painful control issues, the game has a riveting storyline and stunning graphics. Its supposed connection to the Book of Revelation, though, is almost nonexistent. As has been shown, the book and videogame share only general concepts, nothing more. Quite simply, if God had made Revelation as a videogame, it would look nothing like this.

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