I like to joke that Doom 3 helped me confront my personal demons. More specifically, it allowed me to chase them through hell during a difficult time in my life and pump them full of buckshot and armor-piercing slugs. Confidently blasting the guns of the game’s nameless Marine, I slew the Cyberdemon, and that helped me somehow develop a game plan to face some real-life evils. Indeed, viewed through a fractured mirror, the simple but popular journey-through-hell plot has some significant similarities to the morality plays performed throughout Europe beginning in the 14th century, with an important contemporary twist. Rather than relying on repentance or divine intervention, videogames let us grasp the demons by the horns and fight our own way out.
Medieval morality plays, according to Robert Potter’s groundbreaking study The English Morality Play: Origins, History and Influence of a Dramatic Tradition, were all based on a single, inevitable pattern: “Man exists, therefore he falls, but nevertheless, he is saved.” Only through repentance or direct intervention from God could a poor, sinful schmuck be yanked from the clutches of hell and attain redemption. And, nearly always, God obliged. It’s a mindset rooted in centuries of dependence on higher authorities, whether they be the church or the crown, and in an age when the Black Death might scoop away kings and peasants alike, there was little room for self-determination.
Armed with a mission to “teach through entertainment,” morality plays presented a cast of allegorical characters meant to represent the various forces pressing on the fortunes of the average person. This average person was usually embodied in an Everyman figure, most famously in the eponymous 15th century play. While that Everyman never swaggered into hell, others did. In The Pride of Life, a haughty chap named King Life challenges Death to a duel, confident of his own immortality. Death, unsurprisingly, wipes the floor with King Life along with his hapless bodyguards, Strength and Health. Demons run away with King Life’s soul, but fortunately the Virgin Mary intervenes and King Life gets a one-way ticket to heaven. In The Castle of Perseverance, a good angel and a bad angel badger the hopelessly impressionable Mankind. The bad angel tempts Mankind out of the Castle of Perseverance with his buddies Lechery, Idleness, Gluttony and Covetousness, and Death crashes the party by attempting to carry poor Mankind away to hell. After bickering with the spoilsports Truth and Justice, Mercy convinces God to bail out Mankind and send him to heaven. With consistent endings like this, it’s amazing that there’s anyone in hell at all. In Potter’s words, “the morality play embodies a generalized and remarkably optimistic conception of the human condition.” Despite stern warnings, each morality play is capped with the protagonist’s redemption and a comparatively happy ending.
And so it goes with modern videogames featuring hell. Doom 3‘s fire-and-brimstone version of hell seems fairly uncommon to videogames; developers instead tend to opt for the “hellish,” as in the warped and horrifying landscapes of Silent Hill and zombie apocalypses of Resident Evil and Left 4 Dead. When it does appear, the storyline almost always runs something like this: a capable meatshield swaggers into hell, kicks some demon ass and emerges triumphant. Almost without exception, these pit the game’s hero – occasionally a nameless “everyman” as in Doom 3 – against the worst that hell can offer, and much as in a morality play, the hero usually escapes. But there’s an important twist. Take Kratos. The idea that any of us could truly relate to the grumpy Ghost of Sparta is laughable, but nevertheless he starts out as one of us. Much as in a morality play, he is besieged to the point of tragedy by worldly temptations (it’s not hard to imagine Kratos being pestered by Arrogance and Revenge), dies and goes to Tartarus no less than three times over the course of the series. But here’s the thing: While Kratos occasionally gets a helping hand from fellow gods, he has to fight his way out of hell by himself. There’s no Mercy interceding on behalf of Kratos. Kratos’ path to personal redemption is the edge of his blade; his Castle of Perseverance, a slaughterhouse.
Elsewhere, in Dreamcatcher’s Painkiller, Daniel Garner goes to purgatory while his wife goes to heaven. It’s not exactly hell, but it’s enough of a drag that he eagerly accepts an offer from Samael to kill four of Lucifer’s generals in order to ascend to be with his wife and prevent a war between hell and heaven. After Garner accomplishes this task, Samael is shocked when Garner insists on going to hell to finish off Lucifer. He succeeds, and (if you beat it on the Trauma difficulty level), joins his wife in heaven. In the Diablo games, a band of human heroes on the world of Sanctuary are caught up in a war between the High Heavens and the Burning Hells. Over the course of two games and some expansions, these heroes defeat Mephisto, Diablo and Baal, and set things right in Sanctuary, for the time being. Visceral Games’ Dante’s Inferno tosses the literature from the late medieval epic, and simplifies it into the story of, well, a capable meatshield who swaggers into hell, kicks some demon ass, and emerges triumphant (to purgatory, anyway). Even Earthworm Jim manages to squirm his way into “Heck,” battle some lawyers and demons, and cap it off by defeating Evil the Cat.
Where’s God in all this? Heavenly beings figure prominently in some of these games without an appearance from the man upstairs (as in Diablo), and in God of War III Kratos unceremoniously dumps Zeus’ corpse on the rocks. The single path to deliverance in medieval morality plays, God now gets stuck with bit parts, if he shows up at all. The new star is mankind, with all our gritty imperfections, and the focus is not so much on redemption as it is on – oh yes, here it comes – the resilience of the human spirit. In medieval morality plays, mankind was treated as a pawn in a game; in contemporary videogames, we control the game. It’s a very humanist message (in the classical sense of the term), and despite the overwhelming use of violence, it’s a very positive one. If Kratos had been King Life, there’s no question who would have won the duel.
Tolkien once lamented that we have no modern mythology. But the use of a struggle through hell in videogames succeeds precisely because it’s built on a belief set with which we’re all familiar. Even the most hardened atheist in the Americas or Europe must admit to some basic knowledge of the concepts of hell and heaven (even if it springs from Looney Tunes reruns), and as such, hell’s imagery stirs our emotions much more than foreign concepts. The seminal FPS Doom was made into a throwaway movie back in 2005, but the director ditched the hell and demons for some tripe about humans with an extra chromosome. Since much of the horror of Doom‘s already thin storyline involved confronting the confident hubris of science with the surprise that all those Sunday sermons were actually right, the movie’s impact was considerably diminished on this count alone. (Never mind the hellish acting.) The idea of hell has power precisely because it’s so familiar yet so unknowable.
Lately there has been much discussion of whether videogames can be art, and it’s worthwhile to remember that a similar question was once asked of medieval morality plays. Indeed, part of the reason for Robert Potter’s book was his eagerness to prove that these plays had an “art and a purpose.” So, too, with videogames featuring hell. Both often have simple storylines (you’re excused, Diablo), and both address the question of how we, as fallible, imperfect human beings, can avoid hell’s horrors. In our secular and democratic age, fighting our own way out seems far preferable to relying on a greater power to save us. (It’s also not too much of a stretch to imagine some players envisioning themselves destroying the whole Judeo-Christian religious establishment as they battle through hell.) Both forms resonate on a global level, and both possess the power for personal meaning, much as I found on those cold, dark nights playing Doom 3 to defeat my own demons.
Dismissed as trash for centuries, morality plays ultimately paved the way for the great secular tradition in European theater that eventually led to the triumphs of Shakespeare, Beckett and Molière. Videogames, like drama in the Middle Ages, are still very much in their infancy despite great strides over the last 30 years, and talk about their place in literature has chiefly focused on games of the art house variety like Braid or ideological nightmares such as BioShock. As this debate intensifies, should we ignore games with simplistic hellbound stories when their subject matter is so similar to the plays that fostered modern drama?
Jeremiah Leif Johnson abandoned his Ph.D. studies at the University of Chicago to get a real job – and now he writes about videogames for a living. Follow him on Twitter.