We wouldn’t have Shakespeare without the morality plays of the 1300’s, and games like Doom 3 fill a similar niche.
Let’s be honest, most videogames aren’t going to win many awards for storytelling, and compared to great books, movies or plays, they can seem a little shallow. But in Issue 272 of The Escapist, Jeremiah Leif Johnson makes the case that games like God of War might be the seeds from which great things grow, much like the morality plays of medieval times.
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.
Doom 3’s fire-and-brimstone version of hell seems fairly uncommon to videogames … When it does appear … 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 … 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.
The similarities between the medieval morality plays and modern videogames lead Johnson to conclude that we maybe shouldn’t be so quick to leave them out of our discussions of “games as art.” You can read more in his article “Games Are Modern Morality Plays.”