When I heard that a video game based on the Dead Sea Scrolls was being made, I thought I was surely mistaken. Yet today marks the release of Ignition Games’ newest project, El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron (You can read a review by our editor-in-chief, Richard Clark over at Kill Screen). The Hebrew word “El Shaddai” literally means “God Almighty” and is a common title for God in the Old Testament. The game does not try to hide its cosmic storyline. El Shaddai tells the story of the Book of Enoch, an apocryphal book that tells the story of the fall of angels and chronicles the pre-flood man, Enoch’s assent into heaven, his visions, dreams, and revelations. The game tasks the player with a task of subduing the fallen angels that are loose on the Earth in order to uphold God’s divine plan and prevent the destruction of humanity.
Videogames that take on biblical narratives have historically been either cheesy or terrible. El Shaddai, however, seems poised to buck that trend with a fascinating story and unique art direction. This week I had the privilege of interviewing Shane Bettenhausen, Director of New Business Development at Ignition Games (developers of Deadly Premonition) about the game and its potentially controversial subject matter. Bettenhausen has been working for Ignition for over 2 years now. Prior to working for Ignition Bettenhausen was Senior Executive Editor for Electronic Gaming Monthly and a regular contributor for 1UP.
Tell me a little bit about how El Shaddai came about.
Shane: About three years ago our home office in London came up with the idea: “Let’s make a game about the book of Enoch.” But they wanted the game to come from Japan, because we are all huge fans of Japanese action games. We love things like Devil May Cry and especially Okami.
So when it came time to pick the team to make this game based on the Dead Sea Scrolls, we went to the guy who was actually the art director for Okami, Sawaki Takeyasu. At that point, the studio he was working for, Clover Studios (they did Viewtiful Joe and a few other games) they were kind of breaking up so it was a good time to grab him. He took some of the guys who worked on Okami and they formed a new team just to make El Shaddai. Sawaki was so excited about El Shaddai that he wanted to be the director –not just the art director – that was something he hadn’t done before. We gave him the premise and told him we would like him to adapt it into something new and modern that still told the story of the book of Enoch but did it in a way that made for a good game and would appeal to Japanese people as well as Westerners.
We always knew that giving a sacred text to a group of people who don’t consider it to be a sacred text was going to yield something very unique and kind of cross-cultural. It’s something that we probably wouldn’t have gotten with a European or American developer.
So who at Ignition was reading the Book of Enoch and thinking that this would make a great game?
It was actually a guy who is no longer with the company. He was a big fan of comparative religion and of ancient biblical texts and the Apocrypha. He recognized that other games had been made about other religions whether it be ancient Greek religion, Japanese, Norse or what have you. All these great stories from other religions have kind of been tapped, and yet here is this great story that is kind of a side-version of what most Christians know. When you say “Dead Sea Scrolls,” there is some amount of recognition, but most people don’t know what it is. So we have found a great relatively unfamiliar story.
You are not going to offend traditional Christians because it’s not Canon for them—the only people you might offend are those of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as it is cannon for them. And that is certainly something that we are interested in.
The story has merit, and even if you don’t believe in it as being a true story or canonical story, it will teach you something about other religions and about these types, motifs and the allegory of the book of Enoch. It actually does kind of make a good premise for a game in that there is a hero and he is tasked with fighting people.
I think all of us kind of got on board with the game because we felt like it had a story ripe for retelling. It’s something that most Westerners don’t really know – that’s what we are discovering as we release more information about the game. A lot of people have seen the game and they don’t even realize that there is a religious connection. Unless you know the title from ancient Hebrew, you probably aren’t going to be able to tell right off the bat that the game is religious in nature. That is exciting because the game itself is actually pretty deeply steeped in these ancient texts.
What made you decide to make the game given its religious subject matter? I am a little curious about this because mainstream videogames haven’t really touched on much biblical/theological subject matter. I wonder if the average player is interested in such subject matter.
For me growing up, there were games that were biblically themed games. There was The Wisdom Tree for NES and others. But usually you could tell that most of those games were the result of a company slapping a bible theme on a bad game in order to sell it for moms to buy the game for their kids. No game developers ever really took those games seriously. We still haven’t really seen a good game that also celebrated a story from Christian religion. That is kind of what we wanted to do.
Trying to make an action game based on the stories of the actual Bible would be really ambitious and there is so much to draw from. I think someone should do that – take key stories from the Bible and try to make games out of them because some of them would be awesome. But for us, we thought, “Let’s try to take this apocryphal story that we find interesting and try to actually take the characters seriously and actually tell the story and touch people with something that is beautiful and fun to play and actually has something to say.”
I think by the end of El Shaddai I was really surprised—I didn’t necessarily know where the story was going because the actual Book of Enoch is really hard to read—actually seeing this story play out up against the backdrop of the Old Testament that I know has been very interesting. I think El Shaddai more than many other games of recent days will get people thinking and feeling. We want a response from the player, whether they’re just bewildered and confused by what they are seeing or whether they are actually touched by it.
We were taking a risk by making a game with more meaning behind it than your average hack and slash action game. It’s cool because in Japan nobody knows what the Book of Enoch is. They know what Christianity is but it’s not nearly as close to them as it is here [in the States], so it was really good to see what people thought of the pure game and the characters without any of the baggage that American or European Christians might come to this game thinking. I think in Japan it can just exist on its own merits as a cool piece of art in a cool story.
Some people will say that you are just making another hack-and-slash Devil May Cry type of game with a biblical veneer. How would you respond to such a claim? How is El Shaddai meaningful beyond being a merely fun action game?
I really was surprised by where the game takes you narratively. I will warn you that it is a little hard to completely understand everything the game is trying to tell you and some of the storytelling is purposefully vague. There are some holes that were left in there that the director actually wanted the player to fill in with his own ideas.
Because the source narrative is so wide and deep, this game actually only covers a fraction of the Book of Enoch. If you think that when you finish this game you are going to have a complete understanding of this ancient text and exactly how it relates to the Bible, you are going to be a little confused. But I do think that the average player will be surprised by the narrative and the pacing of the game, and how different it is at the beggining of the game versus the end of the game.
How would has Sawaki’s art direction has influenced some of the themes from the Boook of Enoch?
Because he felt that because the Book of Enoch is something that most people aren’t familiar with, he could have a little more artistic license with how he interpreted it. No one really knows what the world looked like in the time of the Book of Enoch and so he felt that this was an opportunity for him to go more abstract. He is creating things that no one has ever seen—in this game you go to Heaven and you go to Hell. So every level looks pretty different in terms of colors and in terms of what’s happening around you.
One of his ideas was to have the world always be moving. So at any point in any level if you just stop and look around everything is kind of moving and cycling and the game world is shifting. Part of that comes from the premise of the game because as Enoch descends the tower of Babel, within that insane space, you see that the angels have built utopias—their own worlds—and they have become so powerful that they think that they can out-do the Lord and make their own creations. Each level is individualized and self-contained so it allows him to have complete freedom and the levels don’t even have to make physical sense. We don’t reuse any of the graphics and the art of each level actually has meaning behind it. Each of the fallen angels has an obsession and they take those obsessions and crystallize them into their levels.
Do you expect any blowback from the religious community and from the wider gaming community that tends to be a bit dismissive of established religion?
I think we will see a bit of both. I think there is a big segment of really cooler than thou gamers who really don’t want anything religious in their games. They don’t want this game preaching to them or trying to convert them. I think when they actually get the game they will see that it isn’t preaching to them – it’s just presenting this really cool alternate thing that they have never seen before.
On the other side, there are things about the game that really hard-line fundamentalist Christians who don’t believe in any interpretation or grey areas could take issue with. For example, the character Lucifel in the game is Lucifer, the angel that will one day fall and betray God. In this game he is still a very powerful angel and he is your guardian and your guide throughout the game.
But one of the ideas that Sawaki came up with is that Lucifer is supposed to have foreknowledge of the future. He is so powerful that he knows what is going to happen and he knows that one day he will fall and that Enoch is special and will ascend to be with the Lord. Because of this he also knows that in the future, humanity will have all this great technological innovation and because time is meaningless to him, he comes back from the future with a cell phone and a pair of jeans. That alone, a lot of people laugh at it because they think it’s cute and clever and funny, but it offends some people that we would give Lucifel a cell phone in this game.
I think if you can’t wrap your brain around that, you might not be able to handle the way he has interpreted the text here. But the way we see it is that when these stories were originally told, they were told orally and they would be re-imagined. We stretched the rules a little bit with this game but I think the basic plot and the basic key elements are still intact. We have had about as much fun with it as we can have and still maintain the overall story. It’s a delicate balance we are walking.