Well hello, and welcome to a new segment I’ll hopefully be doing monthly called “A Look Into Lore”, where I talk about aspects of video game lore that I think make games more interesting and exciting. Today I want to take a look at deities and religion, and the role they play within video games.
Video game worlds, or any fantasy settings, are often most successful when they are immersive. Good world building involves a number of different factors, such as interesting NPCs, a diverse society, and a well developed history. A factor that can contribute to all of those points, and many more, is the addition of deities and religion. Character beliefs are an integral part of history and culture, and that typically means having someone or something to believe in. What I want to delve into in this article are the various roles that deities serve within the world of video games.
On a basic level, deities act as a scaffold to establish good and evil in world building. Games can also use them to enrich character personality, offer assistance to the heroes, or subsequently cause discord and chaos. A game universe may have one of these factors, or it may even have them all.
Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I want to take a minute to talk about religion in the Elder Scrolls games, because I will be using them as an example multiple times, and it’s complicated. No, I didn’t trick you into reading this article just so I had an excuse to talk about Skyrim, that was an added bonus. The Elder Scrolls has a pantheon that I could honestly talk about for hours. I’m not just saying that. I have literally gone on monologues about it for hours to unwilling victims. That is how detailed and well developed the religious lore is in these games. What makes the deities of Tamriel (the realm where the Elder Scrolls games take place) so interesting is how they connect with the world on so many levels.
First, we have the larger pantheon, the Aedra and Daedra. Aedra are the immortal beings credited with the creation of the world inhabited by mortals. Typically worshipped and revered all across Tamriel, they are thought of as generally benevolent and divine. The Divines, worshipped by the Imperials and Nords, include 8 of the Aedra along with Talos, an immortal who was once the mortal Emperor Tiber Septim. There are other powerful immortal beings that did not create the world, and they are referred to as Daedra.
The Daedra are generally seen as evil but are still worshiped, in particular by orcs and some mer (elves). The 17 most powerful Daedra are referred to as the Daedric Princes. There are also OTHER deities worshipped by other races. For example, Padomay and Anu are two primordial beings that predate the Aedra and Daedra, and created them. Sithis and Anui-El are two counterpart beings also created by Padomay and Anu. Confused yet? Padomay and Anu fought one another, their spilled blood created the Aedra and Daedra, then each birthed their own souls – Anu creating Anui-El and Padomay creating Sithis. Now that we have that all settled, there are also the Altmeri pantheon, spirits the elves claim to have descended from, and the Tribunal, who are three ancestors of the Dunmer (dark elves) that stole divine essence and made themselves into gods. I could keep going, but I think you get the picture. The point I want to make about The Elder Scrolls universe is that while it might seem chaotic just listing them all off like this, it’s an incredibly detailed history, with a number of belief systems. The same gods are even given different names and histories between races. The effect is a rich world with a crazy amount of potential for interesting stories and characters.
Speaking of interesting characters, let’s get back on track and talk about one of the typical mental pictures we might have when thinking about in-game religion – devout followers and worshipers. These are characters you might encounter or interact with over the course of the game, such as priests, pilgrims, or paladins. In Skyrim, a number of priests and priestesses for various gods can be interacted with, as most cities in the game have a temple. Many organizations in the game are also devoted to a particular god. The Dark Brotherhood, who are assassins, serve Sithis, while the Thieves Guild serves the Daedra Nocturnal. Their philosophies are guided by the deity they serve, as well as the activities they take part in. For example, worshippers of the Aedra Mara are devoted to love. Much of the in-game conflict also stems from the Nords and their worship of Talos, which is outlawed because he is seen by other races as a false god.
Important characters that join your party may also be particularly devout, sometimes believing that they are sent on a mission or quest at the command of their god, or seeking answers regarding their faith. Leliana from the Dragon Age series is a good example. If you recruit her, she joins the party believing that the Maker (the human deity in the Dragon Age universe) has sent her a vision telling her to help the Warden stop the Blight. She is firm in her belief that she is being sent on a divine mission to help your character, despite pushback from the Chantry (the game’s religious organization). Shifts in that firm belief later play a big part in her character development. As a faithful servant of the Maker, she had a straightforward motive, but the addition of her questions and struggles gives her a more complex story that I think really tackles a hard theme. Her questioned faith is further explored in Dragon Age Inquisition when The Divine (the head religious figure she serves) is killed. The player also has the opportunity to explore these difficult themes through dialogue choice when interacting with her. What do you do when the foundation of your faith begins to crumble?
Similar themes involving trials of faith can be found in other game universes as well. In Pillars of Eternity and Pillars of Eternity 2 Deadfire, games with another rather large pantheon, belief in the gods and questioning those beliefs is a major part of the main storyline. As such, many companions and other important characters are motivated by their faith. Conflict, as a result, is also found throughout the game world, as the ideologies of various deities clash. Durance is a character that the Watcher (your character) can recruit in the first game. He is a priest of Magran, the goddess of war and fire. Like Leliana, Durance believes he is meant to travel with you, as a trial sent by his god. His companion quest focuses on him wrestling with events in his past as they relate to his faith. Edér worships the god Eothas, worship that was persecuted and resulted in many people being hanged. He also struggles with his belief, and the amount of faith he puts in his god, over the course of the game. This gets escalated further in the second game, when Eothas takes a physical form and starts causing chaos and destruction across the land. I’ll get into THAT mess a bit later.
Not every devout character a player encounters is particularly good either, even if they are friendly. Games often show the darker sides of devotion with characters that are fanatics and cultists. One example of this is the Reverend in the Witcher, who isn’t necessarily an evil character, but is definitely judgemental as well as hypocritical. In Dragon Age Origins, the town of Haven is overtaken by a cult who believe a dragon to be the prophet Andraste. With complicated topics like belief added into the game worlds, the characters we encounter as players are more than just cut and dry good or bad. The effect on our gameplay is a world that feels more like our own complicated one, and promotes choices (in games that involve choice, that is) that can sometimes be more grey than black and white.
Encountering the Gods
So we have covered characters who worship deities, but what about the gods themselves? In fantasy worlds where anything can happen, powerful beings often get directly involved with the mortal world. On occasion, they offer help to the player or other characters in the game. Alternately, they seek to sow chaos and destruction, and hope to either lure the player into their schemes or hinder the player from achieving their goals.
The Daedric Princes in the Elder Scrolls games seem to love getting involved in mortal affairs. It is their way of pushing out from their individual planes of Oblivion and sinking their claws into Tamriel. Completing a quest for these often less than pleasant deities results in the acquisition of powerful items, like weapons and armour. My favourite weapon in Skyrim, the Mace of Molag Bal, is granted after completing a very morally suspect task for the Daedra. While a number of the quests involve unsavoury deeds, some of the Daedric Princes are less evil than others, and their quests seem more for their own entertainment. Even when the gods aren’t physically present in the games, their influence and power can have a significant impact on the story.
In the Legend of Zelda, the three golden goddesses, Farore, Nayru, and Din, were the ones to create the world. They also created the Triforce, a powerful relic that is part of the main plot in many of the Zelda games. Important characters, like Link and Zelda, often possess one piece of the Triforce and are granted powers because of it. Having an item that is imbued with the magic of the gods is a way to give character special powers and abilities while tying in a deeper story. With it, the Triforce becomes the heart of the Zelda franchise, instead of just saying “hey check out these magic triangles”.
We also have Flemeth in Dragon Age, who offers help to the player in both Dragon Age Origins and Dragon Age 2, and SPOILER ALERT turns out to be the Elven goddess Mythal. It is always assumed that she offers assistance for her own purposes, but her help is often integral to the plot. Returning to Eothas, we have an example of a deity who instead of offering any type of help, is seemingly only causing chaos. In Pillars of Eternity Deadfire, Eothas takes on a physical form and smashes his way across the countryside, causing all sorts of havoc. While figuring out what the god is up to, the player must decide if they side with the other gods who send you after him, or Eothas himself. Both sides communicate with you in an attempt to sway you to their side, as well. So we get deities willing to help or offer powerful objects that will help, those that help when it serves their interest, and those that get their kicks from destruction. In my opinion, the deities that are the most fun to encounter are the ones out to start some shit. Particularly in games that allow you to take their side. What’s that? I can help bring death and destruction across the land? Where do I sign up?
The Good, the Bad, and the Ambiguous
At the end of the day, the addition of deities to games all comes down to establishing a marker for good and evil. Some games choose to mess with that formula, which is fantastic, but before that can happen a baseline needs to be there. Aedra are good, they created the world and offer help and comfort to those in it. Daedra are bad, and seek to cause chaos and destruction. In Dragon Age, the Maker is good and demons are bad… etcetera. Once a game universe can establish it’s mark for morality, it can complicate it as much as it wants. From that mark, the game also builds a plot.
Most stories have heroes and villains. The heroes are typically good, and the villains bad, or at least that is what is presented to the player. Again, that formula can get complicated. Game writers, in order to craft a story of heroes and villains, need the scale of good and evil to build from. Even if it’s simple. A game without a goal isn’t as interesting as one where you play a character who is working towards something important. “You’re a plumber and you fight little 8-bit mushrooms and collect coins” might have worked as a concept, sure, but why is he doing any of it and why do we care? Mario is good, he’s saving Princess Peach from Bowser, who is bad. Now the player has a goal and can collect coins and stomp goomba all while feeling good about yourself. Are there good games without stories? Sure, but telling stories is part of what makes us human.
To sum it all up, I would say that deities and religion are tools that, if used well, help to craft deeper stories, engaging characters, and better games. They provide powerful allies, and dangerous foes. They also allow the player, in some cases, to make decisions about where on the game’s moral scale their own character stands. The end product is a world that stays with you, and keeps you coming back.