Video Game Hell Isn’t Nearly Agonizing Enough

“Game About Inescapable Hellscape Really Resonating With People Now For Some Reason,” a recent headline from the satirical video game news site Hard Drive read. The story was referencing Hades, Supergiant Games’ hit action game in which Zagreus, prince of the underworld, tries repeatedly in vain to escape his father’s realm. Every attempt—even the ones where you beat the final opponent standing in your way—ends in Zagreus’ death. In this doom, between Zagreus’ failures, the player lives. In hell.

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This is how I’ve tried to relax in recent weeks, with a controller in my hand and hell on my mind. “We live in hell” is a common internet rejoinder (social media flattens rhetoric as well as discourse), a mantra for our choose-your-own-disaster era wielded by those privileged enough to comment on it.

Already the metaphors are mixing (again: thank the internet). The hell of millennials posting through the apocalypse is meant to conjure an idea of hellfire, brimstone, and torment—the Christian Hell—while the hell of Hades is merely the afterlife of Greek mythology, a place of punishment, sure, but also reward, and perhaps mundanity in between. It is, largely, an exception in video games. They have long preferred the former hell, if only because it’s coded as unquestionably bad, a place where violence that would be troubling in other contexts reads as totally fine. Unless, of course, you happen to be Christian and concerned about the depiction of such things.

Heck-Fire and Brimstone

Growing up evangelical, I was raised in fear of hellfire and brimstone, so I avoided such hells, and was actively barred from them. The first I remember are stand-ins, of which there are plenty. The Netherrealm of Mortal Kombat, or the “What the Heck” level in Earthworm Jim (both experienced in other people’s homes). It would be many years before I would go to gaming’s actual, more popular hells, like the corridors of Doom or the wastes of Diablo, surprised to learn that they were not terribly interested in evil in any qualitative sense, merely quantitative. Hell is other people, conveniently soulless, that must be exterminated.

There’s catharsis in this, which is why both of these games have spawned multiple sequels that barely deviate from an established formula. This year’s Doom Eternal is identical in purpose to 1993’s Doom: You’re an unstoppable, heavily armed man on a trip to hell and back, mowing down hordes of demons along the way. Similarly, 2012’s Diablo 3 is fundamentally the same game as 1996’s Diablo, a descent into a demon’s domain largely enjoyed as an excuse for plunder and weaponry that turns you into an even more efficient demon-slaying machine.

In times of difficulty, these games offer something that’s often lacking in your real life: momentum, structure. Evil in these games is not complicated; it’s an obstacle, and a flimsy one at that. You have an endless array of tools for removing it with the push of a button, and you are only challenged to break up the rhythm of constant domination. It can be soothing, a form of escape, to trade one hell for another.

Yet the hell we live in, such as it may be, isn’t one constructed by some generic evil, nor upheld by mindless drones just waiting for someone with the gumption to sweep them away. Our evils have a name; they are systemic and pernicious, evolving over time. They are complex, perhaps more so than our tools for discussing and combating them. The hell being constructed on our real-life earth —where asylum seekers are abandoned, where children are stolen from their parents, where the agency of American citizens is stripped from them in ways both egregious and appallingly mundane.

In this, video game hells are often lacking. Villainy in video games is similarly deficient—in big-budget games like the Far Cry or Metal Gear Solid series, you are mostly opposite antagonists that are unquestionably in the wrong, but perhaps have an understandable—albeit completely warped—point or two, like a villain from one of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies.

Devils You Know

Many big-budget games need a renewable source of villainy, and hell or a hell-analogue is an easy answer for that. In Dragon Age it’s The Fade, where demons embodying humanity’s worst aspects cross over into our world. In action games like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta, demons claw their way from the underworld en masse to be a canvas for creative destruction. Again, I understand why. But the vague, uncomplicated hells of video games are starting to lose their appeal to me now.

Courtesy of Atlus Games

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