Monday, 19 September 2016

Scorn, Agony and the decline of the Satanic Panic

Two trailers hit recently for new titles which fully plant their flag in the rotting-offal-soaked ground of something akin to Hell.

I'm going to talk less about Scorn, as it'll probably get its own post soonish, but it tangentially serves to illustrate the point I'm going to make. Agony (confusingly, not the 1992 Psygnosis title) is more relevant as it mines Christian mythology quite unashamedly. It even states off-the-bat that players start their journey as lost souls in Hell, so no metaphors here then.

These games served to reinforce the decline and indeed reversal of the Satanic Panic witnessed in the 80s. In Britain and the US the press got hold of the idea that innumerable children were disappearing or being abused for use in satanic rituals by cults hidden within suburban society. While the finger of blame possibly should probably be pointed at the media's need for apoplectic column inches, churches on both sides of the Atlantic had varying involvement. Let's also not forget that TSR was busy taking references out of its books to evil spirits from Christian lore as pamphlets on the evils of role playing were being printed by church groups. But this pressure from Christian groups and the vilification of anything remotely inverted by the press seems to have receded to the point where games like Agony can be marketed quite freely.

There are, of course, many reasons for this - the rise of secularism, a fear of religious extremism, tolerance as a result of society becoming more multi-faith to name but a few. Nor is Agony even a notable benchmark because it's been preceded by many video games, comics, RPGs and so forth since the 90s. What is interesting is risk appetite on the part of creators and publishers. The climate was so hostile up until the 90s that any project touching on Christian faith was just too risky. Now this seems to be in reversal, but it's still not the polar opposite (due to the spending power of the Christian segment of the market in America). Agony is being made by the Polish studio MadMind but it's interesting to wonder how long it will be before a really big US publisher starts to consider Christian death/apocalyptic mythology 'fair game' for new products. It might even go the way of comic book movies, and perhaps we'll see a whole series of subversive gore-fests set in purgatory with spin-offs, TV shows and so forth?


  1. Very interesting article. One of the first games that I am aware of using christian imagery in a fairly blatant way is a game called Baal by Psygnosis where you descend into Hell to battle Baal (sometimes equated to Beelzebub and through that to Satan). Not a very good game in all fairness, but I distinctly remember seeing a review of it in an Atari magazine and being quite amazed at the obviousness of the imagery. This was released in 1988/1989 so quite brave for the time.

    I would be interested in your thoughts on why other forms of media are quite happy to plunder christian motifs, but video games very much shy away from the whole thing.

    1. I think it's to do with the more "realistic" method of delivery i.e. The moving picture is much more immersive than a comic book illustration.

  2. I'm all for horror games, but they have to have a story/reason for the blood & murder. All too often games with extremely graphic & pointless gore just use the term "horror" as an easy explanation for their games content.

    Shock value in horror games, sometimes, leaves me wondering more about the designers mental state more than the games artistic merit.

  3. @ Horned/the one - yes, I agree with the one, but also, until recently, video games were perceived as being 'for children' (as were RPGs) and there was a fear of tainting the young. Hence they came under closer scrutiny than, say, novels.

    @ the one - I was just thinking the same recently about a dire but horrendously gory film I saw. Things like 'American Psycho' stand out as they use violence to say something interesting about society and morality.

    1. I think the worst one I ever had the misfortune of seeing was a film called "Martyrs" from 2008. I saw it at a film festival, so my knowledge of the film going into the cinema beforehand was limited. Needless to say, quite a lot of people walked out. Regretfully I stayed until the end, coz I hoped it would get didn't. It just got more abusive, gory and completely disgusting right to the very end......with little to no meaning or value to the story.

      I walked out of the cinema with my wife completely dumbstruck. I remember saying to her that I couldn't understand how anyone could possibly be "entertained" by watching that sort of film.

    2. Martyrs is one of my very favourite films, not because it is entertaining, but because of the impact it had on me. I couldn't sleep for a week after watching it, not because of the gore but because of the 'meaning'. Martyrs is a film about empathy, but it's also about empathy in the viewer. If you are open to it, it gets inside you and affects you deeply. Like all the best horror.

      And like all horror I think it is best experienced alone, not in a cinema where you are less vulnerable. This is why VR is going to be so potent a tool for horror.

      I think there is a tradition of horror in cinema that came from learning how to subvert the medium - special effects and so forth. I'm not sure people have figured out how to subvert gaming yet. I think it is telling that the best horror game (Silent Hill 2) is also one of the best examples of a narrative in a game, but the game elements really take distant second place to the story. Maybe games will discover their own way to do horror, where the fear comes not from what you see or what you are told, but from what you do.

      I've always thought Doom was a Christian-centric horror game, but maybe it isn't really. I seem to remember more satanic type stuff in the early 90s with FPS games, maybe there was a backlash.

  4. @Bruticus - that's an interesting point you make about horror in games. When you are watching a movie you are passive (although you can choose to stop it or walk out). In (the best) games you are active, and therefore have more tools at your disposal to engage with or shy away from events. That can lead to all sorts of interesting experiences and the potential to get players asking questions about themselves that movies might have to work harder to do.

  5. As a Christian (not a very good one, admittedly) I couldn't care less, I don't see Agony as so much of a game as somewhat dark art.
    You want real horror look at gothic cathedrals and Christian art. I see no difference between this and say Bosch's paintings.
    Some Christians think this kind of stuff will scare people into behaving, I don't care if it does or doesn't.
    I appreciate it as art and I'd like to play the version which includes the stuff which was too raw and needed to be cut.