Column: Godsend

Eric O. Scott —  May 13, 2016 — 2 Comments

Last year saw the release of Apotheon, a computer game set in the milieu of Greek myth. The game’s striking visuals mimic the black-figure pottery of the 7th through 5th centuries BCE, which has the effect of making the game feel more distinctively identified with its source material than any of its predecessors. We look at the ancient vases and feel an aura of myth that cannot be replicated by modern illustrations; Apotheon plays on that aura to deliver a sense of wonder that could not be matched by more sophisticated, “realistic” graphics.

But despite Apotheon’s enchanting presentation, its plot engages in a common pattern not at all faithful to the mythology. The game begins by announcing that the gods have abandoned humanity and seek to punish mortals by denying divine gifts, up to and including the light of Helios, shrouding the world in darkness. A young hero named Nikandreos receives the blessing of Hera to fight back against the gods, climbing Mount Olympus and challenging them to battle. By the end of the game, Nikandreos has slain more than half of the Olympian deities, culminating in a final battle against Zeus. In the process of killing the gods, Nikandreos acquires their special tools – -Apollo’s lyre, Zeus’s thunderbolt, and so on -– and thus their powers. By the end of the game, Nikandreos has effectively become a single omnipotent god, commanding the might of every Olympian at once.

This plot bears a strong resemblance to that of the earlier God of War series, in which the protagonist, Kratos, similarly slays and replaces Ares as the titular god of war, and then goes on to slay other deities, culminating, just as in Apotheon, in a battle against Zeus. The pattern continues in other media as well: by the end of Wrath of the Titans (2012), the gods have perished, as much at the hands of mortal indifference as monsters. Even in the Greek mythology-inspired Theros set of the card game Magic: The Gathering, the plot revolves around a mortal hero, the planeswalker Elspeth, slaying a rogue deity with the ambiguously-named magical weapon Godsend.

One would think the gods only exist to die.

Elspeth slays Xenagos, God of Revels. (Art from the Magic: The Gathering card "Deicide" by Jason Chan.)

Elspeth slays Xenagos, God of Revels [Art from the Magic: The Gathering card “Deicide” by Jason Chan]

What’s puzzling is that all of these stories take as their basis Greek mythology, in particular; a mythology which makes a point of the immortality of its gods, in contrast to other myth-systems in which gods can and do die. The trope of mortals doing battle with the Olympians occurs very infrequently in the myths; Diomedes’ battle with Aphrodite, Apollo, and Ares in the Iliad is a rare example. Diomedes just manages to wound the gods, and even then only with the aid of Athena. The idea of a mortal actually slaying a god -– much less the “kill and absorb” motif found in Apotheon and God of War –- is unthinkable within the mythic worldview.

Now, it could be argued that this recurring plot line merely reflects the genre: namely, all the works mentioned have belonged to the action genre. This is especially true for video games; the notion that games must employ combat as a core mechanic remains entrenched in the medium, and games that eschew combat altogether are few and far between. In Apotheon and God of War, the vast majority of “characters” Nikandreos and Kratos interact with are merely targets for their weapons. The argument goes that a combat game requires enemies to fight, so in a game inspired by Greek mythology, one might as well fight against the Olympians. But that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny: Greek myth hardly lacks for fantastic monsters that players could battle, monsters with much more visual appeal and potential for interesting mechanics than the gods (who, in the end, tend to just resemble large humans).

I suspect there is more to it than a simple need for game mechanics. Notably, these works tend to also feature a story wherein the bond between the gods and humanity ruptures. In Apotheon, the gods turn against mortals as punishment for human arrogance; in God of War, Zeus betrays and attempts to murder Kratos; in Theros, the Zeus stand-in, Heliod, similarly betrays his follower Elspeth after she discharges her duty to him. (The Titans films, breaking with this pattern, have the bond severed on the other end: humans stop believing in the gods, and thus the gods become mortal and die.) The pattern is not just one of mortals fighting against gods: it is specifically the revelation that the Father God is a liar, hypocrite, and oath-breaker, who unjustly attacks his human subjects and must be deposed in response.

In other words, it seems to me that Greek mythology is being used in its traditional post-classical role as a stalking horse for Christianity, a version of religion that can be invoked and critiqued without exposing an author to the dangers of openly discussing the dominant religion. Gods -– mainly Zeus, a proxy for the monotheistic God -– act as open antagonists to humanity, and can be used metaphorically to condemn the perceived corruption of religion as a concept. The mortal human grows to have more power and agency than the gods themselves, and in their destruction, rises to a mastery of the cosmos; in the case of Apotheon, ultimately recreating human life as a new, singular deity.

The narrative parallels the decrease in religiosity in western societies. As the nones increase in number, this narrative becomes more and more attractive, for it allows a generation of nonreligious gamers to role-play their resistance to religion within the safe confines of a “dead” mythos. (A God of War where the hero kills Zeus is a fun action game; a God of War where the hero kills Yahweh is grounds for international controversy.) The Titans storyline, if anything, displays this atheistic motif more obviously: the rise of nones in their film universe is directly responsible for their demise.

It’s fascinating, if I’m sure disheartening to those who worship them, that the Greek gods get chosen for this duty. For the most part, gods of other mythologies get more sympathetic treatment in popular culture, even though their stories contain just as many incidents of jerking around their followers. But then, it’s nothing new for the classical gods to be used in this way: when King Lear laments that humans are as flies to the gods, he’s also referring to the Olympians.

Eric O. Scott

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Eric O. Scott was raised by witches. He is a contributing editor at Killing the Buddha. He won the Moon Books prize for Best Pagan Fiction Writer Under 30 in 2012. His first book, The Lives of the Apostates, was published in 2013. He received his MFA in Fiction and Creative Nonfiction from the University of Missouri - Kansas City in 2010, and is currently a PHD student in Creative Nonfiction and Medieval Studies at the University of Missouri - Columbia. His middle name is not "Odin."
  • The visuals are beautiful… and given the context, disturbing.

    Assuredly, this is not a game that this Pagan would play for entertainment. It seems practically a dictionary definition of hubris… though I think you are right, Eric, in the role it is actually playing in the wider culture.

    • zormpas

      As a Hellenic myself, I completely agree.