When an average person thinks of video games, religion is one of the last topics to come to mind. Reasons include the fact that the kind of people who are religious tend to be older with a 1980s view of video games and the fact that religion is such a touchy subject people wouldn’t expect companies to risk alienating customers by including the topic. That said, the Catholic Church itself is actually relatively common in games, although not always how you’d expect. It typically appears in one of two ways- either in a game with a historic setting featuring Medieval Europe (where you can’t avoid mentioning the church) or one in a fictional fantasy setting with a religion clearly inspired by the Catholic Church. I figured as an introduction to the topic I could discuss these two ways Catholicism shows up in games.
First, you have the less common of the two- a historical setting that can’t avoid the Catholic Church. As surprising as it might be, games that take place in Europe before World War 2 are actually not that common. When one does show up, however, the Catholic Church usually has some kind of presence in the game. The most common example of this type of game would be the various grand strategy games where you control some small of Europe and expand your control through battle and diplomacy. In these games, Catholicism is typically present, but it is mainly abstracted into a tool of diplomacy. For example, in Civilization 4, all religions including Catholicism will give you a bonus to negotiating with civilizations of the same religion and a penalty to negotiate with those other religions. In much less abstract example, the game Crusader Kings 2 will occasionally have the pope tell you to go on crusade whether you are actually interested in it or not (this isn’t quite how the crusades worked in real life but it is there to throw a wrench into your game plan). The other, much less common kind of historic game is a more story based game with a very concrete Medieval European setting. The only two games I can think of like this are the Assassin’s Creed 2 games (which takes place in late 1400s Italy) and Kingdom Come: Deliverance (which takes place in Bohemia in 1403). In Assassin’s Creed 2, you spend a lot of time uncovering a conspiracy in the church, climaxing in a final boss fight with Pope Alexander VI in the secret Vatican Vaults.
The game is kind of a negative portrayal of Catholicism and implies that the only reason Catholicism exists around is because of ancient alien mind control technology controlled by the church (side note- it always amuses me when people decide that the religion which cares so deeply for free will uses mind control to assert dominance). Kingdom Come, on the other hand, is trying much harder for a super realistic historic setting. As a result, most of the random people you encounter will have a clear concern for their faith as you’d expect from people living in 1400s Europe.
For example, sometimes if you try to do something violent or threatening in front of others, they’ll be shocked at someone acting so unChristian like. It’s actually pretty cool to see a game take the religion of the people so seriously, even if there are other questionable aspects of the game (one quest involves convincing a priest to break the seal of the confessional so you can track down a criminal). So overall, if you have a historic setting in Europe, you are likely to encounter Catholicism in some fashion.
Second, there is the much more common incorporation of Catholicism into video games- a fantasy game with a fictional religion clearly inspired by Catholicism. This has become a staple of the RPG genre going all the way back to early video games with the Wizardry series (which inspired Dragon Quest and the JRPG subgenre), which in turn was inspired by the tabletop RPG Dungeons and Dragons. The settings of these games tend to be essentially Medieval Europe but with magic and monsters, so it makes sense that some kind of religion is present. On top of that, Catholicism is a very visibly and audibly impressive religion that makes for cool set pieces like its massive churches with stained glass, its fancy vestments, its cool chanting music and its clerical hierarchy. Writers typically take advantage of the fictional setting to get rid of any real world references to the religion and instead just keep the cool aesthetics as an inspiration for some new, fictional religion. This has two advantages to content creators- they can avoid upsetting people by discussing religion and they can work the religion into the plot without accidentally creating any inconsistencies. The one big disadvantage however is that it is all too easy to turn this control into a super cliche plot twist- the church is secretly evil. In almost every game with a fictional church, at best the equivalent of the cardinals and the pope are super corrupt and at worst the entire religion is straight up evil. This has become such a cliche that people are actually shocked when a religion in a game ends up simply being what it claims to be. Because games with fictional churches inspired by Catholicism are pretty common, I’ll just mention a few prominent examples. First, the granddaddy of JRPGs, Dragon Quest, uses the church as a revival place- if your characters die they can be brought back to life by the local priests.
Another example is Final Fantasy X, where the Yevon faith guides most of the characters you encounter and a few of the main cast (which naturally devastates them when they learn the “shocking” truth late in the game). On the more recent side of things, you have the modern Elder Scrolls games like Oblivion and Skyrim where the churches are mainly used for healing status ailments. Finally there is the Septian Church in the Legend of Heroes series, which is the closest I’ve seen to real Catholicism in any fictional church in a game (I’ll probably write on that series specifically later). I could keep going, but honestly any fantasy RPG you can think of probably has some Catholic inspired religion in the game, showing just how common Catholicism is in games “from a certain point of view.”
So overall, Catholicism in video games is a lot more common than one might expect. While it isn’t always directly present, you can see fictional religions drawing from Catholicism all over the place in games. While much of this inspiration is pretty superficial, it makes for a good starting point for discussing Catholicism in games. I plan on using a lot of these games as the starting point for future discussions, so look forward to that down the line.
Song of the Post-