Ys 8 and Prayer

This past December I took it upon myself to play through the entire Ys series available in the US (8 games in total, but most are relatively short so it didn’t take too long).  This is a series that has been around forever but never really caught my attention until I got into Falcom’s other big series, The Legend of Heroes. The series follows the adventurer Adol Christin and his various travels.  The games don’t focus much on story (especially compared to the Legend of Heroes series) but are still fun to play. As a result, not a whole lot came to my uncreative mind with respect to religion until I got to Ys VIII -Lacrimosa of Dana-.  Today I’m going to talk about Sister Nia and what exactly is prayer.

Ys VIII is probably the most plot focused game in the series, but the premise is relatively simple.  Adol is working on a passenger liner to travel to a distant land when the ship is attacked by a giant squid and wrecks on a “cursed” island.  The basic goal is to find the other castaways and find a way off the island while uncovering the island’s mysterious past. One of the castaways is a nun named Sister Nia, who was on the boat returning to the town where she teaches.

Once you find her on the island and she comes to your castaway village, she spends most of her time praying for a way off the island while helping around the village.  After making some progress in the game, she asks you to escort her to a tall nearby mountain. Once there, she decides she needs to not spend all her time praying for her god to get her off the mountain but instead to work towards that herself, symbolically removing her habit.

For the rest of the game when you talk to her she essentially says she hasn’t given up on religion and praying but is focusing more on helping everyone get off the island.  I can see what the writers were trying to say with this storyline- that you can’t just sit around waiting for someone else to save you. It reminded me of the classic homily joke where a man is praying for God to save him from a natural disaster and ignoring the various rescue vehicles that come by to help.  That said, the execution felt off to me. It really felt like the game was saying prayer was pointless despite the game’s attempts to insist that wasn’t the point (after all, it would have been pretty easy to have her work and pray at the same time like real life religious typically do). I knew this point was wrong, but I realized I couldn’t actually explain what the point of prayer was.  I knew that prayer was important (after all, Jesus spends a lot of time praying in the Gospels and saints are always talking about how important prayer was) but I couldn’t really tell anyone why. So I decided I wanted to do some research and find out.

So what exactly is prayer and what is the point?  I admit, I don’t think I can do a good job explaining this idea but I’m going to still try (for a better explanation, see this Word on Fire Show episode on the metaphysics of prayer where I got my information: https://wordonfireshow.com/episode169/).  So what is prayer?  It is “the raising of the heart and mind to God.”  Ok, while that does feel like an accurate definition, it may feel kind of abstract and unhelpful explaining prayer to others who aren’t already invested.  So instead let’s focus on the point of prayer. Prayer doesn’t change God- God is unchanging (side note- why does God seem to change in response to prayers in the Bible?  According to St. Thomas Aquinas it’s just a metaphor). God doesn’t need prayers either, unlike say the gods of Greek mythology. So what is the point? The point is that prayer changes us.  It helps the prayer become more attuned to God’s will and purpose. This is part of why persistence in prayer is important. As St. Augustine puts it, by continuing to pray the heart and soul continue to expand outward to receive the gift God will give us.  After all, the heart may not be ready initially, but after a period of waiting it becomes prepared. I admit, this explanation feels abstract and a bit hard for me personally to explain, but it does help me grasp why prayer matters. By praying, I start to focus more on God than on myself.  If we go back to Sister Nia and try to view it in this framework, the point of her prayers would be to help hear realize her god wants her to help work to get off the island (not saying something like that would necessarily happen in real life, just trying to apply the real ideas to the fictional setting).

I realize this probably wasn’t the most satisfying explanation out there, as I’m still learning myself.  That said, I hope that this has led you to start to kind of see why prayer matters even if you still feel you need more on the topic.  If you do want more information, I really would encourage you to listen to that podcast or look into the writing of the saints who do a much better job explaining prayer than I do.  Prayer is important, so learning more about it can only be a good thing.

Song of the Post-  

Sunshine Coastline 

Ys VIII -Lacrimosa of Dana-

The most upbeat “stranded on an island” song


This past December I finally got around to playing Xenogears.  It’s a pretty famous JRPG from the PS1 era known for its mature story, good music and the fact that the second half of the game turns into a visual novel because the developers didn’t have time to finish it.  I’d been meaning to play it for some time but just never got around to it (I didn’t really have access to Playstation until late PS2 era and at the time I was way more concerned about getting caught up on Final Fantasy).  Not too long ago I saw a video discussing the development and story of the game by Resonant Arc on Youtube. One of the things he mentioned was the game seriously discussed religion and was critical of Gnosticism (something I’d heard about the game back in the day as well).  Since I’ve really only heard Gnosticism talked about in the context of church history, I got suspicious that it was probably a politically correct way of saying the game was critical of Christianity and decided to finally check it out for myself. So what’s the verdict?

The game is fun but a bit dated.  The story itself was overhyped in my opinion.  I wanted to take some time to discuss some of the religious aspects that do show up in the game.

Spoiler warning for the full game

I think when people say Xenogears is critical of Gnosticism, they are mainly referring to how religion is portrayed in the game.  The main religious organization is a group called “Ethos.” They are your classic fictional church aesthetically modeled after Catholicism (big churches, stained glass, similar hierarchy, etc., they even have a confessional in their headquarters).

In addition to being a religious organization, they are excavators.  As a result, they effectively control the super advanced ancient technology found underground which I believe is the secret knowledge people use to claim it is criticizing Gnosticism.  Before you reach their headquarters, it wasn’t really obvious that it was a religious organization (I personally thought they were only excavators), but once you get there the religious connection is made very clear.  After a certain point in the game the big plot twist with the organization is revealed- it’s literally an organization created by a hidden, super advanced country to control the masses (straight out of Karl Marx). This kind of plot twist has become such a cliche in modern media that it is actually more surprising when the organization is legit rather than secretly evil, but when this game came out I’m guessing it was much less common (the 1990s PS1 games were when video game storytelling really started to push its boundaries).  My guess is that for many people this was the first time they encountered what seemed like a serious atheistic story which kind of blew their minds. For me personally, this was actually pretty tame compared to what I was expecting based on how hyped up the game was. I mean yeah, the game is critical of organized religion but its not like the way the religion is set up in the game has any real bearing on how something similar is in reality. This is in contrast to stories that will explicitly call something the Catholic Church and have them do something that doesn’t work with Catholicism.  

Another religious feature of Xenogears is that there are many random references to Genesis.  From what I have read, religions like Christanity and Judaism are uncommon enough in Japan that they are seen as weird and exotic groups to throw into media even if it may not make sense, kind of like Buddhism and Hinduism are for western countries.  The result is media like Evangelion and Xenogears that will just randomly refer to these religions just to seem cool. This is how the references to Genesis in Xenogears work- they’re just kind of there without any real purpose. Here are a few examples.  Early in the game you meet an old man familiar with the backstory of the world in which the game takes place. The way he describes it is essentially the fall in Genesis with humans being expelled from paradise for some sin. Later in the game we find out that story is an abstract way of referring to a space colonization ship that tried to control a dangerous superweapon but was destroyed and crashed on the game’s planet.  Another example is the Omnigears. Around halfway through the game you start encountering the 12 powerful Omnigears (basically super powerful mechs). While these robots have names your party uses, but the names the antagonists use are various children of Israel (for example, the main mech Weltall is referred to as Naphtali). There doesn’t seem to be any real point to this reference, but to be fair it is possible the intended meaning was lost since it shows up in the rushed second half of the game.  One last reference is to Cain and Abel. Late in the game, you find out that the main character is a reincarnation of the sole survivor of the spaceship crash 10000 years ago. When flashing back to his previous lives, one of them shows him (named Abel at the time) being hunted down and killed by Cain, the emperor of the super advanced country from earlier in the game. Once again, this seems to just be a superficial reference to Genesis without any real purpose. There are many small references like these that show up throughout the game.  I could see how someone who wasn’t super familiar with the stories would think it was pretty cool and had some deep meaning, but I feel that anyone who has actually read Genesis would notice pretty quickly that the references really have no point other than just to be there.

Lastly, I want to talk about how the god in the game is portrayed.  Like most games with a fictional religion, the god of the religion is the final boss of the game.  This is a pretty common trope these days. After all, if the game wants to give you a sense of accomplishment and power, it’ll have you defeat the most powerful thing the writers can think of- a god.  Xenogears is a bit different in that instead of it just being like a Greek god (basically a super powerful person), it’s a super advanced bio weapon that created life on the planet to repair itself over millennia.  If that was all there was to this god there wouldn’t be much to comment on, but what makes it different is the intention of the writers. From what I’ve read, during production of the game the intention was to make the villain explicitly the Christan God, but this idea was localized out when the western branch of the company got involved to avoid controversy.  You can still kind of see traces of it here and there, from the superficial Genesis references that would then have a point to various names used to describe the creature over the course of the game (Deus being probably the most common one).

This kind of explicit reference to Christianity isn’t super common in games (probably to avoid controversy leading to lower sales) but it does show up every once in a while (the Shin Megami Tensei games being the most prominent examples).  The problem that stories with this portrayal run into is that the way they try to portray God isn’t really what He is. This is actually a pretty common problem with media in general, not just in games. God isn’t a competitive being that only has power by keeping down humanity, but the act of to be itself.  God doesn’t need humanity at all, whether for prayers or power or repairing a broken body, but still wants us as an act of love. It gets pretty hard to discuss what exactly God is without accidentally saying something wrong, so rather than try to continue explaining this myself, I’ll refer you to Bishop Barron who talks about this topic pretty frequently in his various Word of Fire videos and explains the topic significantly better than I do (for example, see this:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1zMf_8hkCdc).

Overall, Xenogears is a decent game that seriously discusses religion even if it doesn’t do a great job at it.  I don’t think I’d recommend it to brand new players like myself, but if they ever remade it with some quality of life changes and a finished second disk it might be worth checking out.  I think a large part of the reason the game didn’t bother me as much as I expected it to is the fact that the whole “religion is secretly evil” idea is so cliche now that the game feels pretty par for the course at this point.  The developers went on to make Monolith Soft whose games have similar ideas if you are interested in checking out some others. I personally think Xenoblade Chronicles 2 did a better job with religious themes than Xenogears did if you want to check that one out (although it’s been a while so don’t expect a post on Xenoblade Chronicles 2 until I finally get around to replaying it).

Song of the Post- 

In a Prison of Peace and Regret 


Harpsichord always sounds more religious for some reason

The Legend of Heroes

As I’ve mentioned in the past, usually the religions in video games inspired by Catholicism only resemble it superficially, copying the look and feel of the religion without any of the actual content that matters.  I honestly didn’t think I’d ever find anything better than a superficial but positive portrayal, but that changed last year when I started playing through the Legend of Heroes series. This JRPG series started in 2004 and is ongoing to this day.  The two main selling points of the series is the large, interconnected story in all the games of the series (the main plot is supposedly only 60% done) and the great world building enabled by NPC dialog that is constantly updated as you progress regardless of if it relevant to what you are doing.  Like most fantasy games it includes a fictional religion resembling Catholicism- the Septian Church. Unlike most games, however, it goes much deeper than a superficial resemblance. I wanted to spend some time talking about the Septian Church in this game and its similarities and differences to Catholicism.

To start off, I want to talk about the similarities between the Septian Church and Catholicism.  The world in the game is kind of loosely inspired by Europe in the mid 1800s, but with monsters and some new technology that is making things advance quickly to the present’s level of tech.  The various countries in the game are clearly inspired by those of the time, for example, Erebonia is basically Imperial Germany, Calvard is basically the French Republic and Liberl is basically Switzerland.  One country mentioned but not focused on in the game is Arteria- a city that is the center of the church (clearly a reference to the Vatican). Each city in the game has a church that resembles a Catholic church in terms of architecture as expected with an assigned priest (or bishop in the big cities) that runs it.  

A lot of the terms used by the church associated characters are Catholic instead of simply generic religious terms common in most games.  For example instead of “going to church” there is “going to Mass” and there are references to groups like the “Congregation for the Sacraments” back in Arteria.  The churches even have “Sunday School” where they teach the kids both religion and general knowledge in lieu of a modern school system. While all this would make it resemble the Catholic Church more than most games, it would still be superficial.  What really sells it for me is the dialog of the church affiliated characters. As I mentioned before, one of the big selling points of this series is that the NPC dialog is constantly updating as you play, often unrelated to the plot. As I was playing the game, the dialog of the church affiliated characters impressed me with just how Catholic it sounded.  One incident in particular that stood out to me in Trails in the Sky SC. Relatively late in the game, a town is attacked by the villains and the market that is the center of the town is completely destroyed- leaving the townspeople distraught and unsure of what to do. If you take a detour during this event and go talk to the town’s priest he’ll talk to you about suffering and the power of redemptive suffering.  I remember at the time thinking that the dialog sounded straight out of a Catholic homily on suffering. This kind of dialog is found all throughout the series and really makes the Catholic connections obvious.

While the Septian Church is clearly Catholic inspired, it’s still in a fictional world so there are some differences.  Probably the biggest is the Gralsritter- the church’s secret special ops team protecting the world behind the scenes. Because there are dangerous magical relics from the beginning of the world (for example, an item that stops time for everyone but its user or an item that turns whatever it touches into salt), the church established the Gralsritter to retrieve these relics and store them safely away where they can’t be used for evil.  Obviously since there isn’t anything similar to those relics in Catholicism, there is no need in the real world for such an organization. On top of that, at least one member of the Gralsritter is basically an assassin. While some of the people he kills in the game could arguably fall under the Catholic Church’s teaching on the death penalty, I can think of at least one that wouldn’t. Beyond the Gralsritter there are other small differences.  One is that the church is much less hard on animism- the game’s equivalent to paganism. People in the world are welcome to worship the wind for example, as long as they also worship the goddess of the Septian Church. This is in contrast to Catholicism, which clearly states that it is wrong to worship anything other than God (it doesn’t get more direct that the first commandment). Another small difference is the role of nuns in the church. In the Septian Church, the role of nuns is similar to that of permanent deacons- they kind of help out the priest in charge of the church, whereas in Catholicism nuns are parts of religious orders rather than directly tied to a local parish.  From what I understand, this difference comes from a cultural difference between Japan and the west. For whatever reason nuns are associated with old Shinto shrine maidens so even if a character is supposed to be more of a Catholic nun, their role will be more along that of the shrine maiden (while I’m not a huge fan of the site, TV Tropes does have an article explaining this common difference pretty well- https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/NunsAreMikos).  So while the Septian Church is significantly more Catholic than most fictional game religions, differences do exist.

Overall, I was extremely impressed with how religion was portrayed in the Legend of Heroes series and how close it was to real Catholicism.  It’s honestly really refreshing to see a church portrayed in such a positive light and relatively accurately in contrast to the negative, superficial portrayal much more common in games.  When I first played the games, I honestly thought these associations were made by some Catholic localizer in order to give some added realism to the church’s dialog, but it turns out I was wrong.  In an interview with the president of Falcom (the creators of the series), he revealed that the Septian Church was created to be a Japanese view of the Catholic Church- something mysterious and exotic but overall trying to do good in the world.  After reading that interview, I have to say they absolutely succeeded. While the series isn’t complete yet so there is still a chance for things to go south in the future, for now I extremely like what was done with religion in The Legend of Heroes.

Song of the Post-

Aster House

Trails in the Sky the 3rd

This was the most Catholic sounding song in the series I could think of


Probably the earliest games to have any kind of references to Catholicism were the Castlevania series.  Originally premiering on the NES with the game Castlevania, the series was a set of typical action platformers, but with a classic horror twist (so instead of fighting mushrooms/turtles and aliens, you were fighting bats and mummies and demons and, of course, vampires).  The basic plot for most games in the series is simple- some member of the Belmont clan of vampire hunters must fight his way through the titular castle and defeat the evil Dracula. While it has never been the main focus of the series, the Catholic Church has always been featured in the lore as the group organizing the fight against Dracula, usually by supporting the Belmonts or supplying other combatants while that family is missing.  I figured I could go through a few games in the series and discuss the role of the Catholic Church in each specific game (spoilers inbound for each!) Also note, this post won’t really go into Catholic theology at all, just the role of the church in various games.

Castlevania III- Dracula’s Curse

First up is Castelvania 3:  Dracula’s Curse for the NES.  The basic story of the game is that once again Dracula has shown up to wipe out humanity and this time it is up to Trevor Belmont to stop him.  Along the way he recruits the help of other people he meets including Dracula’s son Alucard, a pirate named Grant Dynasty and a magic user named Sypha Belandes.  Not a whole lot of Catholicism on the surface, but the connection is made clear in the lore within the instruction manual. Before Trevor Belmont, the Church sent soldiers to defeat Dracula themselves (as they mistrused the Belmonts) but failed.  After that failure, they finally agree to send Trevor and support him. In addition, Sypha Belandes is actually an agent of the Catholic Church. When she was a young girl she was being raised by evil witches, but after they were defeated she was taken in by some nuns.  Once she was older, she decided to use the magic from her childhood to fight for good. While these two references to Catholicism are pretty simple, it is a lot for an NES game as religion was typically removed from the western releases of games at the time.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

Next I want to talk about Symphony of the Night.  Released in 1997 on the PS1, it focuses on Alucard as he tries to figure out why Richter Belmont is trying to revive Dracula a year after defeating him.  This game is actually pretty light on the references to Catholicism, but I still wanted to mention the game because it will matter a little later.  Over the course of the game, you get a flashback to Alucard’s childhood where a mob burns his mother at the stake, believing her to be evil for marrying Dracula.  It’s important to note that it is a local mob that does the killing, not the church. While some superstition seems to have motivated the mob, there isn’t really any explicit connection to religion in this execution.  Other than that, there are a few visual references to Catholicism (such as the chapel area of the game) and some easter eggs (like a confessional for ghosts you can visit). Many people consider this one to be the best in the series, so while Catholicism may not come up much it still is worth playing.

Castlevania- Order of Ecclesia

Next I want to talk about 2008’s Order of Ecclesia for the DS, my personal favorite in the series and the game that most prominently features the Catholic Church.  The game takes place in the 1800s while the Belmont family is missing. Without the Belmonts to fight Dracula, the Catholic Church created the titular Order of Ecclesia to train fighters defeat him on when reappears.  The main character, Shanoa, is a nun raised by the order for this purpose (side note- one of the only good redesigns for the Castlevania Judgment fighting game was Shanoa’s which gave her more of a nun look than the original game did).  Over the course of the game, you come to discover that the leader of the order is just trying to use Shanoa to gain Dracula’s powers for himself, leading her to have to defeat both him and Dracula when the order is destroyed. One of my least favorite plot twists these days is the whole “good religious organization is actually evil,” but honestly it didn’t really bother me that much in this game.  I think the reason is that it’s not that Catholicism or even the order itself that is evil, but the leader who was using it for power. Still pretty cliche, but it didn’t bother me like it normally would.

Castlevania- Aria of Sorrow

Next is 2003’s Aria of Sorrow for the GBA.  The game takes place in 2035 after Dracula was finally defeated for good in 1999.  It follows Soma Cruz as he is sucked into the castle during an eclipse and tries to find a way out.  Most of the heroic NPCs in the game are church agents sent to investigate why the castle has returned, including Yoko Belandes (a descendant of Sypha), Arikado (actually Alucard) and the mysterious J (actually Julius Belmont with memory loss).  After it turns out that Soma is actually the reincarnation of Dracula, it is the church characters that work to bring him under control and prevent him from giving in to evil and losing his mind (or if you get a bad ending, you can play a separate game mode mirroring Castlevania 3 where Julius, Yoko and Alucard have to fight Soma as Dracula).  While the Catholic Church isn’t mentioned much directly in this game, the characters associated with it are portrayed in a heroic light, in contrast to many other games out there.

Looking at these games, you can see a basic theme running across them.  The Catholic Church is the heroic organization preventing evil from wiping out humanity.  This role essentially the same as that of the Catholic Church in exorcism movies, the group that fights evil in the world (you don’t go to a Prodestant minister for an exorcism after all).  I imagine the reason for this connection in the game is because of the series’ ties to classic horror. If the game was just about random monsters, there wouldn’t really be any need to include religion and potentially risk alienating some of the audience (like in Zelda or Contra for example).  That said, I’m glad it worked out this way. Since so many games portray Catholicism (or its surrogate) in a negative light, it’s nice to have at least once game in our favor.

Castlevania Netflix

Lastly, I wanted to mention the Castlevania animated series on Netflix.  This show was a massive, MASSIVE disappointment to me that can be tied to the head writer, Warren Ellis.  Ellis is a pretty radical atheist which really shows in the various work he’s done in comic books. The big problem with the series is that Ellis took the plot of Castlevania 3 and changed what was unique about it (Catholicism good) into something super cliche (church bad, poor o’l Dracula misunderstood).  There are a few different examples. First, Alucard’s mom is explicitly killed by a church leader (eventually Bishop) for being thought a witch. This change was particularly obnoxious to me since it’s pretty ahistorical. The inquisition types were actually the original fair legal system, with most of the negative actions people attribute to them really belonging more to local powers.  On top of that, they can’t even use the excuse that they are trying to be more realistic because it takes place in the 1400s in Eastern Europe, which would need Eastern Orthodox characters involved rather than Catholic if you were going that route. Second, they changed Sypha’s backstory. Instead of being a magic use raised by nuns, she’s now more like a science gypsy that knows magic because her people ignored the church when they tried to suppress the knowledge.  This change was annoying both because it was a very explicit change to get rid of a positive Catholic character as well as because it’s preaching the modern, ahistorical idea that the Catholic Church was suppressing science and that humanity be way more advanced without them. Anyone who studies the history of Europe would know the modern sciences developed explicitly because of Catholicism, not in spite of it (it is no coincidence academic regalia makes professors look like priests and religious).  The funny thing is despite most of these changes, the show still kind of accidentally implies Catholicism is true, as holy water blessed by a priest is effective against the demons and more that one character seems to know for sure that God exists, so it doesn’t even really go full atheist in spite of Ellis’ best efforts. And lest you think I just don’t like it for making changes to the story, I will mention one real quick I like. They explain that the reason so much modern technology is in Castlevania is because Dracula is kind of a scientist and has developed it centuries in advance due to his immortality.  I like that idea since it’s a clever solution to why the castle has so many anachronisms and why Alucard’s mom would seek him out. Overall though, I dislike the Netflix series for taking one of the few series positive on Catholicism and turning it on its head in the most cliche way possible.

So barring the Netflix series, Castlevania probably has one of the most consistently positive portrayals of Catholicism in all of video games.  While it may not really go into the religious aspects of Catholicism at all, the fact that the church is acknowledged as a force for good is already a much better portrayal than other games.  It really is too bad that Konami has basically left video games, limiting the chance of future installments in the series. On the bright side however, the Bloodstained series by Koji Igarashi (who made many of the more popular Castlevania games) seems to be keeping the church in a positive, background role.  It’s nice to have at least one thing that isn’t trying to convince everyone that you were actually the true evil all along.

Song of the Post-

Bloody Tears

Castlevania:  Rondo of Blood

Pipe Organs somehow make Bloody Tears sound more Catholicy