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Played Out - El Shaddai

In my boldest move yet towards beatification, I recently tithed my paycheck towards the teachings of an ancient Biblical book. Sure, the Book of Enoch may only be canonical in Ethiopia and Eritrea, yet I am now certain that this Dead Sea Scroll starlet has more to offer than the papal tabloids want to credit. I mean, some Japanese guy made a video game based on its story. And yea, God spake, that is totes cool.

The game of which I speak is El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, the meaning of which I have absolutely no idea despite having finished the game just last night. The good/bad of that ambiguity is pending, before which I'd like to specify the aforementioned Japanese guy to be Takeyasu Sawaki, who was also a lead designer on Devil May Cry and Okami. The lineage is obvious, with El Shaddai being very much a 3D-technique brawler (Devil May Cry) encased in a stunning cel-shaded atmosphere (Okami). In other words, I shouldn't be at all surprised with the feeling left me by El Shaddai.

That feeling is... I liked it?

Question marks signify uncertainty I possess about the fighting mechanics in all of these games. Even though Devil May Cry is ostensibly the prototype for modern brawlers, I have serious trouble latching onto exactly how my button presses are playing out on screen. I generally adapt well enough to succeed, but I'm constantly frustrated when I believe I've blocked an attack or nailed a combo in accordance with the established norms and find myself flailing against the ground (in real life, in front of my chair, after throwing my half-empty soda can across the room). El Shaddai never drove me to this level of fury, as I trounced through the game on "normal" difficulty only having to replay a few sections, and only once each time; but I'm just not sure how much fun I'm deriving from these key battle components of Sawaki's games.

It's the worlds that keep me coming back, and not even in the narrative sense. Devil May Cry is good, campy neo-punk, but Okami and El Shaddai are heavily influenced by religious mythologies (Japanese and Judeo-Christian respectively) which I'd hardly classify as good storytelling. Tightening the focus back down to El Shaddai and its retelling of the Book of Enoch, what we find is a number of fallen archangels who, for one reason or another, are f'ing with the Earth and humans instead of staying up in Heaven where they belong. I dunno. A lot seems to be going on, but it never really coagulates into a purposeful story that made me believe my plight was against anything more than a series of video game bosses. One is a giant pig, one transforms into an insect... There's something about the fall or rebirth or loss of innocence or gaining of free will or something going on around it all, but I really don't see how anyone would figure that out by playing this game...

Not that this shortcoming is specifically El Shaddai's fault in any way other than its source material selection. My 28-year familiarity with ancient religious texts seems to reveal a genre heavy on mythological battles between superbeings, somewhat interested in humanity's physical and philosophical status below these battles, and loose on finalizing -- or even recognizing -- meaningful story arcs. Think about all those Greek and Roman stories about the gods and Titans and stuff... Are they really any good? They're attractive, in a way, because they truly are "classic," hearkening to the most base human interests of blood and romance and the like, but I contest that few of them really leave the audience with anything more than, "Gods, huh." The stories aren't necessarily purposed towards satisfaction. They're largely purposed towards simply emphasizing the power or insanity or whatnot of the deities, just as a banal action movie today would be purposed towards instructing the audience that cool, good guys always beat the baddies. It's a reaffirmation of faith in something, and therefore does not require logic. It simply requires that characters exist and do things.

To give an example, consider the idea that the fallen angels featured in El Shaddai are attributed with fathering the Nephilim, which are Titan-like giants who stomp around and have a bunch of sex and, in some interpretations, therefore inspired the great flood of the Old Testament. This is intriguing on the surface, yet there's no real reason for any of this to be happening, is there? It can provide cool visual options for storytelling -- which is the major triumph of this game -- but emotionally it falls flat. El Shaddai also features a female human named Ishtar who appears once in a while and whose bones you're supposed to collect in some hidden stages. I have no idea who Ishtar is or how she relates to Enoch. Ambiguity can be cool, but it's not gonna make me care.

The most captivating story tool the game features well is its use of Lucifel aka Satan before he fell from heaven. He's the only "friend" in the world with Enoch, and, although he appears very superficially as a save point, he is constantly injecting the world with the life it needs to be at all relevant as anything other than visual art. You can often hear his cell phone (yes, Satan's cell phone) ringing before you see him, which he then picks up and carries on a one-sided, nonchalant conversation with God. The snippets of chat seem so casual that you almost get the impression that neither God nor Lucifel could really care less what happens to Enoch or the fallen angels or even humanity.

Maybe the game is about a game that God himself is playing with His minions and creations. It's a deity-type that Mark Twain touches upon in "The Mysterious Stranger," in which an angel named Satan (actually the nephew of the his more famous uncle Satan) visits Earth with so little empathy for humans beyond anything as toys that his disinterest comes off nearly as contempt. Maybe God really doesn't care what happens, so long as something does happen, because that, in itself, is entertainment.

For me, I can only empathize with this version of God because El Shaddai is so beautiful to experience. It's like The Science of Sleep of video games, in which you want to keep looking, but your eyes keep closing on you. There's some kind of interesting message to latch onto (probably), and it pops out now and again in a phrase or movement that genuinely means something, but it never forms into much more than an astounding piece of visual architecture. Things are happening, and they're wonderful to see, but I'm not sure they're leaving me with any genuine human emotion. Yea, the emotion may merely be God-like.

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