Apocalipsis: Trying to Game Death

Kevin Schut

Apocalipsis is a remarkable little narrative puzzle game that is all about death. It follows the story of Harry, a medieval man whose lover has been killed for being a witch in a time of plague and destruction. Players guide Harry through a bizarre and disturbing landscape of corpses, beasts, and occult imagery, all rendered in a unique and often amazing woodcut-style of art. By solving point-and-click puzzles, Harry must perform a series of occult rituals to descend into Hades and restore his love back to life.

In a very short space—it only took me about 90 minutes of play—Apocalipsis takes the player through the wide range of emotions and experiences we associate with death. We experience grief and loss as a relationship is cut short. We feel revulsion and horror at rotting corpses and blasted landscapes. We can admire Harry’s persistent questing, undoubtedly fueled by that longing we feel when someone is no longer present to embrace, to look in the eye, to converse with. All these things are universal experiences. If we live long enough, we will know the reality and pain of death. Apocalipsis beautifully, if disturbingly, reminds us of what it means to be mortal.

At the same time, the game presents an approach to death that is fundamentally at odds with the Christian vision. While some Christians might be offended by the occult elements of the game, I think it would be more helpful to engage with the ideas behind them.

A great deal of modern (as well as medieval and ancient) spirituality uses ritual and formula to evoke a sense of power. Magic, when practiced seriously, teaches that if we say the right words and do the right actions, we can reshape reality—we can make things the way we want them to be. This is the narrative ingrained in Apocalipsis, whether the game’s makers intended it or not. In order to undo the sting of death, Harry must solve puzzles and perform rituals to gain assistance, to open blocked doors, to reunite with his lover’s soul.

Of course, many people today think of magic as silly or superstitious. But the impulse to control is still very much present, even with those who have left the spiritual world behind. Magic, after all, is simply technology in another guise. What else is our never-ending quest to make our lives more convenient, more comfortable, more powerful? Most of us do not really understand the devices and software we deploy. They are functionally magic. And what do we use this technology for? Control. Technology is a form of power. It may seem fundamentally different from Harry using patterns of candles to open a pathway to a magical landscape, but the desire to direct destiny is the same.

Apocalipsis beautifully, if disturbingly, reminds us of what it means to be mortal.

This is all especially relevant when it comes to death. The dream of using magic to thwart death is an old impulse, as well. Death is the ultimate enemy, the monster none of us can escape. It’s not surprising we wish to bend all our power toward mastering the final obstacle. Like the builders of the tower of Babel, we believe that if we can defeat death, we can be like God. This is not as different as we might think from Harry deciphering the correct sequence of mystical symbols on a set of baskets in order to pass a gate. While his ultimate goal is understandable, he is using tools, rather than faith, to obtain it.

Here is the contrast with the Christian story. As frightening as it might be, our Father and our Master calls for us to surrender control. The Bible is the story of God’s people continually wanting to do  everything  their own way, and Yahweh reminding them  over and over again  that they must rely on him. We cannot, God keeps saying, defeat the enemy by ourselves. We are, in many ways, the enemy. We should not try, as Harry does, to move ahead without him. It is only when we give up our hopes and dreams and fears and desires to our Father that we can truly become alive in the way we were intended.

In some senses, this is not a fair reading of Apocalipsis. For one thing, Christ-followers aren’t called to be passive. We could interpret Apocalipsis as a story of someone who has been called to action and who responds to that call, which would be in line with God’s desires for our lives. After all, video games are all about doing; it’s a dull game that gives the player few actions to perform. But in a heavily narrative game like this one, the overall framing of the action matters. In this case, while I sympathize with them greatly, I read Harry’s considerable efforts as a kind of refusal to accept the peace of faith.

Death will come for us, as it comes for Harry’s lover. But rather than fight it tooth and nail with whatever tool we can forge ourselves, God calls us to trust that he will take care of us. The promise of resurrection rests not on our own efforts, our own power, our own cleverness, but on the blood and sacrifice of Jesus, who willingly took on death so that we might have life. Harry’s dream of a lover’s embrace after this life is a powerful one that Christians share, but if we try to succeed on our own wisdom and strength, we’ll only end up with the horrid, twisted dreams of Apocalipsis.

Topics: Games