Video games and religion don’t seem to be two things that would go together, yet if you look at some of the games that the industry has produced, there’s so much religious influence from both the east and west. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice delves into the issue of psychosis, and blurs lines in terms of spirituality and mental illness. The constant voices that Senua hears throughout the experience, really reflect what psychosis could be like, and the demons and creatures she comes across might not be that far from how people feel when in the depths of a mental health crisis.
Japan and Nintendo
Shinto is the spiritual belief that has grown organically from Japanese culture in the last 2000 years. It puts emphasis on nature spirits or Kami, which inhabit physical entities, from buildings and natural structures, but also even stones, trees, and rivers. Throughout many Nintendo series (and game series in general) we can see the influence of this Japanese orientated spirituality. For example, in Capcom’s 2006 action-adventure, Okami, (the name is even a reference to Shinto) the main character causes flowers to literally bloom. Of all the Nintendo games that have been released, the Zelda series has the strongest Shinto influence. In Ocarina of Time, the guardian deities – Lord Jabu-Jabu and the Great Deku Tree – are hurt by physical afflictions and it’s only when these have been put right that the world is temporarily at peace and Link can move on. The stone talus in Breath of the Wild represents the uncertainty of nature and karma. The idea that even a rock can come alive and attack you.
Zelda games, in terms of themes, have always been centered around nature and how the various races interact with the physical world around them. From the lost woods in Zelda: Ocarina of Time to the Great Sea in Zelda: The Wind Waker natural barriers stop Link from moving forward, even if those limits are convenient because of technological limitations or gameplay conventions. The races in most Zelda games are not necessarily biological organisms, Gorons are made out of rock and Deku scrubs corrupted, mobile plants. Yet, they are all at peace with nature and are not, inherently, evil. The only evilness in Zelda comes from one source, that source is Ganon (Calamity Ganon). It may be possible to save all enemies, and races in Zelda games (in a hypothetical scenario). I say this because Zelda games are often about healing and recovery. For example, the song of healing in Majora’s Mask helps many of the game’s strange characters to recover. Even the Skull Kid isn’t inherently evil – rather he is possessed by Majora.
Limitations can be convenient
Games are open to interpretation and as an art form that a lot of people approaching 25, 30, and 40 grew up with, we attach our own meanings to these games. But maybe that was what the designers had in mind. Games have become less constrained by technological limitations, which has facilitated creativity, particularly in the indie scene.
In Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the game is dominated by opposites, the dichotomy between childhood and adulthood, nature and man-made, and corrupted as opposed to pure. Good vs. evil isn’t such a strong theme as in many Eastern philosophies. Buddhism comes to mind – individuals or creatures shouldn’t be seen as 100% good or bad. Link is, instead, as we all are as children, trying to explore the lands and figure out his own understanding of it. He has help from spirits, in the form of Great fairies and Kaepora Gaebora. The latter represents a sage, Rauru, who has an incarnation outside of the sacred realm. This represents the idea that spirits can transcend the physical world.
Games have, for a long time, been niche. This is becoming less so now, but developers still put subliminal messages in games to try to help people with the challenges of real life. Religion and spiritual beliefs also make their way into many games, both from Western philosophies and Eastern.
The Zelda series has a strong theme of Shinto and belief in nature deities running through most of its games. From stones that move, to talking trees, to cursed creatures the games enthrall us and captivate our imaginations and there is a lot to be learned and appreciated from how these stories are told.