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Visions of Hell in Video Games

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Geek, gamer, writer, graphic artist. Ced's favorite shows and adventures are those that allow him to enjoy the world from his bedroom.

A look at how hell was featured in video games since the 1980s.

A look at how hell was featured in video games since the 1980s.

The concept of hell occupies a complex position in human history throughout the world.

Most people today associate the word with a realm of eternal punishment for the sinful. Some would also name hell as the residence of heinous demons, which then creates a theological paradox for how a domain of divine retribution also be an abode of evil.

East Asian faiths such as Taoism avoid this contradiction by describing the administrators of the “earthly prison” as righteous but harsh gods. Nonetheless, the Eastern Diyu, or Jigoku, is still staffed by thousands of malicious imps. One can be sure any such creature would wreak havoc in our living world if given free rein.

Moving on to video games, the concept of a ghastly world devoted to torment for the wicked has, of course, long been an inspiration, but again the above-mentioned contradiction is common. Hell in video games is always near the playground of infernal beings. Divine punishment, or redemption, is either sidelined or entirely ignored in favor of malevolent conspiracies.

The only notable exception that I can think of is Namco’s Yokai Dochuki (1987). One of the most inventive Japanese video games set in hell, Yokai Dochuki is perhaps still the only game to date that faithfully honors the Buddhist karmic concept of hell. That said, apart from the final stage, what appears in the game is still more accurately the Japanese spiritual realm rather than the underworld.

The cheery, quirky tone of this 1987 classic furthermore amuses more than terrifies. Players looking for a gripping, gory experience will likely be disappointed.

Yokai Dochuki features a journey into the depths of hell, with the beginning stage explicitly named “Hell’s Entrance.” What’s seen in the stages, however, is a mix of hellish punishments and spiritual abodes.

Yokai Dochuki features a journey into the depths of hell, with the beginning stage explicitly named “Hell’s Entrance.” What’s seen in the stages, however, is a mix of hellish punishments and spiritual abodes.

Games Featuring or Set in Hell: A Selection

  • Afterlife (1996)
  • Agony (2018)
  • Blasphemous (2018)
  • Dante’s Inferno (2018)
  • Devil May Cry Series (2001 -)
  • Diablo Series (1997 -)
  • Doom Series (1993 -)
  • Gambare Goemon Series (1986 - 2005)
  • Getsu Fūma Den (1987)
  • Getsu Fūma Den: Undying Moon (2022)
  • Ghosts N' Goblins Series (1985 -)
  • God of War III (2010)
  • God of War: Chains of Olympus (2008)
  • Hades (2018)
  • Jigoku Meguri (1990)
  • Nioh (2017)
  • Saints Row: Gat out of Hell (2015)
  • Yokai Dochuki (1987)

Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell

Terrifying descriptions of hell exist throughout history, in both occidental and oriental cultures. Safe to say, however, all such depictions added together do not remotely come close to Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy as far as details are concerned.

Very simply, the Florentine poet was almost obsessive when describing his vision of the Christian underworld. Not only was the man meticulous with geography and architecture, he even painstakingly described the weather, the hierarchy, and of course, the denizens populating hell.

Jump forth to modern times, Dante’s devotion to details created a perplexing conundrum in the gaming world. Despite there being no obvious copyright restrictions, only one video game is explicitly set in this perfectly described realm. Namely, Visceral Games’ Dante’s Inferno (2010).

There could be many reasons for this, from worries about religious sensitivities to commercial marketability, to competition from enduring franchises. Were you to ask me, though, I’d put it as just one reason. Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell was simply too detailed.

Even with today’s technology, no single video game can completely incorporate all that the poet-statesman wrote. Even Visceral’s effort, which received mixed reviews, was decisively rushed and routine in the second half.

Conversely, not featuring the whole of the Inferno in one game will surely invite stinging criticism. I for one would be put off if having to buy three games to “fully visit” hell.

Everything considered, Dante’s hellish vision is perhaps best left as reading/study material. Some things, however apt they seem, should not be adapted for games.

Yomi and Jigoku, the Japanese Underworlds, in Video Games

In Shintoism, the land of the dead is known as Yomi, and is described as a place full of decaying beings and defilement. The shadowy realm is also a key location in Shinto creation myths, although it’s rarely mentioned elsewhere.

Yomi is, however, not a place where sinful souls are punished. There is no such description in Shinto religious texts. Japanese depictions of hellish suffering, boiling cauldrons and seas of knives and the likes of, therefore stem from Japanese Buddhist beliefs. These beliefs, in turn, were inspired by Buddhist descriptions of Naraka from the Asiatic mainland.

Both versions of the Japanese underworld have appeared in video games since the 1980s.

The Staging Grounds of Demons

Coming back to Dante, the poet’s most masterful (or questionable) stroke in The Divine Comedy was his inclusion of Greek mythological characters as demons or monsters. Geryon, Plutus, and the Minotaur, to name three.

Together with Milton’s Paradise Lost, which described fallen angels as banished to hell, an enduring impression of the underworld as the dominion of demons was created. This vision of hell is the one most commonly embraced by video games.

Tartarus, the Greek Underworld Prison

In Greek mythology, the underworld is divided into three regions, with Tartarus described as the infernal third where the Olympians imprison their enemies and punish the wicked.

Over time, the name became synonymous with hell in other languages. The Christian view of the underworld as a place of reckoning could have possibly been inspired by classic descriptions of Tartarus too.

No surprise, therefore, that video games have enthusiastically featured the Greek underworld as a place of danger and horror.

Hell-Inspired Landscapes

Lastly, any gloomy topography that features a plethora of bloodthirsty creatures and macabre geography would likely qualify as “hell” for many gamers. Or at least, hell-inspired. Games that feature such landscapes have been plentiful since the 1980s. Down the road, we can also expect more of such games to be released.

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© 2022 Ced Yong