If the player finds a Magic Note Block in Super Mario Bros 3, they can jump on it to enter Coin Heaven.
Other Mario titles have their own versions of Coin Heaven, but the idea is the same throughout: A low-pressure space, free of enemies, in which the player can gain coins toward extra lives without any threats. I don’t think they are presented as a serious depiction of the in-universe afterlife; nonetheless, they are the first example that comes to mind when I try to remember video games giving us a heavenly setting.
Maybe that endgame sequence in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, in which Link travels to a peaceful field surrounding a lone tree? I’m sure some JRPGs have explored their own visions of celestial realms. The Elysium Fields show up in the God of War series, while the Diablo franchise has its High Heavens. El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, loosely based on the apocryphal Book of Enoch, had players moving in and out of the heavenly realm. Still, representations of heaven are rare in gaming.
Especially compared to Hell.
The Prevalence of Hell
There are entire brands that hinge on hellscapes. You may be familiar with Doom, for instance – the 1993 original became a cultural touchstone, and at press time gamers are looking forward to a new installment, Doom Eternal. The Doom games offer a truly hellish vision: Fire and brimstone, shadows and darkness. Labyrinthine corridors through hostile terrain. No signs of hope or God or love to be found. And the signature demons, all grotesque and terrifying, hissing and roaring and gnashing their teeth.So maybe heaven is rare in our video games because the concept of a place of perfect peace and joy sounds like an alien concept
Doom hardly holds a monopoly on video games taking a trip to Hades, however. I haven’t played recent critical hit Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, but apparently it features a trip to Viking hell. Some selections are more overt with the theme, such as indie titles Hell Yeah! Wrath of the Dead Rabbit and Devil Daggers, while others don’t deal with hell directly but flirt with the sensation of it, such as seen in The Binding of Isaac or Darkest Dungeon.
Popular properties such as Devil May Cry and Saints Row incorporate hell in their plot. Cuphead’s story is about making a deal with the devil. Another tactic is to include just a stage or two with a hell design: You can skate into Satan’s mouth in Tony Hawk’s Underground 2, defeat King Yama of the Underworld in Spelunky, and explore planet Heck on the second level of Earthworm Jim. Readers can likely think of more examples. By now, I am sure video games are contributing to the pop-cultural understanding of hell, just as they themselves were first informed by pop culture’s interpretation.
If you’ve been playing video games for any amount of time, you probably associate demonic beings as an enemy type right alongside mutant bugs and street thugs. Even if you dismiss the anecdotal evidence, empirical results bear out hell’s superior popularity to heaven: Searching the Steam store for term “hell” currently returns 74 pages of results, compared to 17 for term “heaven.” GiantBomb’s wiki for categories of games shows 7 pages of results for games with hell as a location, while those featuring heaven return 2 pages.
The question is: Why?
Why is Heaven So Rare and Hell So Common?
Heaven should be an appealing factor for anyone, this environment of complete contentment and security. As a place of deep joy and satisfaction, you’d think presenting that sort of feeling to a player would be a supreme achievement. A desirable one, even. But maybe it’s just too difficult to convey such depth of emotional, spiritual resonance.
There is an easier answer, of course: It’s boring. Heaven is a place that has no challenges nor enemies, no difficulty or conflict. This doesn’t make for a very compelling gaming experience, right? Even as developers continue to explore gaming concepts that don’t center on violence, you can understand why some settings present more excitement than others.
Honestly, I believe heaven may be a more complex, rewarding subject than most would-be designers and developers would think. A more serious examination of the Bible’s conception of heaven might just yield some surprises (not many clouds and harps there, for one thing). Yet, ultimately, as for why it’s avoided as a gaming setting, I think the truth bears a deeper examination than just people thinking it’s dull or misunderstanding heaven altogether.
Why Hell Resonates With Players
If games about hell keep selling enough to make it a viable subject matter, then something about hell must resonate with players. This, of course, despite the fact that the place of eternal death and separation from God should be a horrifying, undesirable prospect. There are scarier, more taboo choices that could be made from a game-design standpoint, but something about hell strikes a remarkable balance of evil-yet-palatable in our hearts and minds.
Consider the demonic multitude of foes in classics like Diablo and Doom, near-endless and unyielding, and what their digital version of hell says to us. When we examine these denizens of the underworld, we see a mostly unorganized mass of screeching monsters vying for power. Through cruel ends and violent means, they enact pain and suffering on those unfortunate enough to travel through. They are a selfish people, single-minded and frenzied, unable to elevate their whole toward any noble end.
Is the human experience so different?
Okay, yes, that might be a bit dramatic. My commute to work is not dotted by fiery obsidian pits, my nostrils are not constantly assaulted by the scent of sulphur, nor would I qualify most people as “screeching monsters.”
However, consider the real-world issues we face.
In 2016, over 2.5 million children died of malnutrition worldwide. We are seeing increased population exposures to flooding and wildfires alike due to climate change while humans are using more resources every year than nature can renew. Did you know that only ten countries are currently at peace, with the rest at war or otherwise in violent conflict? If you live in America you may be concerned about growing income inequality, or the fact that our President was hesitant to condemn white supremacists, or about how our nation’s highest court cannot undergo transition without making many women relive past trauma.
Put simply: Things can seem bleak. Social media can compound this sensation. So maybe heaven is rare in our video games because the concept of a place of perfect peace and joy sounds like an alien concept, so foreign as to be unrelatable or even laughable. We cannot imagine, much less design/program/draw, a place where there are no more tears and no more pain, a place where there is no sun because its light is cast directly by the glory of a loving God.
As opposed to hell, which almost … sounds like home.