God Is My Employee: The Theology of 'Asura’s Wrath'
When members of humankind pray, they pray not out of worship, but because they understand that their help is needed to protect the world.
Asura's WrathPublisher: Capcom
Number of players: 1 player
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3
Release Date: 2012-02-21
Asura’s Wrath is an ambitious action game. It’s told in the style of a Japanese anime show, split up into episodes, even going so far as to include commercial break bumpers at dramatic moments. By the standards of most games, it’s not very interactive. There’s a long cut scene, a few quick-time events within the cut scene, a short fight, and then the cycle repeats. In other words, you’ll spend most of your time watching the game. But that’s okay because Asura’s Wrath has a lot to say. In between (and even included in) the grandiose fight scenes is an uncompromising criticism of religious belief and the entire concept of faith itself.
Asura’s Wrath questions the core reasons behind religious worship. It argues that any religious myth is so malleable that it can’t be taken at face value. Behind every myth is a writer, and that writer can be motivated by any number of things. The game presents us with several fake divine beings that are dishonest, manipulative, violent, and greedy, but then it presents us with a true divine being who is even worse.
The Fake Gods
The game opens with a massive space battle. Starships hover around the planet, outnumbering the stars themselves, waiting for their enemy to appear. Their enemy is a species of monster called the Gohma, who appear in various forms ranging from the somewhat familiar (giant monkeys, turtles, or space-faring fish) to the utterly bizarre (some Gohma just look like flying pyramids). When the battle begins, the human starships are wiped out with ease, but then the Eight Guardian Generals appears and turn the tide of war. They’re demigods, and they fly around without spacesuits punching, cutting, and kicking the Gohma in an exuberant and absurd show of force. They’re clearly the most powerful beings in this universe. When the planet sized Mama-Gohma bursts out of the earth, our hero Asura destroys it with a single punch.
Yet for all their power, they’re not actually treated like gods. This prologue goes to great lengths to humanize them and showcase the symbiotic relationship that they have with humanity.
The Generals serve in the Emperor’s army, meaning they work under a human being. They’re not kings. They’re employees -- high ranking employees -- but still subject to the whims and laws set by the Emperor that is above them in station. This power structure makes literal their moral goal of saving the world. They don’t fight the Gohma out of pride. They fight because they understand that these monsters are a destructive force. The eight demigods are protectors, and like all protectors, they’re subject to the desires of those that they protect.
This idea is further made literal with the introduction of the concept of prayer in the game. A high priestess guides the world in mass prayer, which gives the demigods their power. Without prayer, the demigods are useless. They’re as dependent on humanity as humanity is dependent on them. It’s a system of checks and balances that forces the two groups to exist on an equal footing.
What’s most interesting about this relationship is that there’s no mention of a creator. The demigods didn’t create humans, so they don’t feel the need to be worshiped by humans, and humans don’t feel the need to worship them. When humanity prays, they pray because they understand that their help is needed to protect the world, not out of worship. By removing the creator/creation aspect from this relationship, it humanizes the demigods to such a degree that makes them seem less like divine beings and more like special humans -- like superheroes, people who just so happen to have special powers and decide to use those special powers to defend the rest of the world from a special evil.
The game further humanizes them by briefly showing what their culture looks like outside of war. Asura is married. His daughter is the high priestess that leads the mass prayer. His wife is the sister of another demigod. It’s an insular culture but one that is not unlike our own. They love and argue and marry and tease like any normal human even though they live apart from humanity like the gods on Mount Olympus (except that they live on a space station, a mountain would be entirely too normal for Asura’s Wrath).
This symbiotic system doesn’t last. The leader of the demigods decides to revolt against the Emperor because the Emperor isn’t taking the threat of the Gohma seriously. However, rather than just use his tremendous power to take over, he assassinates the Emperor and frames Asura for the murder. He then steps into the power vacuum as the new Emperor.
This is the definitive moment in the prologue that shows just how weak the demigods actually are. They take control by staging a coup. Despite their super powers, they’re still just cogs in a societal machine, and they can’t break that machine. At most they can only tip the balance of power in their favor. When Asura wakes up from death hundreds of years later, he discovers a world in which society has been redefined in order to justify this imbalance.
Politics Become Religion
These first two episodes emphasize the fallibility of the demigods. Despite their titles, they’re not divine. They’re more human than godlike. During the introduction to episode three, the game tells us the story of Asura that has been fed to humanity: the Eight Guardian Generals protected the world until one, who was “black of heart,” turned against them and killed their emperor. Humanity was sad, and just when all hope seemed lost, the other seven guardian generals appeared to kill the betrayer. “Thenceforth, they became known as the Seven Deities, and they watch over the humans from the heavens.”
In this tale, there is still no mention made of creation, but the demigods cast themselves as saviors, making this a kind of recreation myth. The demigods didn’t create humanity, but they gave us a new lease on life. This turns them into mythical beings deserving of worship, a fact that’s emphasized by the change in their title. They went from being known as Guardian Generals, a flamboyant though purely secular term, to the Seven Deities, an explicitly religious term. They successfully turned politics into religion.
Polytheistic myth often tells stories about the politicking of gods with humans caught up in middle, but in this case, the Seven Deities have created a polytheistic religion with all the politics purposely removed. As the foundational story of a new religion, it’s a religion based around a specifically constructed lie.
This calls into question all religious stories. Godly beings are often described as being something of a nature that is beyond human understanding -- the belief being that we should trust in him/them/her simply because they’re godly beings. Their position of power implies trustworthiness. Asura’s Wrath warns against this kind of thinking, suggesting that any religion that asks us to blindly trust any divine beings could very well be based on elaborate lies designed to give those divine beings power. The Seven Deities take full advantage of this blind belief system, demanding more than just trust and worship. They also demand sacrifice.
Soon after Asura wakes up from death, he sees a town attacked by the Gohma. A demigod army comes to the rescue, kills the Gohma, then demands the souls of all the townsfolk as reparation. The people are only too happy to oblige since they see the demigods as righteous protectors, not a squabbling group of politicians arguing about the best way to harvest prayer. The audience is in a unique position to see past the religious fervor of the people.
At this point, the back story of the first two episodes becomes especially important. Without it, we might mistake this new religion as something brutal but no different than other brutal religions that call or called for similar sacrifice. Religions are often brutal in their morality, but this is different because we know there was once a world in which demigod and human existed equally. There’s nothing moral in this sacrifice, just manipulation. While Greek and Nordic gods were cruel at times, civilizations still prayed to them because they provided something necessary. These demigods don’t provide anything necessary. They save the town from Gohma but then demand the townsfolk sacrifice themselves, rendering that protection null. To make the situation even more despicable, we’ve seen a social system that results in protection without sacrifice and death.
Later in the game, the central demigods are described by their defining characteristics, and these characteristics read like a list of sins: Wrath, Pride, Lust, Sloth, Greed, Violence, Vanity, and Melancholy. Humanity now worships these beings because they think it is necessary, but the game suggests that we’re actually worshiping sin due to an ignorance of the truth.
The True God
Up to its end, Asura’s Wrath criticizes the dogmatic belief that divine beings are worthy of worship simply because they’re divine. The demigods are merely playing politics. To give them any credit beyond that is folly. However, the game says this without touching upon the most important story of any religious belief: the creation of life. That criticism is saved for the extra episodes that are sold separately as downloadable content.
The act of separating the “real” ending from the rest of the game is a blatant money grab, but it’s a money grab that speaks to the nature of the revelation within that content. We learn the truth of the universe. Everything that happened was guided by the True God, the one who created all life on the planet -- human, demigod, and Gohma. We learn that the Gohma were created as a test. Whoever could kill the ultimate Gohma monster that spawned all the others would then be promoted to godhood. He or she would become the heir to the planet, able to remake it as they see fit and guide its new civilizations.
This revelation is reserved only for Asura since he’s the only character that has proven himself worthy of this information, according to the True God. By hiding this revelation behind a pay wall, Capcom is essentially doing the same to the player base, acting as the judgmental king that only gives the truth to those who it deems worthy (in this case, worthiness is determined by $15 rather than a fight to the death with a giant monster). For this reason, it’s quite cathartic when Asura starts beating up the True God.
But aside from the cathartic "meta" quality of the ending, it’s also interesting because it changes the nature of the game’s religion from a clear polytheistic religion to a twisted monotheistic religion. It presents us with a godly hierarchy that consists of two "monotheistic" gods, and neither are very respectable.
The “True” God is portrayed as apathetic. He created all forms of life (and it’s implied that he’s done this before on other planets as well), but he doesn’t want to watch over his creation. Instead he sets up a game in which his creations fight it out amongs themselves, unknowingly, to determine which of them gets to remake the world. This is a disturbing twist on the creation myth because creation myths always start with good intentions: either an evil is destroyed and through that righteous destruction life is born or life is simply created for the benefit of being created. There’s nothing inherently good about the creation of life in Asura’s Wrath. We were born to fight in a deathmatch. Our creator doesn’t care about us and would rather delegate ruling responsibly to someone else.
From a lowly human’s point of view, the game questions the importance of a god that doesn’t make himself known. The True God praises Asura multiple times for completing the trail, and every time he offers his praise, he acts as if it’s an incredible compliment. From his point of view, it is an incredible compliment: God offering his praise to his creation. But Asura always rejects this praise, usually violently, because from his point of view, it is meaningless praise from a stranger who just shows up out of nowhere. The game asks: does praise from God matter if you don’t know who he is? In this case, the True God’s indifference towards man is mirrored by Asura’s indifference towards the True God.
The lesser god, the one who’s promoted into a position of godhood, would be seen as a true monotheistic god by any life he creates, but we know this to be just another lie. Asura is not a creator of life, nor will he ever be one, which calls into question the entire audition process for godhood. Over the course of the game we come to know Asura well, and while he does have a humble side, he’s mostly defined by his wrath, his sin. This is the source of his strength. It’s specifically his sinful anger that allowed him to win the deathmatch. His position is not indicative of his morality. His promotion doesn’t make him worthy of worship or even respect.
This is the moral that Asura’s Wrath tries to drive him towards in every episode: power does not equal morality. The Seven Deities turned a symbiotic relationship into a sacrificial relationship, the demigod who literally goes insane with rage is deemed worthy of ruling over all life on this world, and the divine being behind it all can’t wait to finish this game and move on to the next planet. They’re all powerful, but none of them are respectable.