The evolution of heaven and hell in gaming

Thrill Kill (1997/cancelled)

Perhaps one of the most notorious games of all time, Thrill Kill was to be a four-player fighting free-for-all among damned souls of the dead, fighting for a chance to return to life as a gift from a demonic goddess of Hell. Sound familiar? Yep, it’s the same basic concept as Fight for Life, but Thrill Kill went to extremes the former wouldn’t even think to touch. Besides the much-ballyhooed four-player combat, Thrill Kill featured some of the most vile, depraved characters to ever grace fighting games combined with ultra-violence and even some sexualized sadism (that had to be toned down at the ESRB’s request to avoid an AO rating).

For a game set in Hell, however, Thrill Kill is a bit different than what you’d expect. Rather than scorched earth and volcanic fire, Hell in Thrill Kill resembles the modern world, only twisted and tattered with blood, graffiti, and other unpleasant imagery. Factories, jail cells, back alleys, even an asylum with padded walls were all present for you to fight to the bloody end in.

Most of us know the story by now: The game was set to be published by Virgin Interactive, who, shortly before release, were bought out by Electronic Arts. EA took one look into Thrill Kill’s abyss and ran away screaming, cancelling the now-finished product with the explanation that they didn’t want to unleash “such a senselessly violent game” upon the public and refusing to license it to anyone else. That didn’t stop near-complete copies of the game’s code from being leaked onto the web and played by the curious, however. This year, EA released the exceptionally grotesque and violent Dante’s Inferno. Times have certainly changed.

Disgaea (2003)

Disgaea’s a strategy/RPG that’s all about Hell. Yes, it’s called the Netherworld, but its inspiration is obvious – it’s populated by devious, scheming demons and serves as a place of torment for the souls of sinners. There’s not much sulfur and searing flame compared to other representations, but considering that the Netherworld’s strongest demons are all warring with each other for the chance to be King of the Hell Hill, it’s not a particularly pleasant place, either. Which is why Prince Laharl and his army has to step on in and show everyone who’s boss.

There’s a heavenly counterpart to the Netherworld, too – Celestia, where angels live. Both lands have “Prinnies” – souls of dead humans that have reincarnated into the form of peg-legged stuffed penguins. We don’t know much about the Prinnies that live in Celestia’s luxury, though – we’re mostly familiar with the souls of the damned in the Netherworld that talk like brain-damaged surfers, explode when thrown, and are forced into hard labor by their demonic overlords.

During the story, young angel Flonne is sent to the Netherworld from Celestia on an assassination mission – and somehow winds up in Laharl’s demon army in the process. Flonne discovers that maybe Celestia’s anti-demon propaganda isn’t entirely true, and that Celestia isn’t the peaceful paradise it might look like, either – someone’s scheming behind the scenes. Eventually things blow up into an all-out war between the Netherworld, Celestia, and Earth. Depending on the player’s actions over the course of the game, one of several endings determining the fate of the realms is possible. But things won’t stay sane for too long - there are numerous worlds with their own little Netherworlds and Celestias throughout the universe that the Disgaea sequels and other NIS games take place in.

Painkiller (2004)

Dying early sucks, but perhaps what sucks even more is having your wife go to heaven while you’re stuck in Purgatory for God only knows how long. That’s the situation poor Daniel, the hero of Painkiller, is trapped in. When he’s offered escape from purgatory (“purification”) in exchange for eliminating the four generals of Lucifer’s army and prematurely ending a looming war between Heaven and Hell, Daniel leaps at the opportunity. The story takes further twists and turns as Daniel continues his assassination mission from Purgatory into Hell, introducing a cast of characters that even includes one particularly famous Biblical matriarch in a very surprising role.

Painkiller is an old-school styled FPS in the vein of the original Doom and Quake. The game itself is great, but one of the most striking things about it is the visuals and environments associated with Purgatory and Hell. Purgatory’s dark, moody environments and gothic architecture set a genuinely somber mood that emphasizes Daniel’s desperation to escape. You can’t spend too much time looking at the environments, though – you’ve got hellspawn to blast through, including encounters with several terrifyingly huge demons that tower over the landscape and loom several stories over Daniel. As the game progresses, the landscape begins to change, and you’ll start encountering different sorts of levels from various stage in humanity’s history (including some more modern backdrops), until you finally reach Hell itself.

Painkiller’s expansion/sequel, Battle out of Hell, lives up to its name by continuing the story from Lucifer’s fall and providing the player with even more underworldly environments to blast their way through. There’s also a third game, Painkiller: Overdose, that stars a half-demon/half-angel anti-hero named Belial rampaging against from both Heaven and Hell that have wronged him, but the less said about that one the better. (Don’t play the awful Painkiller: Resurrection spinoff, either.)

Dante's Inferno (2010)

EA and Visceral Games’ revisionist take on the literary classic is entirely about taking players on a trip through Hell.  It doesn’t pull any punches in its portrayal, either – you’ll go through all 9 of the Circles of Hell and fight off some of the most hideous representations of the Seven Deadly Sins ever rendered, all in a quest to free your beloved from the Big L himself.  Along the way, you’ll use a combination of holy and unholy powers and choose to absolve or punish numerous famous sinners from history.

Obviously, there are significant changes to the original story here. Rather than the poem’s middle-aged diplomat, Dante is a Crusader who has committed numerous war atrocities and goes into the maw of Hell to rescue his beloved. He also manages to kill off Death and take his scythe, which he puts to good use tearing apart everything in his path as he makes his way down to Lucifer’s frozen prison. Sections that are fairly short in the text, like the circles of hell devoted to Gluttony and Lust, are expanded into lengthy levels in the game. We get the feeling that Aligheri didn’t imagine Dante fighting a giant topless Cleopatra boss that shoots winged demon babies out of her nipples, either, but that’s artistic license for you.

For all the (somewhat excruciating) detail put into the designs of the environments and enemies, reviews for Dante’s Inferno have generally been mixed, citing rather generic hack-n-slash style action gameplay. The game seems to have sold pretty well, though, and the ending leaves room for a future trip through Purgatory. Knowing EA’s penchant for franchising their properties, we’d say that’s a journey that’s likely to occur to in the future.

Sep 29, 2010

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  • zymn - October 2, 2010 11:54 p.m.

    i don't care if Grim Fandango isn't set in Heaven or Hell. he's a fucking grim reaper. that counts. i don't think a essay is required to explain the game. it's just good.
  • Grimmjow - October 1, 2010 1:35 a.m.

    um...where's God of War on this? i know he goes to Hades in those games, but its basically the same thing, just from the perspective of a different belief
  • madeline3173 - September 30, 2010 9:37 p.m.

    @redrum253 Good question! I think Oblivion is a good example of a recent interpretation. Oh well, still a great article!
  • metroid2099400 - September 30, 2010 2:37 p.m.

    When I saw this article, I was really hoping that Super Paper Mario would get a spot. Oh well, it's a good list anyway!
  • philipshaw - September 30, 2010 1:10 p.m.

    Great article, seems like a lot of effort went into it. Fight for Life does look like the worst fighting game ever
  • Darkhawk - September 30, 2010 12:47 p.m.

    @derrderr: You beat me to it. Jet Moto 2 FTW!
  • cj12297 - September 30, 2010 10:44 a.m.

    no god of war
  • KidKatana - September 30, 2010 9:45 a.m.

    I bigged up its water level last week, so it would be remiss of me not to mention Folklore on PS3 again - most of the game is set in some form of the afterlife, including one level based on purgatory and one on hell. Both were interesting and unorthodox depictions of their source material, and had fantastic art direction - much like the rest of the game, really. gets ignored by many, so it's no surprise that it didn't make the cut for this article.
  • papergoon - September 30, 2010 9:26 a.m.

    when i saw the title, i guessed dante's inferno. i mean, not all games get superbowl airtime
  • Zerochantista - September 30, 2010 7:21 a.m.

    @FauxFurry Oh rad, now we're talking about many kinds of interesting afterlife concepts in different belief systems/mythologies. I'm fascinated by that stuff, and that's actually part of the reason I was inspired to write this - I was researching traditional Japanese concepts of the afterlife to get a better understanding of Muramasa's endings and stumbled across info on Yokai Dochuuki, and things blossomed from there. Who says games don't motivate you to learn?
  • slimjim441 - September 30, 2010 4:04 a.m.

    Dr. Wily's castle is the first representation of Hell in any game.
  • redrum253 - September 30, 2010 3:11 a.m.

    what about oblivion?
  • GamesRadarMikelReparaz - September 30, 2010 1:16 a.m.

    Aw, I was kind of hoping to see Cosmology of Kyoto on here somewhere. It's the only game Roger Ebert ever liked!
  • FauxFurry - September 30, 2010 1:03 a.m.

    @rockstarsean-Grim Fandango not only isn't set in Heaven or Hell, it's an entirely separate religious concept that has no overlap with the Punishment versus Reward system. Things such as redemption and enlightenment have no place in either Paradise or "The Other Place", just eternal suffering or joy (in theory, as Heavens such as Celestia, show). The Hill of Elysium and Tartarus from Greek mythology and Greek Mythology themed games such as God of War or Rygar are a better fit. Obviously, an examination of Guilty Gear isn't necessary as it didn't go much deeper into these concepts other than the announcer shouting out "Heaven or Hell?! Fight!" before every match. A better Fighting Game example would be SNK versus Capcom:Chaos in the true final boss encounters between Athena in Heaven and Firebrand in Hell. The depictions of Takamagahara and Jigoku in Murumasa: the Demon Blade might count even if they are Shintoist/Japanese Buddhist equivalents of Heaven and Hell.
  • kyle94 - September 30, 2010 12:29 a.m.

    @Smeggs: Technically Purgatory is a part of Limbo.
  • madeline3173 - September 30, 2010 12:21 a.m.

    Interesting article.... haven't played Dante's Inferno. Looks cool, but is far too gruesome and grim for me :/ Dead Rising and Bioshock are about as creepy as I go, lol.
  • Smeggs - September 30, 2010 12:19 a.m.

    Purgatory is the place where the peopel who died mostly good are purified before going to heaven. It's Limbo where you're thrown in before Lucifer decides what circle of hell you belong in.
  • Cyberninja - September 29, 2010 11:01 p.m.

    both types of prinnes are the same the only difference is the ones from heaven get payed well
  • Vulneratus - September 29, 2010 9:57 p.m.

    What about current 3rd-party-developed games for the Wii or DS?? I think they're a pretty accurate representation of gaming hell...
  • oneshotfinch - September 29, 2010 9:53 p.m.

    I liked that level in The Simpsons 07 that was set in heaven. A nice last level.

Showing 1-20 of 29 comments

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