El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron
When I was a kid leafing through my Bible one night, I read in Genesis, "The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown."
Well, I thought to myself. That's confusing. Here, wedged in the middle of all the Bible stories I'd grown up with was a verse that sounded like the setup to an incredibly tawdry and potentially blasphemous R-rated action flick. Sons of God? Daughters of men? Hybrid heroes? Whoa. What's that about? And why didn't they tell us more about these Nephilim in Sunday school?
Thirty years later, I still long for a little more explanation. It's such an intriguing passage—that with a little more context … would provide for some riveting storytelling. But, of course, you really can't make up your own stories about the Bible.
Unless you're a gamemaker, that is.
Warning: Theological Bridge Out Ahead
The Book of Enoch—actually mentioned in Jude—expands on the concept of the Nephilim, delving deeply into the stories of the fallen angels who opted to mate with human females sometime before the Flood. The book (accepted as canonical by Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Christians, but by no other major Christian or Jewish sect) was supposedly written by Enoch, an ancestor of Noah who was snatched into heaven while he was still alive.
With his text, Enoch is more of a journalist than an active participant—documenting how angels elected to breed with mortals, how their gigantic offspring started "sinning" with animals, "devoured mankind" and eventually began eating each other. God then sends down archangels to punish the fallen, destroy the Nephilim and prepare Noah for the coming flood.
El Shaddai tells us right up front that it's based on Enoch's account, and that a bevy of religious and cultural experts were consulted in bringing its adventure to life. But that doesn't mean the gamemakers were compelled to stick with even this non-canonical script.
Onscreen, Enoch is more than a passive observer. This time 'round he's God's bounty hunter—tasked by the Almighty to defeat the fallen angels and bring them back to heaven for judgment. He's aided by a very powerful archangel named, tellingly, Lucifel—dressed in hipster black and constantly conversing with God via cellphone. He also gets advice from other angels (in the guise of geese) and a helping hand from God Himself (in the form of flashes of enemy-dispersing bolts of light).
The Nephilim aren't the fearsome giants of the book. Rather, they're cute, desperately unhappy blob-like creatures (sometimes huge, sometimes small) who wander the world looking for love and, in desperation, sometimes eating one another. The fallen angels at first seem to be "just" powerful creatures tempted by what amounts to forbidden love.
But they and their myriad henchmen are indeed infected with darkness—darkness that taints Enoch's weapons and threatens to consume the hero himself. Their nefarious plan for humanity? To push mankind into a form of "evolution," a concept not clearly defined in the game but said to include the elimination of free will.
The game's dreamlike, animé-tinged canvas changes radically from one level to the next, an artsy ethos that actually makes playing pretty challenging. But once you find your virtual footing, the rest of what you encounter is fairly intuitive as you wield a handful of heavenly weapons—all of which need to be "purified" occasionally after thwacking creatures of the dark.
There are some encouraging messages embedded here. The importance of free will is a huge issue, but perhaps themes of sacrifice and redemption are even bigger players. Later in the game, Enoch gives himself up for another, deeply touching a fallen angel. The angel in turn sacrifices himself for Enoch.
But mostly we just get really confusing spiritual tinkering. Themes are mentioned and quickly dropped, motifs embraced and then abandoned. Even the game's title, which includes the terms El Shaddai and Metatron, serves merely to bewilder as neither name is ever mentioned in gameplay.
Consider the "Freemen," folks who reject the fallen angels' evolutionary path. They're fighting on the side of Enoch and, thus, God. Right? Or maybe it's Ishtar and "our leader Sin," as one of them tells us. We also see that Enoch, by fighting the fallen angels and their minions, is able to "purify" them, making imprisonment and judgment unnecessary, as determined by a heavenly counsel of elders. Essentially, Enoch is distributing grace—through well-aimed shots to the solar plexus. And then, in the end, we learn that he has negated the need for the Flood.
Did I mention already the bit about God and Lucifel being all chummy? Maybe you could excuse that by saying the story takes place before he was kicked out of heaven. But I don't trust this game enough to give it that kind of credit.
The game's content is similarly convoluted. While overt sexuality is sparse (hunky Enoch is sometimes stripped down to a pair of jeans during battle, and a female archangel—Gabriel—displays her cleavage), indirectly we can't escape the fact that the woeful Nephilim are products of unholy sexual encounters—some of which, it's suggested, were forced. Blood and gore is largely relegated to an instance of hostile pigs bleeding from their eyeballs, but violence is nevertheless unremitting. There's no foul language, technically, yet we hear the fallen angels insult Enoch repeatedly and demean God.
The result is artsy, beautifully rendered and fiercely captivating. Which is to say that playing it feels, frankly, wrong. Might it be, then, that this is the gaming equivalent of the Nephilim themselves—the ill begotten offspring of spirit and flesh, a grave misunderstanding of God's love for His creation?
The Nephilim devour one another, trying desperately to find hope and meaning in their consumption. I can only pray that gamers won't swallow this game in their own quest for spiritual meaning. It cannot satisfy.