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Religion And Games With El Shaddai's Takeyasu Sawaki

The character designer turned director talks about making El Shaddai, and why Japanese designers are more willing to touch religion than everyone else.

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When the dust settles on 2011, it’s unlikely many will be arguing El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron was the best playing game this year, but it’ll be easy to make the case that it was one of the most striking. Every screen looks like a painting.

Of course, El Shaddai was overseen by acclaimed Okami and Devil May Cry character designer Takeyasu Sawaki.

“El Shaddai came about in a very interesting way,” said Sawaki in a recent email exchange. “Members of UTV Ignition’s London office first came up with the idea to create an action game based on the Book of Enoch, but they wanted the game to be developed in Japan.”

Like El Shaddai, Okami had an incredibly distinct look, one that made it instantly identifiable.
Like El Shaddai, Okami had an incredibly distinct look, one that made it instantly identifiable.

Ignition approached Sawaki about the idea, and asked him to become involved. Intrigued by the concept, he proposed being the project director--a first for him. El Shaddai started active development in 2007, and was released on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 this past September.

Sure, El Shaddai hasn’t made the same impact as either Okami or Devil May Cry, but it’s received near universal acclaim for its looks, which are trippy, strange and distracting in the best way possible.

“When the process first started and I was reading the Book of Enoch, I actually thought the texts were boring!” he told me. “But creating the Tower of Babel level structure allowed for endless possibilities for design and variety. Since the game launched we have seen people write about how each level looks like it could have come from a different game--which is what we wanted to achieve.”

Its meaning is debated, but El Shaddai is often literally translated as “God Almighty.” And while El Shaddai is based upon the biblical apocrypha The Book of Enoch, the adaptation plays fast and loose with the events depicted within.

In the game, one of the main characters, Lucifel, is often found talking to God on his cell phone. El Shaddai continues a long tradition of Japanese video games, especially true regarding RPGs, having little problem layering religion into the narrative.

We don't really see in the West, but even in this case, the game isn’t meant to be especially religious, as Sawaki isn’t.

“I have no specific religion, but I always strongly feel that this world is not everything,” he said. “I believe in a ‘voice inside’ and ‘intuition.’ In Japan, we often view religion as more of a spectrum of beliefs and philosophies, but I was very conscious about the themes I was working with throughout the El Shaddai’s development.”

Xenogears' story is crazy, but you can't accuse the game of being afraid of touchy subjects.
Xenogears' story is crazy, but you can't accuse the game of being afraid of touchy subjects.

Sawaki figures that’s why many Western games avoid religion.

“People in Japan typically describe themselves as following multiple belief systems and philosophies,” he continued, “whereas other regions of the world more strictly adhere to one particular religion. I believe this causes sensitivities on the topic of religion that does not happen here in Japan. That may explain why it is more ‘taboo’ in Western cultures than in Japan.”

You can’t make a game with religious themes without having given the subject some serious thought, however, and Sawaki admitted the subject has given him some pause, influencing the game’s look.

“Sometimes in my dreams I see what I think to be the afterlife,” he said. “Dreams I have had inspired some of the looks in El Shaddai.”

The game was designed with some narrative gaps that Sawaki is currently hoping to fill; he’s writing a novel that will expand on some of the side stories mentioned in the game. This could also feed into “further brand extensions,” but Sawaki was unwilling to talk about what else he was working on.

He also waived away the notion that El Shaddai’s sometimes heavier themes were a reflection of his own aging process.

“I will say that like Enoch, we are all faced with difficult choices in our lives and we want to believe we made the right ones,” he said. “That is human nature. However, the reality is someone like Lucifel,’ who views with third person’s eyes, realizes better than you.”

If you're tired of yet another military shooter, you can't get more different than El Shaddai. Seek it out.

Patrick Klepek on Google+