[Gamasutra columnist Richard Clark, who writes on the intersection of Christianity and pop culture, examines two instances of crucifixion in recent bestselling games, and the impact they can have on the player. Warning: minor spoilers for Fallout: New Vegas and Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood within.
Every culture has its ways of putting one another to death. Some are more humane than others, but no execution technique is quite as horrifying as the crucifixion.
While most cultures today tend to attempt a “humane” death for those who are deemed to deserve such a penalty, the crucifixion was inflicted on criminals particularly because it was inhumane.
It was known, not just for its incredibly painful and slow nature, but also because of the amount of shame the act brought onto the barely clothed recipient of such a death.
The depiction of this highly-unpleasant cultural practice that Christianity maintains as the centerpiece icon of its religion. And now, this practice is a primary factor in two recent blockbuster video games.
Fallout: New Vegas
In Fallout: New Vegas
, the relevant encounter comes along early in the game, just as we are beginning to discover the nature of the world.
In fact, the crucifixions in New Vegas serve primarily as an indication as to just how totalitarian and excessively cruel Caesar’s legion is as a faction. Until that moment, the various factions in New Vegas seem pedestrian. That all changes when the player makes their way toward that billowing pillar of smoke in the city of Nipton.
Immediately, the members of Caesar’s Legion make their case for such cruel treatment, and their case is primarily a moral one. They claim that those who have been killed or crucified had it coming. In fact, they seek to use the residents of Nipton as a sort of “object lesson” because of the “degenerate” nature of the population.
Because the town was made up of thieves and prostitutes, Caesar’s Legion saw it as perfectly reasonable to make an example of them. Ultimately, though, it becomes clear that Caesar’s Legion aren’t interested in justice. The real motivation for the crucifixions is to strike fear in the hearts of the surrounding factions. They had the desire to conquer, not to maintain social equity.
And really, this is the typical use for crucifixion: fear-mongering. The act lends itself naturally to public display, and doesn’t really make sense as an efficient form of execution. In Fallout: New Vegas
, the player has the chance to experience something unique to both the modern world and the various video games we play: the intentional, shameless display of pure, methodical human cruelty. Even if the cruelty is carried out against criminals, the modern world looks down on their “inhumane” treatment.
Typical video game enemies don’t shy away from such treatment, but they do seem to be either too hurried or lazy to go to the trouble of actual inhumane treatment. After all, the crucifixion takes a lot of deliberate work, and is always premeditated.
You need a specific type of equipment, and you need to be knowledgeable of the proper technique. Hammer the nails into the wrong place, and gravity will simply allow the nails to rip right through, letting the body fall to the ground. It takes several men to not only hold the convicted man to the cross, but to lift it as well.
The interactions we are allowed with those on the cross may seem overly limited at first, but they manage to instill in the observer the perfect reaction to such a circumstance. When we try to interact with those on the crosses, we are told that to attempt to take them down would only prolong their suffering. You don’t have a lot of choices. In a game that’s characterized by constant choice, this lack of agency actually instills in us an accurate amount of helplessness and horror.
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
The crucifixion in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
is framed in an entirely different light. The first, most noteworthy difference is that it is, in fact, not a real crucifixion at all. Instead, it’s merely a part of a passion play, wherein actors reenact the most famous crucifixion of all: the death of Jesus Christ.
In this case, the part of Jesus Christ is played by Pietro Rossi, a prominent actor and, incidentally, the target of an assassination by Micheletto. It’s this secondary designation that actually drives the narrative of this scene which, in fact, doesn’t have much interest in the crucifixion at all.
In general, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
manages to let its predecessor speak for it in regard to its thoughts about organized religion and the “myth” of Jesus Christ. In doing so, it avoids the dreaded fault of preachiness, and the story is vastly improved as a result.
Rather than presenting us with dialogue that sounds remarkably like propaganda (as was often the case in AC2
), the game manages to remain relatively subtle throughout, even when the the circumstance seems to cry out for some sort of blatant acknowledgement of the religious surroundings. After all, what begs for comment more than Jesus himself on the cross?
It’s to the credit of the writers that they refrained from anything more than the story requires, and trusted the reader to make their own inferences, whether consciously or not. Of course, this isn’t to say that an editorial hand wasn’t at work. In fact, it’s the framing of this circumstance that sets up the entire theme of the Assassin’s Creed
In this scene, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the central event of Christianity is portrayed as merely an act, carried out for the benefit of the privileged. Meanwhile, oblivious to those involved in the act, the real struggle for mankind is taking place all around.
As the words of Jesus Christ are spoken (and if you have subtitles turned on, they’re displayed on the bottom on the screen), Ezio glides and crawls through the Colosseum, seeking to accomplish actual change. Quite literally, there is a false struggle featuring a weak, oblivious man, and there is a true struggle with real stakes featuring our protagonist. The scene is so carefully and evenhandedly carried out, that the moment the man playing Jesus asks Ezio who he is seems earned and powerful. Ezio replies: “I’m your savior”.
Grappling With the Spectacle
Both the Assassin’s Creed
series are known for providing the player with an opportunity to explore actual locations in a way that they would be unable to do otherwise. By placing us in existing environments under unique circumstances they allow for an experience that not only entertains and surprises us, but challenges us with iconography that we often only have a distant or abstract relationship with.
As someone who considers Jesus’ death on the cross to be a foundational part of my beliefs and outlook, to be confronted with a concrete representation of that killing device in a digital space was at once surreal, shocking, instructive, and inspiring.
In Fallout: New Vegas
, the crucifixions felt scandalous in their prevalence. Much like overusing an exclamation mark eventually renders the punctuation meaningless, to kill almost all citizens of Nipton in such a way made crucifixion seem rote and pointless.
Still, I found myself wandering up to these individuals one at a time and feeling sympathy for them. I lingered on every one, observed his garments, speculated about his place in his faction, and tried, every time, to take them down from the cross. I looked around for those who might care for these individuals and only found those who care about themselves.
Meanwhile, in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
, as I slowly made my way across the Colosseum I heard Jesus’ words spoken out loud, and read the subtitles on the bottom of the screen. I took a moment to think about what was truly being represented in that play: a man attempting to save the world by dying. And then, I took action myself. I killed those who stood in my way, one by one. By way of force, I executed the plan, and yet the plan faltered.
Unlike in Fallout: New Vegas
, I was able to take this poor man down from the cross and save him from a needless death. As Ezio carried him to a doctor and declared himself the actor’s savior, the game contrasts two possible ways to save the world: the humble, unassuming death and the proud, proactive use of force.
I know of no games in which the player dies by crucifixion, and besides the inherent controversy that would follow, I think there’s a more ludic reason: games thrive off of direct, satisfying action. They require a proactive protagonist that makes his own decisions and thinks primarily of himself in the moment.
There is simply no way that such a hero would find himself in a position to be crucified, lying, hands splayed on a cross. Even if he did, the player would likely just grow bored, restart the level, and try again.
[Richard Clark is the editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, where he often writes about video games. He and his wife live in Louisville, KY. He can be reached at deadyetliving at gmail dot com or followed on twitter (@deadyetliving)