El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron – “Humbling before the Divine”
Some works just plain stick out, protruding from mediocrity and shining light upon darkness; “El Shaddai” is thus, a videogame that yearns for a sense of indescribable beauty which lies beyond comprehension. Its longing can, above all, be explained by an unexpected choice of theme for a videogame – the adaptation of the book of Enoch, one of the apocryphal texts recovered amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls that narrates the fall. Were this a vulgar adaptation, and the base material would be treated as simple marketing fodder, a mercantilist way of influencing consumer’s perception of value and increasing sales by borrowing the ‘ethos’ of a work that sounds culturally relevant and deep (a blatant example of this being “Dante’s Inferno”). But the director, Takeyasu Sawaki, seems to have had an honest intent on recapturing the source material’s feel, namely religious texts’ primal reverence for the supernatural and holy embodied in deeply symbolic poetry. Given his affinity to the visual arts (being art designer by trade), Sawaki translated the sentiment as he knew best, by adorning every graphical form with a modern taste for the beautiful yet cryptic and ambiguous, so as to instill total awe in the face of the alluring ungraspable. So, with the help of Soutarou Hori (art director), they seem to have trawled deep into art in search of references, arriving at an eclectic mix that embodies a bit of everything, from classical sculpture’s marble purity to the fantastic milieu of Japanese anime (admittedly in reference to Miyazaki and his studio) and even toying with abstract Kandinsky-like compositions. As far as videogames go, even a minor but glaring citation to “Metal Gear Solid 2” gets a place in the long line of influences. The relationship that it ends up establishing with players is astounding: travelling through ethereal landscapes that bear almost nill resemblance to naturalist conceptions, you are made to admire a lavish sprawl of breathtaking digital art that evokes a spirit of quiet solemnity that is characteristic of sacred art. The technical quality is as stunning as its aesthetic virtuosity, making of use of the most unexpected graphical effects while avoiding standardized industry techniques; every form seems made anew, as if a painter had sought new brushes that could capture that which was yet to be. For it is quite a revolution – in taste and technique – that hides beneath the game’s plastic surface, one which finds no match save in a few of the more vanguardist experiments of the past – Mizuguchi’s “Rez” often coming to mind.
Where “El Shaddai” falls from grace is when it actually asks players to play it. For ascension to be pure, Sawaki would have had to find some sort of interaction that could capture and further expand the godly expression which the art so powerfully achieved. But unlike in Mizuguchi’s masterpiece, where gameplay strived for pure synesthesic enthrallment, Sawaki seems to have never conceived how interaction could feed into a relationship with the transcending allegorical language. So, whether for lack of creative spark or simple commercial cynicism, he seems to have cowered from such grand design and stuck with the first worldly template he could recover, irrespective of its effect. Thus, the most basic Mario platforming and a rhythmic refrain on Hideki Kamiya combat (Sawaki had worked on both “Devil May Cry” and “Ôkami”) were the pillars for the game that ended up hastily glued on top of the sumptuous painting. The result is not only uninspired from a pure luddite point of view – lacking “Bayonetta’s” absolute brashness and “Mario’s” cheerful joy – as it goes as far as baring players from properly indulging the scenic delights. While this sin plants doubt on what more could be achieved by such vision, it is still a palatable experience that fails to offend the more judgemental critic. Rejoice then we must, at the voyage that does reach its destination and not fret over that which lies out of reach – “El Shaddai” is surely one of the most breathtaking visual spectacles videogames have ever witnessed, a thing of beauty as ever was one, unrivaled in both execution and scope of genius. It is a window into a world that has no bearing on this mundane desert which we call medium, a glimpse of the divine landscape of gods that shines from afar, one which now, as if by miracle, seems nigh.