Death: it’s the one thing we all have in common. It’s also really, really scary. Throughout the course of history we humans have devised all kinds of afterlives to explain where people go once they’ve shed the mortal coil.
Fantastical, threatening and often oddly bureaucratic, these underworlds/overworlds/netherworlds make great fodder for video games. The libraries of steam are packed with depictions of classic fire-and-brimstone hell, but there’s more to death then machine-gunning demons.
Come, let us embark on a global tour of everything the undiscovered country has to offer…
Gamifying Hell: Your Guide to the Digital Afterlife
You know it, you love it. Grim Fandango was a commercial bomb back in 1998, but has since undergone a well-deserved rehabilitation, and remains one of the best games about death to ever hit the small screen.
In pre-colonial Mexico — so, we’re taking Aztecs here — departed souls embarked on a perilous four year journey across an underworld known as Mictlán, passing through nine different lands ranging from the genteel (“the place where hills are found”) to the terrifying (“the place where hearts are devoured”) — reimagined in Grim Fandango as a series of forests, factories and dead-end towns.
The Aztec rules feel a touch arbitrary by today’s standards (why do you get a free pass if you’re struck by lightning?) which may explain why Schafer and the gang introduced a moral element, where do-gooders get an express ticket straight to the end.
Combine that with Mayan art deco and a 50’s film noir aesthetic, and buddy, you’ve got a modern classic.
Europe (Catholic Hell)
Done anything wrong recently? Feeling guilty, perhaps? No? Wrong answer. According to Medieval Catholicism, you can always find something to feel bad about, even if it’s just your own existence. Unrepentant sinners get sent to what’s probably the worst place on this list, mainly because it’s so easy to get there: Catholic Hell.
At the height of the Church’s power in Europe it was illegal for commoners to read the Bible, so they used graphic depictions of suffering to keep people in line — images that make up the backbone of Blasphemous (2019). Devs at the Game Kitchen used Catholic imagery littered around the Spanish city of Saville as inspiration for their own inescapable nightmare.
For an even more over-the-top iteration, check out 2010 hack-n-slasher Dante’s Inferno, loosely based on the 14th century poem of the same name. Dante’s poem describes in visceral detail the eternal torments waiting for human sinners in the nine concentric circles of Hell. Naturally, the game adaptation is rich with gore, nudity, and just about everything that would make Helen Lovejoy wail think of the children! It’s great fun.
Ancient Greece (Hades)
You can’t talk about the Underworld without mentioning the Ghost of Sparta. Like everything else in Greek mythology, the realm of Hades in God of War is little more than a set of pins for our rage-powered bowling ball to smash through.
Kratos has murdered his way out of all the major sightseeing spots — from the depths of Tartarus right up to the Elysium fields — and killed both the King and the Queen of Hell in brutal hand-to-hand combat. Eternal rest, this aint.
If you want a less gloomy view of the Underworld, try this year’s Hades. Plucky Prince Zagreus goes on a top to bottom tour of the Land of the Dead and has magic school bus style run-ins (Wow! It’s Sisyphus!) with famous tortured souls.
Interestingly, despite the wild tonal differences, Hades and God of War are both a kind of overblown kitchen-sink melodrama; toxic family dynamics and long-held secrets boiling over with huge bombastic consequences. Like the Ancient Greeks themselves, we can’t get enough of dysfunctional deities.
The last decade has seen a revival of interest in Norse mythology. But while the Gods themselves get a lot of screen time, surprisingly little attention has been paid to the Nordic afterlife. Lack of information may be to blame. Aggressive rune-scrubbing by those meddling Christian missionaries has left us with a patchwork understanding of Nordic superstitions, outside of the knowledge that dead warriors get to play beer pong in Valhalla for all time.
One interpretation is Ellada Games’ Niffelheim. This 2018 survival RPG casts the player as a Viking warrior trapped in the titular icelocked realm. The goal is to survive the brutal wilderness long enough to escape to Valhalla.
Of course, not every Norseman could expect a warrior’s reward. Most ended up somewhere like Helheim – an eerie limbo where Kratos confronts his past in God of War 2018, and the setting of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.
Ninja Theory renders Hel as a bewildering Scandinavian dreamscape, mesmerizing and often hostile, morphing depending on the mental state of the protagonist. Never has the connection between imagined Underworlds and human neuroses been clearer than in these jaunts to Helheim.
Central Asia (Naraka/Bardo)
Ah, Buddhism. The religion of inner peace. Right?
I guess the team behind Asura’s Wrath didn’t get the memo. This Buddhist beat-em-up is all about rage, rage, rage, as our hero fights planet-sized deities in overblown mythological showdowns. Asura’s journey is inspired by legendary demi-gods called ‘Ashura’, who were evicted from the holy city of Trayastrimsa for bad behavior.
Each time he dies, Asura ends up in Naraka, a torturous purgatory that appears in both Buddhist and Hindu tradition. Naraka is where souls go to burn off bad karma, usually over a few thousand years. This is actually represented with huge time skips in the game, though, like Kratos, Asura won’t rest until he’s wiped out the entire pantheon.
Finally, we have Mandagon, a free pixel platformer set in Bardo, the liminal space Tibetan Buddhists believe exists between life and death, gorgeously rendered by artist Tom Kitchen as a sprawling mountain monastery dissolving upwards into the clouds. It’s a game without danger or conflict, or even that much of a story: all you have to do is climb. The ultimate goal is to keep moving. And what an important goal it is.