For Agony, the visage of hell comes in one barbaric flavor: transgression and gore. As you traverse its flesh-ridden corridors in search of the Red Goddess, the Ungodly Matron, you see the abyss: a brothel of horned demons, suffering half-corpses and writhing succubi. Putrid flesh is occasionally spat from the ceiling, while inhumane groans and bestial howls pollute the air. This is what Madmind Studio believes is “the most terrifying vision of hell in the history of gaming”, at least according to its Kickstarter campaign. But what’s lamentable is how this ghastly hell quickly turned out to be a conservative and exploitative affair, its twisted allure decaying among more modern and thoughtful interpretations.
Such scenes aren’t really that revolutionary. Western depictions of hell are often characterized by recurring motifs of lava lakes, impaled bodies and body horror, but Agony chooses to ramp up its revulsion with what the developers see as sexual perversion. Creatures with vaginas for heads strut about like predators on the prowl, while feminine demons are found writhing about in barely contained lust. In the game’s original cut, there’s even a scene where you can rape a succubus—probably one of the game’s many planned “brutal sex scenes” as described in its promotional materials.
If such spectacle are the most repulsive sights the studio can conjure in its vision of hell, then it only reveals their puritanical views on women and sex. That these are more terrifying than the inexhaustible index of terrors known to our minds only paints Agony’s attempts at transgression as shallow and unfrightful.
That said, Agony’s version draws on one of hell’s most prevalent depiction: hellfire and scorching brimstones, with impish devils prodding at screaming souls as they drown in lava. This sight has its roots in medieval literature to Hortus Deliciarum, an encyclopedia that contains theosophical and philosophical content from the 12th century contains an illustration of hell portrayed as a fiery, subterranean pit of endless torment. This is now such a familiar sight in popular culture that it doesn’t quite invoke a sense of dread anymore.
Diablo 2’s River of Flame is one example, and it was never quite as macabre as the dilapidated cathedral in the original game. Instead, tapping into our fear of provoking karmic retributions is hell as multitudes of eternal torture and damnation, with each level more dreadful than the last. It has its origins in the infamous nine circles of hell in Dante’s The Divine Comedy. In the epic poem’s Inferno chapter, each level houses sinners made to suffer punishments fitting their crimes in life—a classic example of poetic justice. The gluttonous, for instance, would be forced to grovel in rancid slush, rained upon them in icy, sludgy storms.
Similarly, hell, as depicted in religion and folklore circles, gets at your soul with more grim and primal terror, evoking a greater sense of existential dread. While less pronounced than barefaced horrors that make us flinch or scream, it’s no less horrifying. According to biblical interpretations, hell is a place of fiery torment from the unhallowed and wicked, but its specific nature is often debated. Some evangelical Christians, for instance, believe that it’s a lake of fire where devils and fallen angels reside.
The Christian afterlife, as interpreted by theologians, gets a tad more metaphysical, defining hell as a “state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God”, like a state of infinite loneliness. Hell in this state may be hard to realize in a video game—a medium so used to visual bombast—but at least within Christianity, it relays the trepidation of emptiness of our souls, the metaphorical rending of our very being.
Taking this a step further is Eastern Orthodox theology, which states that hell and heaven are various dimensions of being in God’s profound, intensifying presence, depending on your spiritual state. Life after death, as experienced by the heretic, can be unspeakably excruciating. “By refusing communion with God, he becomes a predator, condemning himself to a spiritual death more dreadful than the physical death that derives from it,” said author Michel Quenot in his book, The Resurrection and the Icon.
Interpretation of the afterlife differs vividly in Asian mythology, and the very notion of it has both scared and left me in awe ever since my youngest days. Chinese afterlife, for instance, functions rather like a penitentiary. Souls will be judged by King Yan, the ruler of the underworld, who will decree if they would either suffer gruesome—but not eternal—punishment until their sentence is served, or be sent off for reincarnation. Like Dante’s nine circles of hell, the hell in Chinese mythology is made up of 18 levels, which include inventive tortures like endlessly climbing a mountain of knives, to being dismembered and grinded into a bloody pulp. In fact, these are all very much based on Naraka, the Buddhist concept of hell, which originally mentioned a staggering 134 levels of hell. Yet, the conception of the afterlife is more than just fearful to the Chinese; there’s also a tinge of reverence as well, as we take comfort in the sensibility and order of these systems.
In contrast, Agony’s hell is never quite as hideous as it envisioned itself to be, even with mutilated bodies, scornful genitalia demons, and tightly-wound tunnels of flesh and sinew as set dressing. Hell in video games has been a woefully underexplored terrain, not been known for inspiring dread and fear in the manner that religion and folklore have done. Agony’s initial promise to scare us by drawing out the fears from the deepest recesses of our minds was a welcomed one, but its transgressions and horrors merely exist in a vacuum.
With nothing to tether its discomforting sights to other than pure shock value, the carnage and torment taking place soon become shockingly mundane. What is behind the unimaginable horrors of hell? Why is it so feared and abhorrent to our sensibilities? Why are we so afraid of death and dying?
Agony can’t answer any of these, and it honestly doesn’t care as well; all it wants is to shock you with sex, blood, and guts. But alas—it can’t quite manage that either.