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The Catholic Sensibilities of Shadowrun Returns

"Classic cyberpunk characters were marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body." – Lawrence Person

It has often been observed that Christ did not associate with the rich and powerful, but rather with the downtrodden, the rejected, the disreputable.  This is no small thing to consider, especially in a world where the glitterati continue to dominate popular culture.  Oh sure, the have-nots are often feted, sometimes even by the glittering class itself, but only ever so briefly.   Very quickly they are ushered off the stage, usually when the celebri tire of the spectacle, and are promptly forgotten until the next round of self-hating guilt bubbles to the surface of the rich and powerful's collective psyche.  Alas, such is the way of the world.

Be that as it may, it is clear that Christ saw something in the dispossessed that the rest of the world did not: a hardscrabble power that could and would transform the world.   I believe this was made abundantly clear when Christ told Peter ("Cephas" or "rock") that "upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." According to the great Catholic scholar Fr. Robert Barron, "rock" should be more properly translated as "crag" based on the original Greek.  In other words, Peter was not seen by Christ as merely a polished pebble, but as a rough-edged chunk of solidity that could withstand much because its failings in grace and beauty were what made it so internally strong.

Perhaps it is because I am a Roman Catholic that I have always shared Christ's affinity for the rough and tumble of the world.  Or, perhaps just as likely, it has to do with the fact that my father was in law enforcement.  When I was young, my father would often have former, er, "detainees" spot him on the street and come over to say hi and have a chat.  As a kid I often imagined the real world was similar to the world of television; that law enforcement involved an unceasingly antagonist relationship between the "good guys" and the "bad guys." Such chance encounters disabused me of such a notion.  I quickly realized that there seemed to be a mutual respect for the operators of the other team, one that served to erase any bad feelings.   And, just as importantly, I learned that many of these people were quite interesting in their own right.  Shifty?  Sure.  Troubled?  Some.  But also quite fascinating in their own, self-assured way. And particularly so in the tales they had to tell!

These thoughts all came into my mind recently after completing the magnificent game that is Shadowrun Returns.  As I briefly detailed here, SRR is a wonderfully trippy cyberpunk setting smashed together with some Tolkien-esque fantasy.  But as the game unfolded for me across its 12 or so hours of gameplay, I realized that it was also something more:  it was a very Catholic tale of the flawed outcast seeking redemption.


Indeed, the game begins right in the Catholic trenches.  Unlike a lot of games where the player is some sort of Nietzschean "man of destiny," in Shadowrun Returns  the player is little more than a down on his luck "shadowrunner" (i.e., a petty criminal who specializes in smash and grab thievery, hacking, and general "for hire" mischief-making) living in a squalid apartment, desperate for work.  Employment does conveniently arrive - this is a game, after all - when the player gets a pre-recorded call from former partner in crime, Sam Watts.  It seems that Watts has been murdered (something he anticipated, hence the recording) and wants you to catch his killer.  Not because you were his friend, mind you, but merely because you were one of the few people to treat this very troubled, very drug addicted shadowrunner with any respect.  The player takes the mission - there wouldn't be a game if he didn't! - and a tale soon begins of outcasts helping outcasts; of the forgotten and the dispossessed working together to solve a crime that the rich and powerful care nothing about.

During the course of his investigation, one seemingly right out of some of the great noir movies of the past, the player gets to meet the oddball cast of characters who inhabit the slums of near future Seattle.  All of them prove to be imperfect people living in the shadows, such as prostitutes, petty criminals, drug addicts, and so on, and each is fighting an assortment of personal demons, but none are willing to surrender to the darkness completely.  If necessary, they will fight for the little they have and, yes, even fight for a bit of of justice if given the chance.  It may be a crummy, seamy world, but it is their world.   It may be a screwed up family of shadowrunners, but it is a family nonetheless.  Hence, their willingness to help you solve Watts' murder.

While the above might be vaguely christian in outlook, the game actually gets deep into the Catholic weeds with a number of scenes that involve Sam Watt's sister, Jessica.  Soon into the main story, it becomes clear that the relationship between Sam and Jessica will be the fulcrum of this tale.  The Watts family has a turbulent history, one with a strong religious theme running throughout it.  For example, we soon learn that Sam and Jessica's mother was a "devout Catholic":

Gaming, like pop culture in general, seems to often sneers at religion, particularly Christianity.  To be honest, I understand such sentiments. When I was young I also had little patience for the effort needed to come to grips with the next world when I was still trying to come to grips with this one.  I suspect such youthful impatience is nowadays often displayed as intellectualized derision, a convenient emotional response for ignoring that internal compass that, even at a young age, can still be felt whirring around inside you despite your best efforts to ignore it.  It is for this reason that I was actually startled to come across a direct, laudatory statement about a "devout Catholic" mother who "sacrificed her life" for her kids in a video game.  Clearly, Stephen King didn't write this (Carrie reference).

But it gets better.

We are soon informed that a funeral will be held at "Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament":

This might be a small thing but, again, I was surprised by the direct Catholic reference.  In video games, as with larger culture, if there is a need to reference the name of a christian hospital or even a church, it is usually given some neutered title like "Miracle Hospital" or "Our Lady of Hope."  Didn't expect such a direct Catholic engagement here.

Moving on, the player is soon graveside where this is described:

Again, something small, but important: a Catholic Priest,  i.e., not a generic "minister," offering words "of prayer and solace," and not merely a bland "eulogy." Again, very respectful.

Okay, I hear you.  "Aren't you making a mountain out of a molehill?"  You tell me:

I edited out a spoiler (red)

Ahem.  Pretty clear, that one.  Again, I just find it fascinating to see Catholicism run so strongly in an in-game character.  Jessica Watts is really a multi-dimensional character.   While the player quickly discovers that in her quest for wealth and fame she has left her Catholic roots behind, at the same time it becomes apparent that Jessica is constantly looking wistfully at her Catholic past, particularly when it involves her mother.  That is some interesting internal turmoil that you don't often encounter in video games.

But the clearest Catholic sentiment comes near the end when Sam once again speaks from the grave (***SPOILER ALERT***):

"She's Catholic - so she'll forgive me....I...need her to forgive me."  Wow.  This left me almost speechless and, honestly, nearly brought a tear to my eye for its touching portrayal of the power of forgiveness.

Again, if you don't play a lot of video games, all of this probably seems like much ado about nothing.  But it is actually rather striking to me who, as a life long Roman Catholic gamer, is used to developers either carefully avoiding any direct engagement with a particular religion or, perhaps just as likely, using the opportunity for parody.  Never have I come across a game so complimentary of my faith.  Perhaps this is why I so strongly identified with many of the characters in this game.  They weren't bland, nondescript cardboard cut-outs, but rather very real, very Catholic(-ish?) individuals with whom I could relate.

I could even dig deeper here, too.  As mentioned earlier, the player eventually learns that Jessica Watts (***SPOILER ALERT***) has drifted away from her Catholic roots and has since  embraced a New Age cult, something that results in a lot of trouble for all involved.   Here, I thought the game did a particularly good job of contrasting the halcyon days of Jessica's Catholic youth with her dark present.  She now has it all - money, power, and the respect of the powerful - but she has been reduced to a very haunted, very unhappy woman.  "For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?" seems to be the lesson here. But, again, in keeping with that theme of redemption that seems to run through Shadowrun Returns, even Jessica has a moment of moral clarity and regret when finally confronted with the enormity of her crimes, albeit, the player's response might cut her little slack at that point (for the record, I showed mercy).

I think this is why I so *loved* Shadowrun Returns.  In many ways the core story was a very traditionally Catholic tale of broken individuals (another character by the name of Coyote comes to mind - that is another character worthy of a blog entry) in a fallen world seeking salvation - sometimes confusedly, sometimes clumsily - but always seeking it nonetheless.  This struck a powerful resonance within me, especially after years of playing the part of perfect "heroes" who only seemed to struggle for their own solipsistic ends.  Shadowrun Returns make such action hero characters seem childish and one dimensional by comparison, and instead offers something much more sophisticated and flesh-and-blood real than that.  Interestingly, when I had finally completed the main campaign, it was St. Thomas More's quip that "the times are never so bad that a good man can't live in them" that was bouncing around my head.  The Sixth World might be dark and brutal, but good can still flourish, even if only in the shadows.

I guess this is why I have now found myself eagerly running off to this game's sequel, Dragonfall.  While the tale in Dragonfall is a different, er, beast, and I have yet to come across any open religiosity as in it, I am still being hooked by the fantastic writing and character development (hurrah, more flawed shadowrunners with personal demons to battle!), not to mention the fiendish moral quandaries the game likes to throw in the player's lap.  Of course, there are lots of other games that have attempted to put sticky moral issues into their narrative but, to be frank, I have found most fail at the attempt because their moral quandaries...aren't to anyone with a mature sense of right and wrong.  Not surprisingly, especially in light of Shadowrun Returns, things are not so simple here.  Again, well done!    

 So, with all this in mind, is it any wonder what I have since ran off to back Harebrained Schemes Kickstarter for their newest title, Shadowrun: Hong Kong?

It is a rarity for this cheapskate to willingly part with his money, especially when it comes to funding a yet to be released game, but when it comes to these fellas, please, take my money.  You have earned it, chummers.

Apparently, I am not alone in thinking that:

Shadowrun: Hong Kong -- Kicktraq Mini

Well done.

Addendum:  I am starting to wonder if there is just something uniquely Catholic about the entire Shadowrun setting.  In some ways it reminds me of the overt Roman Catholic sensibilities found in another great game setting: Warhammer 40K (Some brief thoughts here).  I say this because last night I finished reading a great Shadowrun short story called Where the Shadows are Darkest, by Steven Mohan, Jr, in the short story omnibus, Spells & Chrome.  This story concerns a "massive troll" by the name of Abiola Fashola.  While I won't go into the particulars of this story  - but trust me, it is a good one! - I was struck by how Fashola was most clearly a devout Christian:

"He also wore a simple gold cross hidden beneath his long, black beard.  Abiola had great love for the baby Jesus, but he tried not let it show."

I wasn't at all surprised when Fashola's actions soon showed him to quite chivalrous.  Too bad the brutal, near future "Sixth World" doesn't share his values.  Pope Leo XIII once remarked that "Catholics are born for combat."  Apparently this goes for Catholic trolls, too!

Yeah, I definitely think I am starting to find some kindred spirits in the shadows....


  1. Excellent insight. I personally always found that SR (more often than not) seemed to treat the Church with more nuance than many sci-fi settings.

    1. Thank you for the kind comment! Much appreciated! I agree with you, albeit I am only really familiar with the PC game and not the role playing game. I think both Shadowrun and Warhammer 40K speak to Catholics in a very unique way, much as Middle Earth does for Catholic fantasy fans.

      Thanks again for the comment!


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