Jesus (and Feena and Reah), Friend(s) of Sinners

OR: Ancient Land of Ys-rael

I did not grow up on the Ys series. I did, however, grow up listening to Contemporary Christian Music (CCM). I can’t stand 99% of what’s being produced today, though I still have a soft spot in my heart for ’90s and early-early ’00s CCM (before the “let’s only do worship music” fad went full-swing).

However, I can stomach the occasional Casting Crowns song, because they deal well with subjects near and dear to my heart. Even with that Mac Powell-ish voice, even with a lingering subtext that the right slogans will save us, they still take on issues of grace vs. works, various hypocrisies within the American Christian church and culture, etc. They’re the closest thing to honest lyrics I’ve seen since every Five Iron Frenzy song ever. Take, for example, “Jesus, Friend of Sinners” —

Jesus, friend of sinners, we have strayed so far away
We cut down people in your name but the sword was never ours to swing
Jesus, friend of sinners, the truth’s become so hard to see
The world is on their way to You but they’re tripping over me
Always looking around but never looking up I’m so double minded
A plank eyed saint with dirty hands and a heart divided

Oh Jesus, friend of sinners
Open our eyes to the world at the end of our pointing fingers
Let our hearts be led by mercy
Help us reach with open hearts and open doors
Oh Jesus, friend of sinners, break our hearts for what breaks yours

Jesus, friend of sinners, the one who’s writing in the sand
Made the righteous turn away and the stones fall from their hands
Help us to remember we are all the least of these
Let the memory of Your mercy bring Your people to their knees
Nobody knows what we’re for only what we’re against when we judge the wounded
What if we put down our signs crossed over the lines and loved like You did

Oh Jesus, friend of sinners
Open our eyes to world at the end of our pointing fingers
Let our hearts be led by mercy
Help us reach with open hearts and open doors
Oh Jesus, friend of sinners, break our hearts for what breaks yours

You love every lost cause; you reach for the outcast
For the leper and the lame; they’re the reason that You came
Lord I was that lost cause and I was the outcast
But you died for sinners just like me, a grateful leper at Your feet

That, right there, is a pretty good song. Honest, solid lyrics.

Anyway, what does this have to do with Ys? I’ll get there, I promise. But first, I have to quickly introduce some important ideas and concepts into the discussion, or it won’t make sense.

First: fitting the Christian (meta)narrative into video games is difficult, if not impossible. At the very least, it doesn’t jive with fantasy RPGs, anything with swinging swords and slaying demons, or even things with solving complex puzzles. If you’re in the business of epic world-saving, you can’t do it very well in the Christian framework. Why? Because everything of ultimate importance that needs to be accomplished, has already been accomplished by Christ on the cross. I’m not saying “there’s nothing for humanity left to do,” but something that fits into a cool story about a hero saving the day? Not really. Heck, even Left Behind’s authors had to recognize that, and it was working with shifty eschatology from the start. And, in my opinion, they’re also terrible books that engender even more terrible ideas (see the Left Behind RTS where you gun down “secularists” and “rock musicians”).

Second: among other religions that claim monotheism, Christianity is in a strange place. We Christians call the trinity “a mystery.” But Jews and Muslims alike look at the trinity and say “that’s just some weird variant of polytheism.” But here’s the idea: three distinct entities that are, simultaneously, one entity. “The godhead.” Father, Son, Holy Spirit. The really important theological distinction about this is that it tosses out the window the following explanation for why God would bother making the universe, or any other creatures with sentience/agency: “God was lonely.”

The Christian view of the divine says that God was, before the existence of anything else, already in a perfect harmonious relationship: Father Son and Holy Spirit talked and knew and experienced one another fully. There’s also the whole matter of “other” supernatural beings (angels, fallen angels, etc) … keep that in mind as well. Because now I’m going to talk about Ys.

The mythology of Ys, like many JRPGs, is a variant on Judeo-Christian Genesis. Some of this was determined from the beginning (1986), much of it was retconned in the last decade.

But here’s how it goes: God creates everything. God sees humans acting like idiots. God calls for the Noah/flood solution (hint: “Ys VI: The Ark of Napishtim” is a reference to Utnapishtim, the Noah figure in the Epic of Gilgamesh). God’s angels beg that this not happen, and are as such cast out. Two of said angels are Feena and Reah, who become the “goddesses” of Ys. Much of the others are the beings known through the rest of the series as “darklings.”

(Ys fans, feel free to correct me on this, but having played every English-language game in the series to date, this is what I have so far.)

So what’s important here? The civilization of Ys is brought about through the power of fallen angels who care for humanity. They are non-omni. These types of deity make for the more interesting stories, as there’s plenty at risk. This quote, from the third prologue for Ys Origin, summarizes a lot:

They use the power of an artifact called the Black Pearl (also known as the MacGuffin of ultimate power in this man’s mind). It’s the power used to bring prosperity to the people of Ys; it also attracts the darklings and taints the people with greed. That is the power used to send Ys into the sky, making it a floating continent, leading to the conflict in Ys Origin.

For Feena and Reah, their choice to bring prosperity to this one bit of land and its people among the entire world is akin to having a “chosen people.” Before Judaism became categorized as a world religion, it looked a heck of a lot like a tribal religion. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was vying for the heart and souls of many, but the starting point (quick, turn to Genesis 12!) is the people of Israel. And for Feena and Reah, it’s … the people of Ys-rael?! (Editor’s note: I don’t endorse the use of horrible puns, but this one was so horrific that it was an exception.)

Again, there’s a key difference in the construction of the Ys universe and the Judeo-Christian worldview. It only allows for two views of God. For the first, man is still subject to the wrath of the true creator God. Galbalan, the final boss in Ys III, represents this wrath, sent to wreak havoc according to the will of the divine. For the second, the true creator God is apathetic, and man is left to fend for himself among a host of powerful-but-not-omnipotent, wise-but-not-omniscient, deities.

And when Feena and Reah (spoiler) seal away the power of the Black Pearl in Ys Origin, and they lose their wings (which eventually grow back), they do literally depart and their power is lost to the people. This sort of benevolent but not powerful (enough) deity is quite common in JRPGs, especially for female deities. It makes for endings and epilogues that sound a lot like modern deism: “God made this, but let’s move on, it’s up to man to forge a path forward.” Outside of Ys, see the LUNAR franchise as another great example. Heck, another Game Arts studio game (Grandia) does much the same thing.

I’ll say it again: the good, omniscient/omnipresent/omnibenevolent God of Judeo-Christianity can almost never fit within the realm of epic fantasy RPGs because that leaves the player with too little to do that would feel satisfying. The myth needs to be changed so that good and evil are at odds and the stakes are high, and YOUR actions as a mortal hero make the difference. It makes for a cool story and a nice feeling, but certainly doesn’t present reality.

Feena and Reah (esp as depicted in Ys Origin and the I&II Chronicles PSP games) remind me of a “buddy Christ” Jesus, but without the tongue-and-cheekness that goes with that term (Editor’s note: Insert “Jesus is my boyfriend” CCM joke here). It’s an intimate portrait, something to which you can relate and drawn close –  excellent work on Falcom’s part. They are beings that make a sacrifice: “my wings are gone and I am so free; nothing to weigh me down.” And we know that sacrifice is a key theme in — which religion was that? — oh right, pretty much all of them. And yes, there were “Christ figures” long before Jesus Christ walked the earth in different stories, and there were even the Roman & Eastern mystery cults that would focus on a divine being who took the suffering meant for mankind. In those stories, that being would tend to disappear. For Feena and Reah, they go dormant for awhile before they have to yet again seal the power of the Black Pearl (a manifestation of mankind’s “sins” …?). In the Christian story, Jesus wins: fully divine and fully human at the same time, He takes the pain and the wrath and comes out resurrected, re-alive.

If there is any Japanese game in recent memory that dared suggest we can have our cake and eat it too, I look to Final Fantasy X and X-2. Hey, call me crazy. And yes, I know there’s no Christ figure there. But that scene at the climax of FFX’s story, when Yuna says she refuses to fall into the cycle of sacrifice and hope for another summoner to do the same thing over and over and find a way to break “the cycle of Sin” … well, that sounds like what happens in the Gospels to me. And they did it with divine assistance (the Fayth). AND the one person who was lost as a result, the (literal) dream-man who appeared outside his stable environment, Tidus … get the “true ending” in X-2, and see him re-dreamt into being. See him resurrected.

But Feena and Reah? They’re beautiful, wonderful pictures of divine love, but not so much on the power. They need Yunica Tovah and the Fact brothers in one scenario, and they need Adol and Dogi in another scenario. They are as lost as we are, but it’s a fun adventure (if all goes well) solving the problems of our ancestors and moving forward.

Do you see the differences, the tensions? Okay, good. That’s all I was trying to do.

About Patrick Gann

Patrick Gann is currently in his final year of graduate degree, a Masters in Social Work from Millersville University. He lives with his wife and three children, most of whom enjoy video games, none of whom have Patrick's passion for game music. Patrick still contributes the occasional soundtrack review to RPGFan and OriginalSoundVersion, and also writes sporadically for GameChurch.
  • pushselectmag

    I know exactly what you’re talking about here, try writing a christian fantasy novel and you run into the same problem, “The good, omniscient/omnipresent/omnibenevolent God of Judeo-Christianity can almost never fit within the realm of epic fantasy RPGs because that leaves the player with too little to do that would feel satisfying.”
    A concept i have been reading a bit about is Open Theism, which suggests while God is fully omniscient, He doesn’t know the future exhaustively, leaving people the free will to make choices that impact their relationships with God and others. It’s an especially interesting concept coming from a narrative stand-point. Also, feel free to stop by for similar discussions on philosophy, theology and video games! 🙂

    •  @pushselectmag  I followed you guys on Twitter, but forgot to put you on the blogroll. Updating now; maybe we can have some collaborations.

      • pushselectmag

         @Zachery Oliver  Heck yeah!

    •  @pushselectmag As something of an open theist, I agree that it’s pretty important. Also important is an adventurous perspective of the early church. Plus it doesn’t hurt to invite the Holy Spirit to open the Supernatural up to you so you can experience what he has for you in it. But that’s probably my Charismatic side poking through. 
      As one who is also trying to write a novel of fiction within a Christian worldview, I can say that while i haven’t hit any roadblocks yet, I’m also excited to see how the adventure in Christ is formed through allegorical elements. Aslan for example. I don’t feel like I can just throw Jesus into the story in any traditional way. I think back to The Shack, where the protagonist had to meet God in an unexpected way to make sense of who he really was.
      Anyway, You’re my friend now. But I don’t know who I’m actually talking to. I subscribed to your blog. What’s your name?

    • JordanEkeroth

       @pushselectmag I would love to read an essay from you about video games and open theism. (I’m quite fond of the idea myself).

  • Patrick, this is brilliant and your writing is awesome! I’m really turned off by the theology (and story) in most JRPGs, but you do an excellent job of showing the intersections and divergencies. Love hearing your take on things as they develop, too.
    I think that I might diverge myself, however, from the notion that great Christiological truth is incongruent with a compelling game narrative. But that’s perhaps because of where I’m at in what I’m writing and haven’t ran into any major roadblocks, yet. In the sense of the hero-of-the-world kind of game? I fully agree. But I don’t believe that’s the story that God has called us to. He’s called us to be his emissaries to the world. And I think some games hint at what can be done really well in that avenue (micro-narratives within metanarratives). Also, I think that it’s important to have a victorious eschatology for it all to fit at all. Obviously anything close to the Left Behind series isn’t cutting it (Dartksiders, maybe?). 
    Anyway, I’m looking forward to spending more time hearing from you. Followed your blog and you on Twitter. Thanks again!

  • My guess would be, for those who like this article, that The Legend of Zelda and Theology would also fit the bill:

  • Pingback: After Church: The Holy Spirit and the Trinity - Biblical Perspectives | Theology Gaming()

  • Chris Pickrell

    Ys was named after the myth of ys, a lost city in France similar to atlantis. Paris literally means “like is” and was named after the mythical city, not “ysreal.” Puns are not proof.

  • Chris Pickrell

    Also, Ys I and II have as much to do with Ys III, as New York has to do with Moscow. Other than the name and the main character, they are unrelated. Completely different locations. I believe origin and Ys IV are he only ones related to Esteria (although again, I’m remembering the older versions. Haven’t played memories of celceta, the current canonical story). Demonicus (the final boss’ name in the turbografx version, which is the only one I’ve played) had been around for a while. How could he be God’s wrath if he existed before Ys was saved?

  • Chris Pickrell

    I so recall ark of napishtim was a different region as well. So I don’t see how it relates to I and II.

    It could be argued that the stories are just using recognizable archetypes. Demons vs. Angels. And not at all meant to be allegorical to the judeo Christian faith. All stories fit into 7 categories. Similarities are inevitable.

    • Patrick Gann

      I fail to see how changes in region equals a change in the in-game reality of the worldview. And if you play Ys Origin and Ys VI again, you’ll see exactly where and how they are connected (hint: Kishgal).

      This may be speculation on my part, but I would very much think that Feena/Reah knew all about the weather-controlling ark that had the ability to cleanse the world.

      Re: Ys III, I didn’t play it in its original form, so maybe Falcom is retconning for the sake of continuity. But you should check out this page on Galbalan.

      His being created by the clan of darkness would *suggest* that he’s not an instrument of God … yet Galbalan claims this over himself, as does the human villain of Felghana (the priest, whose name is eluding me presently). So too was Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon a tool for God’s wrath on Israel.

      Finally, puns aren’t proof. Never ever did I argue that. 🙂 Thanks for the background on the Ys / Paris lost city thing, I actually was not aware of that.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and resurrecting the post. 🙂

      • Chris Pickrell

        I was actually googling what happened to Feena and Lair (Reah in the newer versions, again, my background is the TGFX). This came up. I didn’t realize how old it was 😀

        • Patrick Gann

          You’re fortunate to have been exposed to the series in its early days. As a guy experience remake-only material, I do feel like I don’t even understand the nostalgia. Strangely enough, though, my love of game music means I’ve been collecting Falcom soundtracks since 1998, but my very first Falcom game was Ys VI in 2005. 🙂

          • Chris Pickrell

            I can sympathize. I don’t understand how people got into Final Fantasy when I look at the NES versions (7 was my first).

            But I have plenty of OSTs of RPGs as well 😀