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- Part 1: “RPG Elements”, Metroid, and Personal History
- Part 2: A Retrospective on Pre-Symphony of the Night Castlevania
- Part 3: Why Is Symphony of the Night So Good?
- Part 4: Real-Life Vampirism and Alucard
I remember finally buying the game some time in 1998. I found myself in the beginning sequence with super-powered Alucard, whose equipment would suddenly and deliberately disappear at the hands of the physical embodiment of Death. That did not sit well with my mother. I mean, seriously, why would that suddenly become fine and dandy in a Christian household? I told her, at the time “It’s just a fantasy game”, and I still believe that. Yet that doesn’t mean stories aren’t always “true” in some sense.
Given that (as I’ve said before) our family turned Mortal Kombat into a pastime for 6-7 year old children, you would imagine anything goes. Not so! Spiritual issues and creatures involving said spiritual issues provoked a lot more controversy in my house than anything else. Magic? Not a big deal. Blood, gore? Completely fake and epheremeral. Dracula and vampires? Well, that’s a different issue! Not that we opposed the Halloween holiday with some Church-based bastardization (remember Harvest Festivals, anyone? Come on!), but we certainly didn’t dress up as vampires or creatures of the night.
The modern vampire shares little in common with real vampires. They rejected light because they rejected Christ, and they rejected the cross because they could not stand one that gave life and love infinitely, rather than preying on the lives of others. To suck the life out of others for your own personal gain, whether in monetary or relationship terms, turns you into a husk of a human being. You can no longer stand the light of day, and must feed at night and draw others into your swirl of madness. You might say, as Fred Clark does, that the cross confounds the vampire because he can’t understand its powerlessness:
Some mistakenly think that this is because the cross is a holy symbol, imbued with religious power. But this is wrong. The symbol, like the thing itself, is powerless. And that’s the point. That is why vampires can’t tolerate it.
Most vampires don’t believe in the cross, but that hardly matters. It’s the idea of the thing that gives them fits. The cross confronts vampires with their opposite — with the rejection of power and its single-minded pursuit. It suggests that no one is to be treated as prey — not even an enemy. The idea of the cross, in other words, suggests that vampires have it wrong, that they have it backwards, in fact, and that those others they regard as prey are actually, somehow, winning.
This notion is incomprehensible for vampires. The one thing they’re certain of, the thing that drives them and tells them who they are and how the world works and that they’ve got it all figured out is that the key to immortality is in choosing to be the predator rather than the prey. The idea that this might be wrong is so befuddling, so contradictory to everything they have chosen to be that it forces them to recoil. They can’t get past it.
When you imagine other people as tools for use, by whatever methodology (church and state equally included), then taking up the vampiric mantle takes little nudging. If you ever wondered why Castlevania has a chapel section with the most elaborate Gothic architecture and Christian symbolism strewn throughout, now you know why. The gaudy, gold-inlaid cross of extravagance does not frighten a vampire; they take advantage of mixing the sacred worship of Christ with the vulgar profanity of wealth, a root of evil (1 Timoth 6:10).
Vampirism takes many forms, and finds many justifications. Vampire stories, in this sense, appear like allusions to real life; they’re “true” in the sense that they tell us something about ourselves and where our decisions can lead. It shouldn’t surprise you that Symphony of the Night starts with just such a justification from none other than the Lord of Darkness himself, Dracula:
Richter: Die monster. You don’t belong in this world!
Dracula: It was not by my hand that I am once again given flesh. I was called here by humans, who wish to pay me tribute.
Richter: Tribute? You steal men’s souls, and make them your slaves.
Dracula: Perhaps the same could be said of all religions.
Richter: Your words are as empty as your soul. Mankind ill needs a savior such as you.
Dracula: What is a man?! A miserable little pile of secrets! But enough talk, have at you!
Again, these lines sounds hilarious now, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that the meaning behind them suddenly disappears. Dracula Vlad Tepes doesn’t attack human beings out of some desire for their souls or their blood; he wants to “help” them. They want to “worship” him, and so Dracula returns from Castlevania every hundred years or so to try once again, only to find himself bested by members of a vampire-hunting bloodline (the Belmonts, if you didn’t catch it). Dracula believes that humans call him to the world to provide a contrast to good and righteousness, and to provide a different path to follow – that of darkness. Note the comparisons to religion (only a vampire would say such a thing, right?) and the accusation that men aren’t complex beings of good and evil impulses – just a pile of secrets. Of course, vampires rarely talk about anyone but themselves, and it shows here – where else can I project my distaste for the light than to see evil wherever I look?
Dracula is not redeemed in this introductory sequence – like every time before, he screams in agony as he finds himself back from whence he came to Hell (which, I’m guessing, isn’t a wonderful home). This makes it all the more surprising when the game suddenly tackles you with the fact that you play as Dracula’s son Alucard. What? Really? So how does a vampire become good?
Well, a vampire doesn’t. But if you’re part human (as the game makes apparent), then your vampiric impulses strike against your human impulses, and that’s a very precarious place. Note that Alucard never, ever bites anyone in the entire game, nor does the game even provide this as an ability. Yes, you turn into a bat, but you never perform the essential function of a vampire – Alucard clearly refuses to treat human beings as prey, as the “Nightmare” portion of the castle shows that he actively resists it.
Still, he has every right to act that way. A mob killed his mother, claiming her to be a witch, and having a child of mixed blood probably didn’t help matters. Alucard, though, refuses to take revenge; he would rather see the good of humanity rather than the bad, and that’s a very difficult step to take. Forgiveness in the light of heinous evil sounds impossible, but that is why Christ tells you to love your enemies (and possibly your neighbors, see as they often are one and the same). Alucard clings to his humanity more than his vampiric nature. It’s such an interesting, if unintentional, depiction of the differences between vampires and humans – and how you might find yourself a little bit of both most times.
Yet, in all circumstances, we need to fight against our sinful nature as much as humanly possible – the old cheesy adage “do your best, and let God do the rest” comes to mind. God gives us cognizance of sin not so that we avoid it (because, given our sinful nature, that much is impossible), but that we can remedy and recognize the root cause of that sin. Instead of rationalizing or justifying our own problems, placing their cause on others, we identify our own failings and shortcoming. Then, we can tear these problems from the root rather than the branch, and throws the useless plant into the fire.
So it is with us Christians. We must continually identify, seek, and destroy those things that make us less like Christ. Unfortunately, we don’t get a totally radical sword or set of physical armor to do that, but we certainly get a spiritual one (Ephesians 6:10-17). It is the fault of the vampire that he doesn’t recognize he needs one at all, and that brings him to his downfall. Romans 12 wouldn’t make sense at all if this were the case:
16 Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. 17 Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. 19 Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
So does Alucard fight demons and a giant menagerie of monsters for the sake of humans rather than his actual father. He gave up his humanity long ago, and it seems the catalyst came from Alucard’s mother. Who could love those enemies that killed his only love? Dracula’s link to the human world shatters in that moment, three hundred years before the start of the game (or probably more). Yet Alucard, by the timeline standards, fights his father due to his mother’s words, not his father. He sees the route that his father continues every hundred year, a never ending cycle of death and destruction in an elaborate castle of Chaos. I suppose this makes the ending speech all the more poignant, in that respect:
Alucard: Go back whence you came! Trouble the soul of my Mother no more!
Dracula: How? How is that I have been so defeated?
Alucard: You have been doomed ever since you lost the ability to love.
Dracula: Ah…sarcasm. ‘For what profit is it to a main if he gains the world, and loses his own soul’?. Matthew 16:26 I believe.
Dracula: Tell me. What… What were Lisa’s last words?
Alucard: She said “Do not hate humans. If you cannot live with them, then at least do them no harm. For their’s is already a hard lot.” She also said to tell you that she would love you for all of eternity…
Dracula: Lisa, forgive me. Farewell my son…
A vampire can’t love; he only loves himself. By doing that, you lose your own soul in the process, for a soul does not exist in captivity or isolation, either from others or from the One who created you. That’s a message to keep.
Honestly, I didn’t think about any of this stuff when I was eleven years old; I simply enjoyed the game. But now I see that the plot actually encourages role-playing in a certain way. You’re half-human, and half-vampire – now deal with it. You get some powers and not others, and Symphony of the Night doesn’t need to present the player with the power of moral agency to remain effective. Sure, you might laugh at its horrible voice acting, but remove your post-Internet ironic cynicism for a second and you’ll see a very traditional story presented in video game form – one that endeared itself to me and probably everyone else who bought it without even knowing it.
I started this long article out by saying how Castlevania was best when it was dumb and completely lacked self-awareness, and that still holds true. You can hit a mark and understand a concept even without the contextual awareness required to comprehend it fully. Somehow, IGA did that without even knowing it, a happy accident of time, place, and circumstance – those tend to mark video games that stay with us, after all. That’s the mark of a great game, one that infiltrates your mind without heavy-handed story tropes and symbolism, and that’s why I put Symphony of the Night on The List.