Earlier this year, the Church of England threatened to sue Sony Computer Entertainment Europe for depicting the Manchester Cathedral in the latter's sci-fi shooter Resistance: Fall of Man.
The church had complained about the game's inclusion of the cathedral, which was named and modeled after the 700-year-old church in this industrial city in northwest England. After considerable pressure and public condemnation, Sony issued a public apology. In their statement, Sony apologized for offending the church or the residents of Manchester, but not for including the cathedral in the game.
Amazingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, none of the coverage of the cathedral controversy actually discusses the game. Sony didn't say much about it either, save a self-defeating statement from Sony Europe noting that the game is work of fantasy science fiction game and not based on reality.
This statement implies, but does not actually address, the absurdity of critiquing a game about a hypothetical postwar 20th century in which a hybrid alien race called the Chimaera invade and assimilate the human population. But neither Sony nor developer Insomniac Games ever tried to explain the expressive goals the use of the cathedral advanced.
Absent the creators’ own ability, interest, or resolve to defend the artistic merits of their creation, that task is now left to the critic. For my part, I think the cathedral creates one of the only significant experiences in the whole game, one steeped in reverence for the cathedral and the church, rather than desecration.
Resistance is not a game richly imbued with wisdom. It's a first-person shooter, and it is a pretty good one. It's beautifully rendered, taking apparent advantage of the advanced graphical capabilities of the PlayStation 3. The game is very linear, both in its plot and the paths through each level, but that linearity allows it to focus the player on a smaller, more tightly crafted environment. Resistance takes up a common theme in science fiction: an ultimate test of humankind against the Other. This is also one of the classic themes of video games, one we have seen since Space Invaders.
Because of its simplicity, Resistance is also a very predictable game. You shoot aliens and alien-human hybrids. A lot of them, over and over again. Your character, Sgt. Nathan Hale, is a one-note brute of a fellow with a mysterious past and a permanently furrowed brow.
As is the case in most games of this kind, he is alone in his quest to rid the world of its space invaders, a turn justified by a feeble deus ex machina at the game’s outset, when all of Hale's unit is killed in a series of overwhelming ambushes.
Manchester Cathedral’s representatives expressed their affront in two ways. The first appealed to intellectual property. They claimed that Sony did not have the right to include the cathedral's name, image, or architecture in the game in the first place.
Discussions of intellectual property rights have become so common, they risk replacing talk about the weather. An obsession with ownership used to characterize corporate lawyers alone, but now organizations and individuals alike use ownership as cultural currency. The video game industry is among the worst culprits of this practice. We may squint when Disney lobbies to extend copyright terms to cover the products they themselves adapted from public domain fairy tales, but we don't bat an eye when publishers issue press releases about their "all new intellectual property" or when journalists refer to forthcoming titles as "new IP".
If a movie studio had wanted to film a scene for a post-apocalyptic action film in the Manchester Cathedral, indeed they would have had to get the diocese's permission. But not for the right to depict the cathedral — that could have been done by shooting from the street outside. Rather, the film crew would have needed to get the rights to be on location, including accounting for any potential damage they might cause and covering insurance lest anyone be injured during the shoot. What if the movie studio had created a CG Manchester Cathedral, shot their scene on the lot with green screens, and digitally composited the shots together? Then would they have had to get permission? The answer is unclear, as digital rights usage for landmarks is largely untested.
The Cathedral's second affront appealed to media outrage. Manchester's bishop took the opportunity to issue a statement against video game violence in the broadest sense, connecting his objections to the city of Manchester's ongoing gun crime problem and the church's record of youth support.
For once, let's leave the rights issues to the attorneys. Let's instead focus on the cultural issues. What does Manchester Cathedral mean in the game, and why might its appearance support the cathedral's relevance more than it detracts from it?
A cynic, unbeliever, or Internet troll might point out the irony of the church pointing the finger, given the millennia-old history of church-sponsored violence. A gamer might rely on the title's status as fantasy fiction to nullify the validity of affront. Such impressions are merely instrumental attempts to foil the church’s parry rather than reasoned attempts to justify the expressive ends served by depicting the cathedral in the game. And despite its creators’ silence on the matter, the game does indeed have one.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Resistance is its depiction of repurposed spaces of 1950s Britain. The game is set on an alternate timeline, but one that shares much with our own history, making its environment very familiar. This feature distinguishes Resistance from similar games with wholly invented worlds, like Halo. For example, early in the game the humans make a stand at a bus depot, period-appropriate vehicles strewn asunder. Later a fish cannery becomes a breeding ground for human-alien hybrids.
The military occupation of civilian spaces is the reality of all war fought on civilian terrain, but video games have a unique power to simulate the experience of this estrangement. The first time the player cowers behind a bus or encounters a destroyed bathroom, the reality of war surfaces in a powerful way. The Manchester Cathedral level is the most powerful of these moments, and also the subtlest in this otherwise barefaced fantasy shooter.
Churches in general have a long history of providing alms to the impoverished and the displaced, for community, safehouse, for care, or for passage. The earliest hospitals were often created by Bishops and other clergy to serve the local poor and sick, or travelers on pilgrimage. In the fictional backstory of Resistance, Manchester Cathedral had been converted for use as a hospital during the Chimera’s initial attack. Upon entering, the player can see the rows of cots and dismantled medical equipment. This field hospital had either been abandoned or, more likely, its patients and staff had been overcome.
In "civilized" wars, opponents distinguish military from civilian targets. The fact that the cathedral-made-hospital was not spared attack in the game’s fiction not only helps establish the savage inhumanity of the Chimaera but also demonstrates that in the face of this apocalypse, the church carried out its charter, to support people in need, to stand resolved in the face of death.
Some might argue that such a claim could be made about any church. In their rejoinder of Sony, the Church of England asked this very question: why Manchester instead of a fictional city?
Video games frequently recreate real cities as settings. Usually these cities are immediately identifiable for players worldwide: Los Angeles (True Crime: Streets of LA), London (The Getaway), New York (The Godfather). Such major cities provide a built-in context for gameplay that helps set expectations and context. Resistance uses real locations but not well-known, highly identifiable ones — Manchester, Nottingham, Bristol, York. This wasn't a matter of hometown pride; Insomniac is based in Burbank, CA. Outside of the UK, players likely have little or no personal experience of cities like Manchester, and thus their expectations for geographic accuracy are lowered. Like Burbank, Manchester conjures a culturally specific location without needing to exceed unfairly high expectations.
Manchester Cathedral cements this sense of place in the game. The cathedral is an impressive monument, a marker of cultural and social heritage with a long history. It was constructed in the 13th and 14th centuries, in the gothic style common to that era. The cathedral occupies a prominent place in central Manchester, an historic region of the city that can trace its roots back to the first century A.D.
Graphical realism is where the PS3 really shines, and the in-game cathedral is a convincing rendering of the real thing. As with most Gothic churches, the player can't help but try to take in the sublime grandeur of the cathedral when he enters. The game affords a few second of exploration, but then a torrent of Chimaera appear, a barrage of creatures unlike any that the player has previously encountered in the game. The natural response is to unleash a frenzy of fire, swirling rapidly around the church, between what remains of its pews and its enclaves. Careful cover and selective bursts of fire are not much of an option here.
Apocalypse films often use monuments — the White House, the Empire State Building — as symbols for total destruction. Indeed, the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 2001 targeted structures with symbolic value as well as military and economic value. But Resistance does not use Manchester Cathedral in this way. The Chimera have no interest in destroying a monument, nor do they have any concern for ailing, human civilians in a makeshift church hospital.
The game’s detailed, accurate recreation of the cathedral, as well its separation in its own special level, encourages the player to pay attention to the structure. It is not just another anonymous rowhouse or shack or factory. Instead, it is a structure of note, a unique place, one that demands respect. This sense of awe stands in stark opposition to that of the Chimera, who disrupt and undermine the cathedral's sublime aesthetics and religious symbolism. The cathedral does not become a symbol of humanity’s annihilation, but of the Chimera’s total disregard for human culture and creativity. This is a much worse nightmare vision than simple eradication.
It is not Sony or Insomniac who defile the Manchester Cathedral in Resistance: Fall of Man. It is the Chimera who do. Their casual contempt for the structure cements the player's understanding of these mutant creatures as entirely inhuman, so much so that they aren’t even capable of noticing markers of human ethos such that they might choose to destroy them outright.
Yes, the player must discharge his weapons inside the church to avoid defeat. But when the dust settles, the cathedral empties, and the player is left to spend as much or as little time as he wants exploring the cavernous interior of the cathedral, which survives the barrage, much like the real Manchester Cathedral survived a German bomb attack during World War II.
Since Resistance is such a linear, scripted game, this open time is unusual, even excessive. It offers a break from the incessant barrage of identical Chimera, both for Hale and for the player. It is a time to pause, to reflect, perhaps even to meditate on the relationship between God, human, and alien.
Manchester Cathedral was ransacked during the English Civil War in 1649, half-destroyed by German bombs in 1940, and bombed by the Irish Republican Army in 1996. It survived all these attacks. Its patrons rebuilt it.
And it stands still today. Resistance adds a fictional homage to the church’s resolve, this time in an alternate history fraught by an enemy that neither understands nor cares for human practices like religion. And it survives this as well. The Church of England sees their cathedral's presence in Resistance only as a sordid juxtaposition, the sanctity of worship set against the profanity of violence. But when viewed in the context of the game's fiction, the cathedral serves a purpose in the game consonant with its role in the world: that of reprieve for the weary and steadfastness in the face of devastation.