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The Tower of Heaven is the latest game to dominate my life for an hour and a half. (1) The game itself is a solidly designed, minimal platformer. It is very good at tying the story of the game into the mechanics, and excelling in both areas, similar to “Loved” and “Dungeon”. I could go on about how amazing the game is, because it is quite good, but I want to focus on the story, and the philosophy behind it. Go Play It.

A lot of games seem to have the catalyst of “God is evil, and he’s trying to kill you”. It’s almost as common as “You wake in a strange land, with no idea who you are”. It’s an effective plot system for a few reasons; The medium of electronic games comes “built in” with a god-analogue – the designer – so it has the gut feeling of legitimacy. The fact that God is evil can be hidden from the player at first, then slowly revealed throughout the game. Knowing that the final battle will be against Almighty God, and the feeling of defeating Him trigger a certain excitement in us mortals.

Also, a lot of people seem to feel like God hates and wants to kill them. I have a friend who believes that every time something goes right in his life, God goes out of His way to crush it. We seem to have a lot of circular conversations with topics like “Why did God make Adam and Eve capable of sin?” and “Why was the Tower of Babel such a bad thing?”. Even when I can convince him (2) of the goodness of God in Biblical examples, he can’t believe it for himself, because he doesn’t see it in his own life.

This game is pretty light as indie games go, and by no means is someone going to say, “Gee, I never thought of it like that, guess who’s a baby atheist?”. But it is a very pointed version of the “God hates you” schtick. It really is a well told story in its original form and I will be spoiling it thoroughly, so please go play it before you keep reading.

The game opens with your character, a little Pumpkin-Headed (3) “Soul”, standing outside, on the bottom of the tower. God, the narrator, and the only voice in the game, welcomes you, but warns that “Perhaps you do not realize the danger in what you are attempting.” He also states that he “has no patience for slow workers” and will “smite you” if you take too long to complete a level. Already we get a feeling that God is not the nicest guy in -or out- of the world.

Poor little guy...

As you make your way through the levels, at first God is encouraging, warning you of the obvious dangers of the tower, and saluting you with “May heaven grant you fortune”. Very soon after, however, He gets frantic. He lets it slip that no one has ever gotten as far as you have, and in an effort to stop you, gives you a tablet of laws, which he adds to as the game progresses. The first law is easy enough, “Thou shalt not touch yellow bricks” standard jumping puzzle stuff. But eventually things like “Walking Left” and “Touching Living Things” also become taboo, and what looks at first glance to be a fairly difficult jumping puzzle turns into navigational hell, and each time you win a level, God gets more panicked, telling you to give up; that no mortal is worthy of Heaven. Eventually He becomes thoroughly upset with you, planting grass, a forbidden living thing, in front of the door to the next level, preventing you from ever ascending the rest of the tower.

You find your way out a window, and as you start to climb up the side of the building. The tablet of laws shatters, freeing you from them. You make your way up the countless miles of the tower (thankfully aided by a moving platform) and climb onto the parapet to find nothing. Heaven doesn’t exist, and the tower was built to be insurmountable, so that humanity would never know the truth. Now that you know His secret, God (4) returns you to the ground and destroys the tower. The world changes from grey-green to vibrant colour, and we are treated to a very nice poem; an excerpt from your character’s journal.

The symbolism is fairly clear (5): To keep humanity under His thumb, God created rules and standards that must be followed in order to get into heaven. However, since heaven doesn’t exist, He made these standards too much for any human to live up to. Since no one could “ascend the tower” they would never know the truth; people would forever chase after a paradise that doesn’t exist. By ascending the tower, (6) you bring truth to the world, and people are free to live without the tyranny of the law. This is the classical Atheist portrait of Christianity: Fools forever trying and never succeeding to follow an endless list of impossible rules.

With a few changes to the flavour text, this game would take on a whole new meaning, instead becoming a Christian allegory. In this version, the tower is built by Humanity, in an attempt to reach God by his own strength. (7) Such a task is truly impossible, and even after millennia spent completing the tower, it never reaches heaven, and the builders come down defeated. Determined to make the best of it, they claim to have seen God, stating that their tower is the way to heaven. In this interpretation, the voice you hear isn’t God, it is the voice of these pseudo-priests pretending to be Him.

What is missing from the game is the Christ character, who climbs the tower without failing once.

At the top of the tower, the preists, angry that he exposed their ruse, seize Him and throw Him over the edge. As the He hits the ground, the tower crumbles and falls, and God descends to once again be among His people.

Even though I don’t necessarily agree with the philosophy (8) behind the game’s story, it is polished, with tough, straightforward levels, a soundtrack among soundtracks, minimalistic, Gameboy-esque art and a thought provoking story. Play it. Grow. Stop climbing towers.

  1. Just a side note, creators who make short games, thank you. If ToH took longer than an hour and a half to play, I would still be playing it. And then I wouldn’t be blogging.
  2. On a mental level any road.
  3. ….Who may or may not actually be Pumpkin-Headed…
  4. Who turns out to be a butterfly. Dunno how to read that one. I should point out that He’s much kinder here than in the past.
  5. If anyone has an alternative to this interpretation let me know in the comments.
  6. Note that, in order to ascend, you must “cheat” by climbing up the side of the tower.
  7. Babel anyone? Babelbabelbabel…
  8. I explained to my mother that I was “Writing an essay about a heavy game I played”. She wanted to know why I would choose to play a heavy game, citing the oft cited (in our house anyway) Philippians 4:8, which is about focusing on the good in life. I agree to a point, but this is my reasoning: Reading, watching or playing something meant to make you think, even if – check that – especially if you don’t agree with the viewpoint presented, rounds out your perspective and makes you a stronger person. What I wouldn’t condone is the playing of games designed to sadden or horrify you without purpose. (Or both. Yeah I’m looking at you “Resident Evil” series.”) It’s hard to tell the difference at the outset sometimes, but I’ve given up on quite a few games halfway through, because they were essentially dumb. (Yeah, “Almost Any JRPG I’ve Ever Played XXIII”, I’m looking at you!”)