Guest post by Laurentius Alvin

Laurentis Alvin is a Master’s student at Bonn University in Germany (Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität). They hold a BA in history of art and musicology. Their academic interest include exploring the crossroads between arts and culture of aisa and Europe in video games, history, and contemporary art. For question or comments regarding this post, you may email them at alvinlaurentius@rocketmail.com.

Be it Demeter, Shennong or the patron saints of agriculture, cultures around the globe have devoted prayers and practices to deities hold responsible for farming and animal husbandry. Some of which continues to survive in real practice and in the digital worlds, such as the Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons’ Harvest Goddess and the expelled Goddess Sakuna from Sakuna of Rice and Ruin; both titular to their own games. Despite having goddesses as a connection to an imagined supernatural world, both games show how different religious aspects can be implemented as gameplay elements in a video game. Adding to that is the geo-cultural aspects of a game’s settings. Whilst Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons took place in an idealized four-season geographical area with few references to religion, Sakuna of Rice and Ruin delves deep into aspects of both traditional Japanese religious and farming practices. Adding to this compilation of games is a game currently in development called Coral Island. Developed by a Yogyakarta-based team, the game has not been shy on connecting Javanese culture with in-game religious-mythological aspects. This alone leads to a major question: how are religious-mythological aspects portrayed in video games?

Evidence of agricultural practices has existed since as early as the first millenium B.C., as shown by a ploughing scene in a cave painting from Valcamonica. The development of religious practices around agriculture however is another subject of debate. According to the Italian archaeologist Emmanuel Anati the aforementioned ploughing scene might have been connected with a fertility cult through its closeness to another scene showing a human reproductive act.[1] Jumping a couple centuries later, polytheistic religions took to connecting aspects of nature and (agri)culture in human forms. An example could be seen in the goddess Demeter who were depicted, among others by Homer, as a goddess of Agriculture.[2]

Another couple of centuries later, older religions, now being framed as mythologies, inspired multiple artistic forms. Video games, including farming role playing ones, are not absent from this, as shown by the Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons franchise. With the Harvest Goddess as a reoccurring figure in the franchise, the game refers to a physical embodiment of agriculture in a human form, just like Demeter. Despite this, comparing both figures does not make much sense, keeping in mind that the franchise is developed by a Japanese company. A more fitting real-world embodiment of agriculture might be found in the figure of Benzaiten[1]. Translated as river or water goddess, Benzaiten stemmed from the Hindu goddess Sarasvati, of which a river was named after, and is the only goddess in Japan’s popular seven gods of good fortune. Worshipped by farmers for ample rain and rice harvest, her places of worship are often located near bodies of water; which also happens to be the home of the Harvest Goddess in the game franchise.

Despite this, a comparation between the Harvest Goddess and Benzaiten is riddled with major discrepancies. Most visible is Benzaiten and Sarasvati’s role as goddesses of the arts.[1] Benzaiten’s most popular depiction is a well-dressed musician, strumming a string instrument on both hands; a direct iconographic comparison with Sarasvati’s depiction as musician. This led to Benzaiten being worshipped by artisans of all kinds, including geishas. Ultimately these aspects of Benzaiten, her role as patron of the arts and depiction as musician, are absent in the depiction of the Harvest Goddess. In-game, she was constrained as a local deity, mostly an interactable character which the player can summon by giving an offering to her which eventually led to bonuses to the farmer, which, strangely enough, rarely has something to do with agriculture. The in-game figure thus might be seen as rather a need for a supernaturally powerful figure that the players can interact with rather than the need to create a link to real world religion or mythology.

Right: Sarasvati (Raja Ravi Varma in Maharaja Fateh Singh Museum). Center: Most common depiction of the Harvest Goddess
(Natsume). Left: Benzaiten (Ogawa Haritsu in Museum of Fine Arts,Boston)

If the Harvest Goddess is not a link to real world religion, then the Kappa surely is. Showing up in Japanese animated films (Animes) and even western movies, the Kappa belongs as one of the most recognizable Japanese mythological creatures.[2] As an in-game character, the Kappa functions as an helpful easter egg; a hidden part of the game that makes references to cultural aspects outside of the game setting. The helpful part comes in connection with the Kappa’s mythology: in some games the player can summon the Kappa by throwing a cucumber, the Kappa’s favorite food, into a body of water where it lives. After a couple offerings, the Kappa would then reward the player with a food item that increases the players’ stamina, allowing them to complete more actions before being exhausted. In this way, the Kappa is both a direct quotation from a real-world mythology, but also becomes a figure with in-game powers.

Another interesting aspect of the franchise if the depiction of a religion in the form of a church. Despite churches’ rarer appearance in the series, the church as a naming and architectural convention and its practices show an interesting aspect of implementation of an in-game religion. The first games of the franchise (Harvest Moon SNES) show a church with crosses, despite its caretaker believing in the Harvest Goddess. In later games (Harvest Moon Return to Nature, Friends of Mineral Town) cross-elements are absent from the church, possibly to remove the Christian connotation to the building. Despite that, the church’s caretaker named Carter still seem to wear clothes associated with catholic priests: a loose cassock and a stole. A further disassociation with Christianity happens with a character in an even later game (Harvest Moon DS: Island of Happiness) by the name of Nathan. As a priest of the Harvest Goddess, this character both solidify the existence and the practice of this in-game religion. Depicted in a light blue cassock and a yellow pendant with red crown-like symbol, elements of clerical clothing are reimagined for the in-game narrative. A decision by Marvelous, the developer of an older game’s remake (Story of Seasons Friends of Mineral Town) seems to follow this line of thinking by reinventing the character Carter as a priest of the Harvest Goddess, changing his black cassock to a light blue one and replacing his stole with a red-crown golden pendant.

Left: Carter of the Friends of Mineral Town from Harvest Moon, 2003 (Natsume/harvestmoon.fandom.com)
Center: Carter of the Friends of Mineral Town from Story of Seasons Harvest Moon, 2019 (Natsume/harvestmoon.fandom.com)
Right: Nathan from Harvest Moon Island of Happiness, 2007 (Natsume/harvestmoon.fandom.com)

As the first farming video games, the franchise sets a couple important milestones on mythological elements and religious practices in farming video games. These includes a couple aspects: the existence of a deity that might be inspired but not directly comparable to a real world deity (the Harvest Goddess) and the existence and modification of directly comparable religious-mythological aspects, both to fit an in-game function (Kappa) or an in-game narrative (the church of the Harvest Goddess). Some of these practices were repeated in games outside the franchise, Stardew Valley being the most popular example.

Developed by Eric Barone and published by Chucklefish, the game was first released on Steam for PC on February 2016, the game features supernatural elements such as magic and monsters, but also a religious practice with a monotheist god named Yoba. The strongest cue for this religion is the existence of a shrine to Yoba and its Symbol, based on the Anglo-Saxon rune of Ear. Beside this, it is common to for the townsfolks to use the word ‘Yoba’ as an expletive.

Alter of Yoba, Stardew Valley, 2016 (Eric Barone/stardewvalleywiki.com)

Despite this, the figure of Yoba itself is absent from the game, unlike the summonable Harvest Goddess. Another difference between the Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons series and Stardew Valley is the absence of a religious leader as a middleman between the human townsfolks and the deity. On the other hand, there are some clues to an organized religion: three of the townsfolks regularly visits the shrine on in-game Sundays, starting from a certain time and a book entitled “Highlights from the Book of Yoba “can be found in the in-game library, telling the story of the mythological creation of the world. Whilst the written text can be seen as a hint towards an in-game plant, the shrine visit mirrors a more organized forms of rites in a religious practice: a practice where believers gather together in a destined place and time to practice worship.

Sunday Prayers, Stardew Valley, 2016 (Eric Barone/Reddit)

Whilst Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons and Stardew Valley are games with religious-mythological elements in its universe, another farming video game flips the scenario by dropping the decidedly godly player’s character into a mythological world: Sakuna of Rice and Ruin. In comparison to the earlier aforementioned games, Sakuna of Rice and Ruin puts players into the role of an exiled goddess in her journey to regain her place in heaven by the ways of farming and purging the place where she was exiled to from evil. Inspired heavily by Shintoism and traditional rice cultivation practices in Japan, the game also featured a foreign character by the name of Myrthe. Being a missionary of the foreign faith of Formos, she brings two aspects into the game. The first one being religion as part of world-building: whilst in earlier games religions are very locally based and lacks varieties, the foreign character of Myrthe brings an idea of a broader world outside the game world with their separate culture and religion in a very narrowed game-setting. The second role is a historical comparation between in-game and real world: although there are no official records comparing the in-game world with the real world, Portuguese missionaries started visiting Japan around 1549, in the midst of the so-called sengoku period. Later, the missionaries and converts were met with hostilities by the government, an aspect that was mirrored in-game by one of Myrthe’s dialogue.

Myrthe as a missionary, Sakuna of Rice and Ruin, 2020 (Edelweiss/sakunaofriceandruin.com)

Religious-mythological elements seemed to not only inspire older video games, but also games in development with Coral Island being a prime example. With two mythological races (the giants and merfolk) and a Flower Goddess as intermediary between both races, the game did not only cite Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons but also elements of Javanese mythology and history. Whilst the dark-skinned and masked giants have spare connections with Javanese shadow puppet tradition called wayang, the sea-dwelling merfolk provides a more interesting look into the game’s usage of mythologies. Depicted with ornaments inspired by older Javanese gold ornaments, the developers decided to put this mythical race into an ongoing war with a real-world problem of sea pollution, as shown in the game’s promotional art.

Top Left: Giants from Coral Island, David Arinaryas Lojaya, 2020 (Stairway Games/Twitter)
Top Right: Goddess of Flowers from Coral Island, 2021 (Stairway Games/coralisland.fandom.com)
Bottom Left: Mermaid from Coral Island, David Arinaryas Lojaya, 2020 (Stairway Games/Twitter)
Bottom Right: Javanese gold diadem, Java 1000-1400 (Valerie and Hunter Thompson Collection Yale Art Gallery)

Religious-mythological elements have been and are still being included in farming role playing video games. Many of which are inspired and comparable with real world religious practices although most, if not all of in game religious-mythological elements, are modified to either fill a functional need as a helper to the player or a storytelling need to create a more lifely game narrative. In game religions and/or mythologies takes their inspiration from real religious-mythological practices and iconographies, but never copying them in the fullest, for example the church of the Harvest Goddess. A newer paradigm in the usage of religious-mythological elements can be seen in the games of the couple last years, where these elements are linked more strongly to specific historical aspects and even real-world global problems. With this newer paradigm, the religious-mythological works both as in game function and as avenues to discuss real historical and environmental discussions.

–Laurentius Alvin
6 May 2021


[1]   Anati, Emmanuel: The Question of Fertility Cults, in: Archaeology and Fertility Cult in the Ancient Mediterranean, Malta 1985, Pages 2-12

[2]   Homer: Iliad, in: Perseus Digital Library: Homer, Iliad, Book 5, line 493 (tufts.edu) (accessed 08. April 2021)

[3]   Schumacher, Mark: Benzaiten, Benten, in: A to Z Photo Dictionary Japanese Buddhist Statuary Gods, Goddesses, Shinto Kami, Creatures & Demons: Goddess Benzaiten, A-to-Z Dictionary of Japanese Buddhist / Shinto Statues (onmarkproductions.com) (accessed 08. April 2021)

[4]   Brittanica Online: Sarasvati: Sarasvati | Hindu deity | Britannica (accessed 08. April 2021)

[5]   J.K. Rowling, Warner Bros et al. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

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