Has a video game made you pause before? Whether it’s one of Shadow of the Colossus’ awe-inspiring giants or a sweeping vista from Horizon Zero Dawn, there’s a certain power to majesties like these move us to marvel out of wonder, shock, or even fear. These reactions are similar to standing before iconic religious buildings ranging from the Great Mosque of Mecca to the Mormon Tabernacle in Utah. Regardless of what belief (or lack thereof) you may profess, people from all walks of life are drawn to these structures because they carry the weight of their architects’ faith. In light of Far Cry 5’s blatant approach to religion and churches spread across its world, we’ve toured the varying glories of digital sanctuaries and temples to bring you the most memorable ones.
Sector 5 Church – Final Fantasy VII
Megacorporations are stereotypically bent toward unhinged greed and power at the expense of all things holy, and Shinra is emblematic of that kind of greed. In Final Fantasy VII, the company absorbs the planet’s Lifestream, which gives all things life. The consequences of its conquest are evident in the bleak, industrial landscapes Cloud and his friends travel through, but strangely enough, there’s one place that boasts signs of verdancy in the smog: the Sector 5 Church.
Cloud meets Aeris (a.k.a. Aerith) selling yellow flowers on the streets, but bumps into her again after falling through the quaint church’s steeple. Aeris considers it a comforting home away from home, and after her death, you can return to the church and find her apparition, which disappears forever upon approaching it. As later storylines unveil, the church is a prominent place for several fateful gatherings in the PSP title Crisis Core and animated film Advent Children. In the latter, it’s revealed the Lifestream flows under the church, causing the flowers to bloom. Aeris’ special connection with the site gives her the ability to revive Cloud in a pool of water (which has replaced the flower bed) after another battle with Sephiroth. Throughout the film, a disease has affected the people of Midgar, but Cloud demonstrates the pool’s healing properties by sprinkling infected children with its water before the credits roll. Love and life – it’s as if these things flow through the Sector 5 Church.
Twilight Cathedral – Darksiders
Twilight Cathedral is not only the first proper dungeon in Darksiders, but also the largest church we’ve come across in a video game. Your character, War, is invading the building to claim the heart of the demon Tiamat to regain his power, and from the outside, the gothic establishment almost seems like Bowser’s castle since it’s surrounded by a lava moat, but once you enter, it’s far grander with its long aisles, angelic statues, and foreboding catacombs. You run the whole gamut of activities with engaging encounters, multi-layered puzzles by using the Crossblade, secrets, solid platforming, and two memorable bosses as you explore the building from top to bottom. It’s easy to assume its scale wouldn’t match the substance of its interior, but when your long journey to battle Tiamat ends in a thrilling fight atop the cathedral during a thunderstorm, it truly lives up to its religious grandeur.
Church of Unitology – Dead Space 2
The religious fervor surrounding the Marker is vaguely understood in Dead Space, but the sequel takes protagonist Isaac Clark to one of their central churches on Titan Station. The church’s architecture is a curiously futuristic take on the Victorian era, but what’s even more fascinating are the depths Visceral Games explored by fleshing out the history, theology, and life of Unitologists. Isaac goes from touring their inviting libraries and worship sanctums to uncovering its insidious practices with “indoctrination” and “convergence” in the church’s lower levels. Beautiful sights are juxtaposed with sheer horror as you learn about the science-based religion’s practices through audio and text logs. That’s not even mentioning various tense encounters with Stalkers that flit between Marker-inspired columns, walking through cryostasis tubes that could burst at any moment, and a boss fight taking place in a sanctum with a mesmerizing stained-glass window. Dead Space 2 is scarier thanks to the uneasy, false security this church lulls visitors into.
Shrine of Worship – Shadow of the Colossus
The meaning of The Forbidden Lands resonates as soon as you and Agro start galloping across the lengthy bridge leading to the Shrine of Worship. After Wanderer lays his deceased lover on the altar, you’re greeted to the dissonant, multi-voiced tenor of the enigmatic god Dormin, which emanates from an open oculus towering above the Aztec-like statues of the Colossi. With nothing but the sound of wind whistling through the antiquated building, you feel a pull to stare up at the ceiling or stand before Wander’s lover as you dispatch of each Colossus. Small shrines outside act as guiding markers throughout the peaceful landscape that you can pray at, which act as checkpoints. Even these secretly allude to the main shrine’s importance. As you return to Shrine of Worship over the course of the game, you feel as though you’re desecrating sacred ground as the statues inside crumble one by one.
St. Mark’s Basilica – Assassin’s Creed II
Real religious buildings don’t show up in video games often, but Assassin’s Creed has showcased dozens across the world all the way from Bayek to Desmond. The Notre-Dame in Unity, Hagia Sofia in Revelations – these are worth mentioning, but St. Mark’s Basilica in Assassin’s Creed II remains one of our favorites. The wide expanse and gold mosaics lend opulence to its overwhelming architecture from the outside; it’s almost a puzzle in itself as you figure out how to get inside to access an Assassin’s tomb. Once you do, you’re put to the test by clambering and jumping about with timed trials, and once you conquer all four of them, a floor mosaic near the cathedral’s center rearranges to reveal the Assassins’ symbol, granting entry to the sarcophagus of Anumet, who has recently been revealed in Origins as a pivotal figure in the Brotherhood’s history.
Grand Cathedral – Bloodborne
There’s no world more befitting of eerie worship grounds than the gothic, Lovecraftian setting of Bloodborne. Its disturbing horrors truly sink in when you enter the Grand Cathedral to confront Vicar Amelia. She’s a priestess who filled Laurence’s role there. He was the man who founded the Healing Church and initiated the ministration of the Old Blood throughout Yharnam. Before approaching Amelia, you can listen to a chilling prayer she recites, but once you get near her, she transforms into one of the game’s most terrifying bosses. She may not be one of Bloodborne’s most difficult enemies, but fighting the shrieking, gauntly beast in this hallowed sanctuary remains one of the game’s finest encounters. In addition, the Grand Cathedral serves as the catalyst for advancing the Moon Cycle when you touch the bestial skull at the building’s intricate, gold altar. When you take your leave into the Nightmare once more, it’s as if you walk away not blessed, but more cursed from visiting this deceiving refuge.
Church of the First Coalescence – Night in the Woods
Night in the Woods is no stranger to honestly courting millennial concerns involving purpose, mental stress, friendship, and belief. Brief allusions to God are made in small snippets of dialogue, but the game’s brief commentaries on religion are most evident with the Church of the First Coalescence. It’s up on a hill overseeing Possum Springs, and should you venture there, you run into Mae’s mom, who works there as a secretary. You also meet Karen: a genuine, easygoing pastor who empathizes with Mae’s unbelief. Karen also offers a homeless person shelter in the church despite the city council’s warnings, calling attention to the values she hopes will emulate her church’s peaceful, welcoming, and vibrant interior. In addition, Mae can sleep in the church’s library if she goes to the church more than once. This results in one of the game’s most touching moments where her grandfather’s ghost silently sits next to Mae while she sleeps.
Royal Chapel – Castlevania: Symphony of The Night
Dracula despises humanity, so when you explore his imposing castle, it’s surprising to stumble upon the Royal Chapel. After fighting through the unsettling displays and architecture of the Alchemy Laboratory, you climb an unusually long set of gold stairs. In the backdrop, stained-glass windows of saints and paintings of crosses are the last thing you’d expect to see in Dracula’s abode. There’s also a 3D-esque portion of the level where you fight a Puppet Sword with pews and massive stained-glass windows receding into the backdrop. However, one of the greatest surprises is in the back of the worship area. There’s a hidden confession booth that Alucard can interact with by sitting down. You witness a man praying, a woman crying, and specters who try to kill you when you recline in one of the chairs. It’s a somber, strange moment in the platforming adventure, perhaps serving as a representation of Alucard’s willingness to forgive and fight for humanity since his father will not.
Old Hammer Cathedral – Thief: The Dark Project
The Thief games stand the test of time as strategic titles that capture the thrill of stealth through a vulnerable protagonist. One grunt can send your heart racing if he spots you, and you must pay attention to your speed and where you tread lest you be spotted in an instant. Most fans agree Thief: The Dark Project (or Thief Gold) is most intense in the Return to the Cathedral level. Garrett has been commissioned by a man named Constantine to steal an artifact called the Eye, and once the thief gathers four talismans, he’s able to enter an abandoned sanctuary to pursue it. However, he discovers the place is crawling with undead acolytes of the Hammerite Order. You must guide Garrett through the cathedral and its visually diverse courtyards, such as a library, factory (replete with the Hammerite’s advanced forges and elevators), and cemetery. After retrieving the artifact, Garrett escapes by aiding the spirit of a restless practitioner by finding and burying his body so he can move on from this realm. The demanding detour leaves you immersed in the gloomy cathedral and its unnerving soundscape as incessant moaning and eerie ambience mentally tax you. Much like Dead Space 2, Thief dedicates an entire mission to fleshing out the history of its religious faction through a church that’s marked by superb level design and interesting lore. Did we mention the Hammer Haunts? Probably best if we don’t.
Temple of Time – The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
While Nintendo has moved away from explicit religious symbolism in the Zelda series, it still reflects this foundation with the Triforce, Hylian goddesses, and all sorts of prophesies, so it’s no surprise that churches and temples have appeared throughout the games, and the Temple of Time has become one of its most iconic. It allows Link to travel between the past and present in Ocarina of Time. The marble floors and white stones of the monolith greet you with a chilling chorus reverberating through a daunting ceiling. The temple’s recurring appearance throughout the series solidifies its significance to the Zelda universe, and when you stumble upon its dilapidated state in Breath of the Wild, you can’t help but get shivers as the classic song comes in as a hushed, slowed-down piano melody. A symbol of hope has dwindled to time’s ravages, but you can at least pray to one of the Hylian goddesses to bolster your hearts or stamina in the forgotten temple.
The extent of our pilgrimage meant excluding many locations from our list, so what are some video game churches, temples, or sanctuaries that have stood out to you? While you’re waiting for revelation, be sure to check out Kyle Hilliard’s interview with Iconoclast’s creator Joakim Sandberg, who discusses some of the religious undertones of his game. You can also read Javy Gwaltney’s latest Virtual Life about how Far Cry 5’s controversial subject matters fail to give way to meaningful discussion.