I want to make a more comprehensive version of an idea on how we could read Freespace 2 as being a retelling of the second book in the Bible, Exodus (the one with the Moses)
than the more incoherent, incomplete words I put up in another thread
, inspired by General Battuta's own very spot on thesis
about the differences between FS1 and FS2. My thesis is not merely to say that the main narrative is a rewriting of Exodus
with new characters, but that we can see it as the main template
on top of which the writers tell a tragic story of a traumatic encounter with the unintelligible and undefeatable, which is psychologically dealt with by elevating the story and ambiance into the divinely, mythological territory.Exodus
is one of the most important books in the whole Bible for it portrays a traumatic chain of events that culminate in the most important religious revolution in the past thousands of years: the establishment of Monotheism.
For quick reference, a summation of its story follows. Joseph, the 11th son of Jacob, becomes the second most important person in Egypt
alongside the Pharaoh, due to his managerial brilliancy during a famine crisis. This alliance between Israel and Egypt within its own borders is fruitful, born out of a cooperation in difficult times, but nevertheless temporally limited. By the time of Moses, the Hebrews are an oppressed and enslaved people, and with his leadership they confront the new pharaoh with the demand to be free to go to their own promised land. Egypt suffers the ten plagues that Yahweh imposes until its pharaoh finally agrees to let go of the numerous Hebrews slaves.
Later, he changes his mind and with his proud strong army he goes fetch his slaves back. In this moment Yahweh shows his terrible power by the feat of closing the Red Sea into his army and thus crushing an almighty empire to its knees. The Hebrews flee and in Mount Sinai Moses is given the touch of God (and a pair of non-apple
tablets). A terrible massacre ensues to guarantee that only the god-fearing chosen people will reach the promised land.Reason d'étre
There are plenty of good reasons for having biblical or mythological templates for ambitious sci-fi stories that deal with the unknown adventures in space (Star Trek uses and abuses Greek mythologies, B5, BSG, even StarGate, etc.), but there is also a very particular reason for this particular choice in Freespace 2.
The first good reason is the obvious fact that a civilization that is just beginning to dare venture on the "shores of the Cosmic ocean" is repeating the same feat that the ancient civilizations (Romans, Greeks, Egyptians,etc.) in the Antiquity did. There is a pattern of repetition here. In these settings, as then, there are many more unknowns in uncharted territories (where no man has gone before) than knowns. There are, to paraphrase Rumsfeld, "unknown unknowns" and the limitless potential for constant surprises, multiculturalisms, where everything is new and strange, unaccounted for. The theological place of such multiplicities is precisely "Polytheism"
, the notion that every new place or every different character is embedded with its own "god" (its own rationality, logic, ideology, etc.), and it is far from clear if there is any specific godhood that will make it "in the long run".
In Freespace 2, I argue, there is a striking cut between the usual polytheistic parochial struggle to power and the brutal monotheistic revelation of the existence of an actual single godlike species that is beyond parochial struggles of power. And because of this cut, this difference of scale in several orders of magnitude, the choice of a reference that deals precisely with this theological shift was a brilliant one.
Exodus is a chapter that has been rewritten / rejuggled several times
. Its more original versions were still pretty much polytheistic. We had at least Yaweh, Asherah, Tiamat and Baal
, wherein Yaweh was the God of the Army much like Ares or Mars later on. In 622BCE King Josiah made an extensive editing of the Bible to make sure there was only one true God, his name was Yaweh and he was a jealous one. More to the point, a whole chapter (Deuteronomy) was forged, wherein we find Moses' speeches and sermons establishing a strict and permanent covenant to worship Yaweh, while rejecting any other Gods as fakes.Factions and PersonalitiesVasudans and Humans (GTVA)
In FreeSpace 2's story, after the Great War ended and the Shivan force defeated, two major forces remain. The human colonists separated from the Sol system and the Vasudan survivors, with their home planet destroyed. With the rise of Khonsu II, a Vasudan Empire is enacted. The emperor strongly identifies with the history of the Ancient Egypt, and what was previously only a human naming standard enacted in the Great War became a much more direct reference between Vasudans and egyptians, between Khonsu II and the Pharaoh.
Jointly with the humans they create an alliance, sealed by the construction of the 6th wonder the GTVA Collossus
. However, the way the project is announced by the Vasudan emperor, the way the GTVA is structured (with the Vasudan Imperium embedded but no obvious human counterpart), and the multiple references to the economic growing gap between the two factions clearly establishes Khonsu II as the rising main figurehead of the GTVA.
Let's also notice some minor details. The Vasudans predominantly use egyptian gods and monsters to name their ship classes, with the main exception of the GVD Hatshepsut
, an egyptian queen (Psamtik is also the name of an egyptian king).
Human vessels are named with great variety (nameplates span from Roman, Greek, German, English, etc.), however their ship classes are much more homogeneous. Of all the 39 differently named GTA ship classes, only 8 aren't from the greek mythos. The GTF Loki
, the GTC Fenris
and the GTSG Mjolnir
are Norsic, while the GTB Boanerges
and the GTC Leviathan
are christian (although they are spoken in greek). The list is concluded with less relevant ship classes like the GTSG Watchdog
, the GTNB Pharos
, the GTSC Faustus
and the GTDr Amazon
Notice how polytheistic these fleets sound.
The GTD Aquitaine
's name is interesting. Aquitaine, a french region, is historically linked as spearheading the Second Crusade
, a massive failure of its own, paralleling the GTVA's second war against the shivans
, now an incursion into the Nebula.NTF
The NTF rebels see themselves as the enslaved, the oppressed who struggle for their own liberty, for a different solution. They portray themselves as the Iceni
people, leaded by queen Boadicea against the oppressing Roman Empire. The flagship is thus named Iceni, born out of an asteroid station named Boadicea. Yet they are also, I argue, and more from their leader's point of view, Hebrews in the mosaic story. With an envy of Vasudan growing supremacy, they try to find an independent solution, and so they secede.
Oddgrim's rendition of Freespace2's antagonist
Aken Bosch is written with numerous templates. For instance, he is probably named after Jeroen van Aken
and better known as Hieronymus Bosch
, famous for his paintings filled with the thematics of the Apocalypse, Sin, Hell, but also of satirical critique of society.
Scoundrels like Milosevic also inspired the writers
Many leaders in history rise to power by exploiting old hatreds, and that's what Bosch did. Specifically, at the time I had been reading about Bosnia and how leaders like Milosevic, Karadzic, and Mladic had incited people to butcher their neighbors after decades of peaceful coexistence.
However, Akalabeth Angel has stumbled upon an interesting hypothesis, wherein:
Aken, is the Ferryman of the dead apparently in egyptian mythology. He's the guy who takes people into the underworld. In a similar way to Charon.
Also Aken was described as being ram headed, and with that in mind has anyone ever looked at the Iceni?
It looks, surprise surprise, like a Ram with its head down. The ship even has the ****ing goatee! (even though this beautiful animal below does not)
It even has 2 BGreens where the
horns eyes would be.
And what about Bosch?
Bosch means Bush. ( http://www.surnamedb.com/Surname/Bosch )
It is said to "The name may also be Ashkenasic and an illusion to the biblical story of the burning bush, from which God is supposed to spoken to Moses. "
There you go.
Ferry man of the dead who takes people into hell with his ram headed ship.
All these references are important. A mix between Moses and "Ferry man of the dead". Bosch shares the same goals as Moses, but might end up with just being the man that drives his own people to hell. Not only does he attempt a secession with the Vasudan (egyptian) empire, he does so with the intent of arraging an Alliance
with what he believes are the true gods of the Galaxy. After successfully opening the Knossos gate and contacting the Shivans, he flees the empire space with his people in order to meet with them. To find salvation. This is his "solution" for what the "plight" he sees humans are in, the only possible way humans are ever going to survive the odds in this galaxy.Shivans
Now, the Shivans are the most terrifying and powerful divine force anyone had ever seen and suffered, capable of imposing terrible consequences and effectively creating a theological revolution in the human's psyche. Lovecraftian creatures, they are the ultimate mystery of the story, leaving everyone dumbfounded at how powerful they are and how unintelligible they seem to us. Quoting Battuta:
By annihilating Capella when they might have annihilated all of humanity (and the Vasudans as well), the Shivans demonstrate their absolute, alien power. Not only can we not defeat them, we cannot understand them. Perhaps we survive for one reason only (thematically, at least): we have abandoned our claim to godhood.
He then goes on by describing several possibilities on why we were spared, what it metaphysically means for the GTVA (is it a success or an absolute failure?), but I think the point is more harsh, direct, uninterpretational. The point is not human
, but Shivan. And just like God wraths against Job's theological friends
, who insist tediously in interpreting Job's lack of fortune with innumerous ideas on how ultimately his fate was fair, teleological or inevitable, so do I stop short of trying to come up with any such human explanation of the Event.
If they seem like the Reapers
in Mass Effect (first one), that's because they are, at the core. But better written!Narrative parallels
The GTVA is composed by the cooperation between Vasudans and Humans, who survived a terrible crisis and established an alliance henceforth. A faction of humans do not share this optimism and see Vasudan ascendancy over humans as troubling and dangerous. The Vasudan emperor is slowly gathering enormous power and in time they will be able, if willing, to roll over any human resistance to its hegemony. Likewise, the Hebrews assist how an alliance is slowly decaying to the enslavement of their people and a call to freedom is made.
Aken Bosch, as Moses, starts a war with the empire, who do not accept the secession. Moses invokes God who inflicts multiple incredible (and fatal) plagues into Egypt. Bosch too summons the Shivans in order to contact them, who also inflict multiple strikes on the GTVA.
After a struggle, the Hebrews eventually flee Egypt, and so do the NTF. Both parties are pursued by their respective empires. While the Hebrews are able to flee from Egypt almost entirely unscathed, the NTF suffers pretty badly before they are able to properly contact the Shivans in the nebulae. However, having reached this point, both God and the Shivans produce a cosmic event of terrible proportions. God engulfs the egyptian army in the Red Sea with deadly walls of water, while the Shivans supernovae a Star, wiping out an entire system and any ships within it. In both cases, a passage is sealed abruptly and violently, and while the Hebrews continue their voyage accompanied by a terrible new and powerful god, so does apparently continue Bosch and his most immediate officers with the Shivans.
Let's have Aken Bosch's own words:
Why does the Ancient portal lead us here? Have the Shivans been waiting for us for thousands of years? This odyssey, this exodus, do we journey towards the promised land or into the Valley of the Kings?
The nebula is the remnant of a supernova thousands if not billions of light years from Earth and I wonder now if our ancestors witnessed the death of this star erupting over an Egyptian landscape, blazing with the brilliance of four hundred million suns. Even in their divinity no pharaoh could have imagined this.
In both cases, a proud civilization faces a traumatic and terrible, unprecedented pushback, and is now made aware that there is a force in motion more powerful than they themselves could ever even understand. In both cases, a massacre of those rebels who do not have sufficient faith happen far away from this passage.
Unlike the biblical story, however, we are witnessing these events from the point of view of the Egyptians, not of the Hebrews that make it. Thus, we do not get to have any notion how it is to have contact with the God of this galaxy, we have no relationship with it other than pure hostility, and we suffer its godlike presence as a Lacanian, Lovecraftian event. We do not understand them, we do not even pose the minimal threat to them. It's not even clear whether if Bosch was successful in his endeavour or not, for signs are ambiguous in this venue - yes, he gets to board the shivan transport and go to shivan space, but his crew is also terrifyingly murdered on the spot. More ominously, the mission is called "Return to Babel"
, referring to the biblical episode wherein an ambition is ultimately culled by a fundamental linguistic difference between the peoples who then go each their own way. A return
to the previous status quo, we failed to achieve proper communication with the shivans.
This God has chosen to cut the bridge between our territory and theirs, and makes the point that we shouldn't even think
about crossing the Red Sea ever again.
And the waters returned, and covered the chariots, and the horsemen,
and all the host of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them;
there remained not so much as one of them (Exodus 14:28)
Petrarch, in a similar fashion to the Pharaoh, repositions the GTVA's ambitions on the side of returning home at the end. There's a poetic ressonance in the fact that the intro cutscene is voiced by a young man who thinks the salvation of his race is to be found "in the cold expanse of space"
, and the end cutscene is voiced by an old man, who relishes in the idea of coming back to our roots, our home
. There is, as it couldn't be otherwise, another great reference at play here, the old philosopher Petrarch
himself, who famously ventured into the heights of Mont Ventoux, admired the brilliant view and then wrote these words:
And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.
I closed the book, angry with myself that I should still be admiring earthly things who might long ago have learned from even the pagan philosophers that nothing is wonderful but the soul, which, when great itself, finds nothing great outside itself. Then, in truth, I was satisfied that I had seen enough of the mountain; I turned my inward eye upon myself, and from that time not a syllable fell from my lips until we reached the bottom again. (...) [W]e look about us for what is to be found only within. (...) How many times, think you, did I turn back that day, to glance at the summit of the mountain which seemed scarcely a cubit high compared with the range of human contemplation
This functions as the perfect closure to the story. The Alliance ventures and contemplates unseen worlds and nebulas but is forced back into their own selves, and the Petrarch reference works as a solution: Find salvation within, not out there
. From their voyage through hell, they return with a gift, the blueprint for the construction of a gate to the Sol system. A gift to reach their home, their within
. This is not a minor detail. Remember, Petrarch is one of those men that history grants as one of the builders of the Rennaissance.
The book of Genesis is extremely referenced in both the game narrative (Babel, for instance) and its soundtrack. Joshua
is the main assistant of Moses, Deuteronomy
the book of sermons of Moses,Genesis
the main book that contains the Mosaic story,Numbers
the chapter that deals with the mosaic story after Moses receives the tablets from God, Leviticus
its prequel, and Exodus
is the soundtrack being played in the last level (Apocalypse). Revelation
is the only outlier, but its thematic is linked to all the other aforementioned Genesis chapters. Notice how the soundtrack uses religious vocals (Agnus Dei).Final Words
Why so much religiosity in a profoundly sci-fi setting? Slavoj Zizek has relevant input in this question. When we are confronted with a monstruous event of terrible proportions, like say the Holocaust, our rationality and our basic emotionality just fail to address it, it becomes even obscene to account such events by mathematic thinking (6 million here, 10 million there, soon enough we will have lots of dead people). In such cases, we are drawn to call them metaphysical events (thus the expression "of biblical proportions") and place them in a divine setting, as if we are saying "This is something just so terrible and unaddressable that I can just refer to it in religious terminologies"
And I dare say, it works. The vertigo symbolized by the constant biblical references parallels the player's experience of the Shivan unreal godlike nature, and the Mosaic thematic creates the perfect setting to brutalize the player's expectations of a simple "epic" story into a more authentic and honest moment of awe and frustration at the game's ending.