“God is dead,” declared philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “… and we have killed him” (1887)—a proclamation that numerous video game protagonists could aptly say by journey's end. The prominent god-slayer trope in video game storylines casts the gameworld's god(s) as the final boss, to be slain by players, inviting connection to real-world religious ideas. Adequate scholarly attention has not been given to the musical features of the god-slayer trope—specifically, the bosses’ unique battle tracks—to discover what the music's meaning contributes to the trope. Quantitative analysis of video games featuring the god-slayer trope reveals that the bosses’ battle tracks may strategically combine rock and sacred music topics for significant semiotic effect.

This article explores the meanings associated with rock and sacred music topics, using analytic methods from the burgeoning field of musical semiotics. By invoking music-theoretic work in topic theory (Monelle 2006, Hatten 2004), agential modalities (Tarasti 1994), and virtual agency (Hatten 2018), I argue that the rock and the sacred music topics initially appear to conflict—but the trope serves as a hermeneutic premise for a meaningful and productive synthesis uniquely fit for the narrative god-slayer trope. Xenoblade Chronicles (2010) forms a striking case study, with its tracks “Zanza” and “The God-Slaying Sword” exemplifying the sacred-rock trope and its semiotic meaning in relation to the game's plot—a narratively apt battle hymn for the game's god-slaying protagonists. Using a cultural-historical lens, the conclusion explores connections between the narrative god-slayer trope and the descent of Japan's god-emperor from divinity to humanity.

“GOD IS DEAD, AND WE HAVE KILLED HIM”: THIRTY YEARS OF GOD-SLAYING IN VIDEO GAMES

“God is dead,” declared Friedrich Nietzsche, “… and we have killed him.”1 This provocative statement has been thoroughly explored in the writings of philosophers, but it could also be aptly said by numerous video-game protagonists by journey's end. The vast majority of video games require a final boss, whether a king, machine, demon, or deity. Naturally, this ultimate opponent ought to be the most potent antagonist the player has yet faced. The striking narrative god-slayer trope casts the gameworld's god as the final boss, to be slain by players in an act of deicide. In one sense, the god-slayer trope can be seen as a function of the trajectory of increasingly elaborate video-game plotlines and technical capabilities. Where simpler games may pit players against a powerful human enemy or rival as a final boss, other games raise the stakes by making the final boss a monster, a demon—even a god. Additionally, as game console hardware improves in graphical and processing capabilities from generation to generation, game developers seek to showcase the platform's potential by portraying the grandeur and apocalyptic power of a deity being unleashed on the player. While there is truth in this proposed teleological narrative, it overlooks or underplays the significant semiotic motivation for developers to employ the god-slayer trope in gameworld narratives, inviting potential connections to real-world religious ideas. The present article explores the interlocking web of narrative, musical, and sociocultural meanings potentially invoked by the god-slayer trope. The argument begins with a latitudinal, quantitative analysis of video games potentially featuring the god-slayer trope, proceeds to a semiotic analysis of a striking musical feature of the trope, and then progresses to an in-depth case study of god-slayer themes in the narrative and music of Xenoblade Chronicles (2010). Finally, a sociocultural study of post-war Japanese history proposes a reading of god-slayer themes’ particular significance and prominence in Japanese video games.

First, a provisional attempt to define the god-slayer trope is necessary. Succinctly put, a god-slayer narrative is one in which the final boss or mastermind that the protagonist(s) must defeat is the god2 of the gameworld. The classic god-slayer trope typically involves the overthrow of a singularly powerful entity who is associated with light, holiness, goodness, and/or order, usually receiving the veneration of the gameworld's residents and portrayed in more traditional roles of deity (such as creator of the universe) within the gameworld's mythos. Thus, the protagonist's decision to oppose and defeat the god is highly surprising to some or most of the gameworld's residents, representing a disruption of received social order. Other variants of the trope—such as the evil god, seizure of divinity, advanced alien, and pantheon variants—present a spin on the classic god-slayer trope and further nuance its range of meanings. The evil god variant typically features a dualistic conflict between a good and an evil god, with the good god entreating the protagonist(s) to defeat the evil god. Overtones of Nietszchean deicide are attenuated, as the god slain is considered morally evil and not the sole divine power. The seizure of divinity variant involves a non-divine character seizing, usurping, or illegitimately acquiring enormous power from a divine or transcendent source—usually during the events of the narrative—thus becoming a god-like entity that the protagonist(s) must defeat. This variant does not convey the same degree of social upheaval in defeating the usurper, who was never supposed to possess omnipotent power in the first place. In the advanced alien variant, the defeated deity turns out to be a highly advanced or powerful entity from another planet or dimension—though it may play the traditional role of a god by overseeing the world's structure or receiving worship. As an extra-terrestrial rather than transcendent being, the advanced alien entity suggests closer associations with science fiction than religion. The pantheon variant depicts a polytheistic world in which many entities with near-equal power share oversight and rule of the gameworld, and only one or a subset is defeated or killed by the game's protagonist. As in the evil god variant, killing one out of many gods does not bear the same thematic gravity as slaying the sole deity of a gameworld.

Overarching trends in the vast repertoire of video games cannot be established by case studies alone—latitudinal, quantitative analysis is required. Since life is too short for one individual to play every video game, creating an exhaustive list of games featuring the god-slayer trope is impossible. Nonetheless, a latitudinal study of an approximate corpus of god-slayer video games proves productive. To chart the ubiquity of the god-slayer trope, I crowdsourced a data set of 142 video games supposedly featuring the trope from a variety of video game websites, discussion forums, online lists, and my own playing experience. Responses to my queries came from discussion forums on the video gaming websites IGN, Gamespot, and GameFAQs, in addition to Reddit, a more generalized discussion forum. Pre-populated lists of god-slaying video games were posted on websites including Huffington Post, TV Tropes, All the Tropes, Cheat Code Central, the Escapist, GiantBomb, GameFAQs, and the Game Theory YouTube channel. After compiling all the nominated games into a single spreadsheet documenting the game's title, year of release, and console or platform, I researched each entry using public plot and character synopses, confirming via watching recorded gameplay footage where possible.3 Based on my findings, I ranked how strongly each entry exemplified the narrative god-slayer trope on a scale from 0 to 3. Methodologically speaking, this introduces subjective evaluation into this quantitative analysis—however, a degree of subjectivity is necessary in order to grapple with the fine nuances of narrative design. A rating of zero indicates the game was not an instance of the god-slayer trope; a rating of 1 marks the game as a weak example of the god-slayer trope, usually belonging to one of the variants described above. Ratings of 2 and 3 indicate the strongest examples of the god-slayer trope, with 3 given to video games that exhibit all of the trope's primary criteria. Figure 1 visually summarizes the distribution of relevance rankings for the 142 games surveyed, and Supplement 1 provides the raw data of the games surveyed as potential god-slayer games.

FIGURE 1.

Chart of distribution of relevance rankings of 142 potential god-slayer games.

FIGURE 1.

Chart of distribution of relevance rankings of 142 potential god-slayer games.

The trope occurred most frequently in the role-playing game (RPG) genre—especially Japanese RPGs. From the seventy-six games featuring the trope strongly or very strongly (with a relevance rating of 2 or 3), I created a brief video highlight reel representing the past thirty years of god-slaying in video games. Recorded footage from each game is paired with music from the corresponding final boss battle theme, permitting the comparison of god-slaying battle music in search of common techniques and compositional patterns.4 While watching Video 1, pay particular attention to musical commonalities between the tracks.

Video 1

Thirty Years of God-Slaying in Video Games.

Video 1

Thirty Years of God-Slaying in Video Games.

These twenty examples feature a striking preponderance of choir, organ, and solo voice. Additionally, harmonic or contrapuntal features of sacred music pervade their musical style, frequently combined with a rock or battle-theme idiom. Admittedly, the examples are somewhat cherry-picked to demonstrate a broader point: the narrative god-slayer trope typically features instrumentation and/or characteristics of sacred music in its corresponding soundtrack. The features of sacred music are directly correlated with the degree of relevance of the god-slayer trope—games ranked with a 3 were most likely to bear hallmarks of a sacred-music style. By contrast, games with a lower relevance ranking were more likely to feature rock-topic themes, especially in the context of the evil god variant. (In music semiotics, a topic is a set of musical conventions and stylistic traits that are associated with particular settings, functions, and concepts within a cultural-historical milieu.) Rock-topic battle themes tend to be used for average enemy and boss battles; thus, the increase of sacred-music features and reduction of rock elements mark the context of a classic god-slayer battle as an event of special ludic and narrative significance.

Fifty-four percent of god-slayer games ranked with a 2 or 3 in relevance bore sacred-music topic features, and seventy-one percent feature either sacred- or rock-topic features. Significantly, some games among those ranked with a 2 or 3 deliberately combine the two contrasting topics in an intriguing play of opposites. It should be noted that the combination—or musical trope—of rock and sacred-music topics is infrequent, occurring in approximately sixteen percent of god-slayer games’ final boss battle themes. Thus, quantitative analysis of the data dispels the notion that troping rock and sacred music is a conventional means of scoring the struggle against a gameworld's god, as it is used only by a minority of video game music composers. Yet removal from the sphere of the conventional places the sacred-rock trope in the domain of the strategic, adding to the trope's semiotic significance. Video game composers may choose to employ this striking combination to achieve a richly meaningful result—one that enhances the process of interpretation and may support, nuance, or contribute to the plot's thematic and narrative content. Understanding the semiotic meanings this trope may bear requires a more detailed analysis of the musical features and cultural associations of both rock and sacred-music topics—only then shall it be evident why combining these two musical topics is especially well-suited to the narrative god-slayer trope.

A SURPRISING PLAY OF OPPOSITES: TROPING ROCK AND SACRED-MUSIC TOPICS

Raymond Monelle writes that musical topics strategically “locate music in history and in culture,”5 and Robert Hatten defines a musical topic as triggering “clear associations with styles, genres, and expressive meanings.”6 In semiotic terms, topics import the range of meanings from one musical domain into another, creating “fresh meanings” that transcend their individual components.7 Monelle demonstrates the progression of hunting horn calls in music from indexical meaning, quoting contemporary horn calls in a piece to establish the setting of a hunt; to iconic meaning, in which originally composed music similar to the style of a horn call recalls associations with the hunt; and finally symbolic meaning, in which a set of musical conventions more broadly reminiscent of a hunting-horn call may be employed by composers to evoke a wide range of cultural associations related to the hunt, hunters, and nobility in general. At the symbolic stage, the meanings carried by a musical topic may be quite diverse; Monelle lists manliness, nobility, youth, exoticism, nature, risk, morning, and the woodlands as some of the many concepts related to the hunting-horn call topic.8 As with the hunting horn, so too with other musical topics, including rock and sacred music.

Though several topics carry over from the Western concert music tradition to video game music,9 video game composers typically utilize conventions and topics more specific to the medium. Video game music topics usually correspond to particular ludic functions—to mention a few specific examples, the safety of towns, adventurousness of overworld travel, and intensity of combat bear common musical-stylistic features that can be recognized and recalled in other contexts. This is especially true of battle-music themes, which bear clear resemblances to other instances of the same type. The stylistic features of real-world rock music frequently serve as a foundation for a video game battle theme. It generally features monodic texture with distinct melody and accompaniment, utilizing typical rock instrumentation such as drum set, electric bass, and/or electric guitar. Its melodies are typically rather active, with greater rhythmic syncopation and wider intervallic leaps, and its harmonic rhythm changes at a pace of roughly one chord per measure. Battle themes are generally in minor mode (as are more progressive or hard strands of rock music), with loud dynamics10 and moderate to fast tempo. Its expressive associations include adolescence and countercultural attitudes,11 individual willpower and defiance of authority,12 passionate expression,13 rebellious personality,14 and uniquely human experience of an individual.15 Especially significant is the common thread of “opposition to freedom-curtailing impositions by persons or institutions in power,” placing the rock topic in marked tension with the sacred-music topic.16

The sacred-music topic is an apt musical calling card for a gameworld's god due to its religious connotations. Its signature musical features include both contrapuntal polyphony and chorale-like homophony; though these are on opposite ends of the textural spectrum, each is characteristic of European sacred music in different times and denominations or for use in various functions.17 Olga Sánchez-Kisielewska identifies the classic sacred topic instrumentation as solo voice, choir, and/or organ—all three of which were frequently used in the musical god-slayer examples sampled in Video 1.18 Sacred-music chorales generally utilize simple, stepwise melody for ease of congregational singing and recall.19 Other musical features include a harmonic rhythm of roughly one chord per beat,20 generally major mode,21 soft dynamic,22 and “exceedingly slow tempo.”23 Its cultural meanings include archaism,24 ceremonial order,25 collectivism,26 devotion,27 solemnity and self-control,28 association with the divine,29 spirituality, and transcendence.30 Whereas the rock-music topic is characterized by rebellion against institutional structure and authority, the sacred-music topic identifies with religion as a whole via synecdoche31 and may invoke divinity itself via metonymy of the god with the deity's worshippers.32Table 1 compares the characteristics of rock and sacred music topics—note how the two starkly contrast each other on nearly every point.

TABLE 1.
Parameter comparison of rock and sacred-music topics.
ParameterRock TopicSacred-Music Topic (Sánchez-Kisielewska 2018)
Texture Monody (melody and accompaniment) Counterpoint or Homophony (98) 
Instrumentation Drum Set, Electric Bass, Electric Guitar Solo Voice, Choir, Organ (138) 
Melody Active (syncopation, leaps possible) Simple, stepwise (103) 
Harmonic Rhythm One chord per measure One chord per beat (108) 
Mode Minor (when in video game battle themes) Major (147) 
Dynamic Loud: mf to ff (Baugh 1993, 28) Soft: pp to mp (128–129) 
Tempo Moderate to fast “Exceedingly slow tempo” (126) 
Expressive Meanings Adolescence (Jackson 2000, 33)
Counter-cultural attitudes (Jackson 2000, 33)
Individual willpower (Bleich et al. 1991, 351)
Defiance of authority (Bleich et al. 1991, 351)
Passionate expression (Baugh 1993, 23)
Rebelliousness (Carpentier et al. 2003, 1653)
Human experience (Jackson 2000, 11) 
Archaism and ancient tradition (33)
Ceremonial and liturgical order (156)
United collective over individual (94)
Devotion (3)
Solemnity and self-control (33, 45)
Association with the divine (87)
Spirituality and transcendence (57, 17) 
ParameterRock TopicSacred-Music Topic (Sánchez-Kisielewska 2018)
Texture Monody (melody and accompaniment) Counterpoint or Homophony (98) 
Instrumentation Drum Set, Electric Bass, Electric Guitar Solo Voice, Choir, Organ (138) 
Melody Active (syncopation, leaps possible) Simple, stepwise (103) 
Harmonic Rhythm One chord per measure One chord per beat (108) 
Mode Minor (when in video game battle themes) Major (147) 
Dynamic Loud: mf to ff (Baugh 1993, 28) Soft: pp to mp (128–129) 
Tempo Moderate to fast “Exceedingly slow tempo” (126) 
Expressive Meanings Adolescence (Jackson 2000, 33)
Counter-cultural attitudes (Jackson 2000, 33)
Individual willpower (Bleich et al. 1991, 351)
Defiance of authority (Bleich et al. 1991, 351)
Passionate expression (Baugh 1993, 23)
Rebelliousness (Carpentier et al. 2003, 1653)
Human experience (Jackson 2000, 11) 
Archaism and ancient tradition (33)
Ceremonial and liturgical order (156)
United collective over individual (94)
Devotion (3)
Solemnity and self-control (33, 45)
Association with the divine (87)
Spirituality and transcendence (57, 17) 

One specifically semiotic tool able to measure virtual agency in these topics is Algirdas Julien Greimas's six modalities, as applied to musical analysis by Eero Tarasti.33 Admittedly, the present application will be somewhat unique, as other music semioticians may understand and apply Tarasti's implementation of Greimas's concept differently. To clarify, the present article's usage groups the six modalities in pairs of activity or passivity in the music's virtual agency along three axes—strategic vs. stylistic, diachronic vs. synchronic, and change vs. stasis:

  1. Will (vouloir): a musical idea containing developmental potential to serve as a hermeneutic premise for subsequent musical development; a musical idea that is unique, characteristic, and strategic. Must (devoir): a musical passage or figure that conforms or capitulates to conventional expectations (such as stylistic or tonal ones).

  2. Can (pouvoir): a musical passage that exerts influence over other diachronic events in the same musical piece, such as a key area modulation. Know (savoir): a musical passage with primarily synchronic significance, conveying meaningful information to the listener in the moment through strategic arranging of musical events.

  3. Do (faire): a musical texture actively in flux and development, high in kinetic energy and a sense of instability and change between successive musical events. Be (être): a musical texture exhibiting homeostasis, stability, and self-containment; a distinct isotopy not in the process of changing into another.

Table 2 summarizes Greimas's modal concepts in visual form.

TABLE 2.
A. J. Greimas's modalities as applied in music semiotics (Tarasti 1994, 41–42).
Strategic vs. StylisticDiachronic vs. Synchronic AffectChange vs. Stasis
Will (vouloir) Can (pouvoir) Do (faire) 
Developmental potential to serve as hermeneutic premise, agential yearning Potential to effect change and influence over other events in the music Kinetic energy, sense of change between successive musical events 
Must (devoir) Know (savoir) Be (être
To capitulate to conventional expectations, such as tonal or stylistic ones To convey information through strategic arranging of musical events Establishing homeostasis or self-containment; a distinct isotopy 
Strategic vs. StylisticDiachronic vs. Synchronic AffectChange vs. Stasis
Will (vouloir) Can (pouvoir) Do (faire) 
Developmental potential to serve as hermeneutic premise, agential yearning Potential to effect change and influence over other events in the music Kinetic energy, sense of change between successive musical events 
Must (devoir) Know (savoir) Be (être
To capitulate to conventional expectations, such as tonal or stylistic ones To convey information through strategic arranging of musical events Establishing homeostasis or self-containment; a distinct isotopy 

These modalities are useful as parameters for evaluating music's degree of virtual agency in a quasi-quantitative manner, albeit in a necessarily subjective manner. Robert Hatten conceptualizes virtual agency as music's “capacity to simulate the actions, emotions, and reactions of a human agent … [enabling] us to hear music as having movement, agency, emotional expression, and even subjectivity.”34 Hatten's theory of virtual agency thus articulates what is typically described vaguely as the character of a musical passage or style. Tarasti's modalities provide conceptual handholds for evaluating a topic's virtual agency—including the rock and sacred-music topics.

When evaluating a passage of music using Greimas's modalities, Tarasti assigns a “+” sign to modalities that the passage exemplifies, with a double “+” sign for one that it exemplifies very strongly. A “–” (or double “–”) sign means the music does not exemplify that modality—though the “–” signs are usually not listed, since a single or double “+” in one modality entails a single or double “–” in its opposite. Following Tarasti's usage, I evaluate the rock topic as will++, can+, and do+ and the sacred music topic as be++, know+, and must+. In other words, the rock topic's agency is one of maximum willpower and individuality, as shown by its cultural associations. It also conveys a high degree of kinetic energy and generally exhibits marked changes in harmonic progression and/or texture from section to section. By contrast, the sacred-music topic's virtual agency is primarily one of placid homeostasis and self-containment, as it invites congregational participants to contemplate their inward spiritual state. Chorales also emphasize the transmission of meaning—especially the theological meaning of a sacred text—and generally conform to conventional tonal and stylistic expectations.

Once more, the rock and sacred-music topics are largely opposites—thus, their combination in a single topical trope is highly surprising, with great potential for semiotic play, in both compositional design and listener interpretations. A prominent example is the opening theme of Halo: Combat Evolved (2001), which juxtaposes Gregorian chant and driving electronic rock, contributing to the religion-versus-science symbolism in the game's narrative.35 A more powerful instance of both the sacred-rock musical trope and god-slayer narrative trope is Xenoblade Chronicles (2010),36 which warrants and rewards deeper scrutiny.

“A WORLD WITH NO GODS”: XENOBLADE CHRONICLES, A SEMIOTIC CASE STUDY

Xenoblade Chronicles’ plot is too monumental to synopsize in any detail, but some brief remarks are in order for the sake of contextualization. The hundred-hour epic narrative revolves around a god, a young man, and a sword. The god is Zanza, the creator of the world Bionis who ordained a cycle in which all life dies, returns to nourish him, and is then recreated. In addition to being the most powerful entity in Bionis, Zanza is worshipped by a cult of religious devotees and is initially transcendent, existing only in nonmaterial form. Zanza is thus a prime candidate for the classic god-slayer narrative trope. The protagonist of the story is Shulk, an earnest young man researching the secrets of Bionis. As is the case for many RPG protagonists, Shulk compulsively protects all he comes across from danger, gathering a party of like-minded friends to aid him in his quest. The sword is the Monado, which grants its user an array of unique powers—perhaps most significantly the ability to foresee impending danger and change the future to avert that fate. Shulk wields the Monado throughout the game, eventually discovering Zanza as the mastermind behind the cycle of life and death and resolving to defy him in the game's final battle. Xenoblade's story thus exemplifies the god-slayer trope in its purest form, as does its music during the battle with Zanza.

Xenoblade's battle themes typically exemplify a hard rock—perhaps even heavy metal—topic conventional for many combat-driven video games. As the final boss, Zanza has a unique battle theme, “Zanza the Divine,” which is distinct from every other enemy's battle theme, as it initially lacks any rock elements. Rather, the track begins with a strong example of the sacred-music topic, instantiated both by textural style and instrumentation. The layering of recorded solo voice creates an effect reminiscent of choral music as the two melodic voices move in parallel perfect fifths—thus referencing the medieval sacred-music practice of organum, in which a melody is harmonized in strict parallel motion at a perfect interval. The use of organum to invoke the sacred-music topic and an association with ancientness or otherworldliness is not without precedent; Stefan Greenfield-Casas analyzes the use of organum to similar effect in association with the ancient entity Yunalesca in Final Fantasy X (2001).37

Yet the sacred organum does not have the last word; a dramatic shift obliterates the static, otherworldly isotopy as a more conventional rock-topic battle theme shatters the calm—complete with drum set groove and distorted, power chord–style electric guitar. Audio 1, excerpted and notated in Example 1, demonstrates the highly salient contrast between sacred and rock topics in “Zanza the Divine.”

Audio 1

‘Zanza the Divine’ Excerpt 1 from Xenoblade Chronicles (1:00)

Audio 1

‘Zanza the Divine’ Excerpt 1 from Xenoblade Chronicles (1:00)

EXAMPLE 1.

“Zanza the Divine,” Excerpt 1. Manami Kiyota, Xenoblade Chronicles, (2010); trans. Thomas Yee

EXAMPLE 1.

“Zanza the Divine,” Excerpt 1. Manami Kiyota, Xenoblade Chronicles, (2010); trans. Thomas Yee

Sacred and rock topics had alternated in the track's introduction, producing a marked juxtaposition. In the main section of the piece, however, the two topics are combined, producing a striking instance of the sacred-rock trope. In addition to the Phrygian-mode vocal melody, suggesting the medieval church modes, a layer of choral accompaniment enters approximately an octave above the melodic voice. The choral layer is subtle, but important—it is the only hint of collective singing in this track. This faint feature will prove to be key to later interpretation. Audio 2 displays the rock and sacred music topical trope.

Audio 2

‘Zanza the Divine’ Excerpt 2 from Xenoblade Chronicles (1:05)

Audio 2

‘Zanza the Divine’ Excerpt 2 from Xenoblade Chronicles (1:05)

How do the rock and sacred features of the trope interact in this passage? Robert Hatten describes four axes of topical troping—compatibility, dominance, creativity, and productivity—as concepts to analyze the interaction of a trope's individual components.38 Hatten's four axes are summarized in Table 3. Compatibility measures two topics’ ability to fit together smoothly, such that maximal similarity may appear to be a single topic rather than a trope. Dominance evaluates which component of the topical trope is most salient or important from a musical perspective—which topic is more complete, prominent, or influential. A trope's degree of creativity involves its novelty and originality; if a trope of two topics is used very frequently, it loses its originality and becomes its own conventionalized topic. The last of these four axes, productivity, measures a trope's potential to serve as the basis for further musical development over the course of a piece or movement, especially in regards to the music's semiotic meaning.

TABLE 3.
Four axes for semiotic analysis of topical troping in music (Hatten 2014, 515)
Axis NameDescription
Compatibility Evaluates how naturally a topic fits into its new environment, or two or more topics fit together. Ranges from similarity (high) to complementarity (balanced) to contradiction (low). 
Dominance Evaluates a topic's degree of salience or importance relative to others, based on hierarchical weight, temporal precedence, completeness, adherence to prototype, or prevailing influence. 
Creativity Evaluates a trope's ability to generate fresh semiotic meaning based on the novelty of the combination of topics troped. Greater originality generates more striking hermeneutic windows. 
Productivity Evaluates a trope's potential to serve as a premise for expressive discourse over the course of a piece or movement; productive tropes have high potential for subsequent musical development. 
Axis NameDescription
Compatibility Evaluates how naturally a topic fits into its new environment, or two or more topics fit together. Ranges from similarity (high) to complementarity (balanced) to contradiction (low). 
Dominance Evaluates a topic's degree of salience or importance relative to others, based on hierarchical weight, temporal precedence, completeness, adherence to prototype, or prevailing influence. 
Creativity Evaluates a trope's ability to generate fresh semiotic meaning based on the novelty of the combination of topics troped. Greater originality generates more striking hermeneutic windows. 
Productivity Evaluates a trope's potential to serve as a premise for expressive discourse over the course of a piece or movement; productive tropes have high potential for subsequent musical development. 

As previously observed, the rock and sacred topics are not naturally compatible but contrast each other in every parameter. In “Zanza the Divine,” this tension may be observed by the sacrifices each topic must make in order for the two to coexist. The choral accompaniment adopts the rock topic's staccato articulation and slower harmonic rhythm, accenting the strong beats of the measure in a manner uncharacteristic of a sacred chorale. In turn, the rock topic has lost an active rock-style melody of its own, allowing the sacred topic to provide its melody instead. Concerning dominance, the rock topic is most prominent in the track's prevailing aesthetic, with the sacred topic's vocal instrumentation and Phrygian mode serving to inflect the rock battle theme with an archaic, magisterial flavor. In terms of creativity, the sacred-rock trope is highly striking due to its stark play of opposites, generating strong potential for semiotic meaning. As shown quantitatively, among the total corpus of god-slayer games, the sacred-rock trope is infrequent, adding to its significance whenever it does occur. The peculiar combination of rock and sacred music topics thus appears uniquely motivated by the narrative god-slayer trope, creating a perfect musical depiction of rebellion against a divine power.

The last of Hatten's axes, productivity, must be evaluated in context of the piece as a whole. The contrasting middle section of the track stages an expressive trajectory that reveals the high degree of productivity possessed by this instance of the sacred-rock trope. Listen to Audio 3 with particular attention to the developing interaction between the track's sacred and rock elements.

Audio 3

‘Zanza the Divine’ Excerpt 3 from Xenoblade Chronicles (1:01)

Audio 3

‘Zanza the Divine’ Excerpt 3 from Xenoblade Chronicles (1:01)

Initially, the rock elements drop out entirely, leaving the vocals accompanied by organ—the other signature sacred-music instrument. Thus, the music appears to reference and return to the lone sacred topic of the cue's opening, reasserting the initial stasis of the choral organum. Halfway through the section, however, the rock topic returns in a half-time groove, undergirding the dominant organ and vocals with an intermittent backbeat and increasing rhythmic drive. Closing the contrasting section, the rock groove that interrupted the introductory organum texture returns, looping into a repeat of the main section with its sacred-rock trope. It is now evident how the sacred-rock trope functions as a hermeneutic premise for the entirety of “Zanza the Divine”; the sacred-music and rock topics—initially juxtaposed against each other—are joined in an unstable, low-compatibility trope. At first, the rock topic dominates, but it is in turn repelled and dominated by the sacred-music topic. Over the course of the contrasting middle, however, the rock elements gradually return until they become dominant once more. The topics’ competition for dominance, looped continuously over the battle, musically encodes the struggle of Shulk's authority-defying willpower clashing with the magisterial and divine deity Zanza. Thus, the sacred-rock trope is semiotically productive as well.

Many final boss battles have multiple stages—so too does Zanza's battle and music. In the midst of Shulk and Zanza's desperate battle, Zanza assumes his ultimate divine form, against whom no mere mortal being could hope to compete. Yet Shulk, armed with the legendary Monado, has long since transcended merely mortal power. Channeling the combined power of his friends, Shulk's Monado metamorphoses into the True Monado, now bearing the Japanese kanji for “god” (神) on its hilt. Throughout the game, the Monado's hilt displayed the Japanese character for any type of being it had the ability to harm or destroy—thus, the True Monado imparts Shulk the god-like power needed to fell Zanza. In the titanic clash between divinity unleashed and god-slaying willpower, the battle music likewise changes to the aptly titled cue “The God-Slaying Sword.” Audio 4 and Example 2 excerpt the introduction of “The God-Slaying Sword,” displaying marked sacred-music characteristics.

Audio 4

‘The God-Slaying Sword’ Excerpt 1 from Xenoblade Chronicles (1:02)

Audio 4

‘The God-Slaying Sword’ Excerpt 1 from Xenoblade Chronicles (1:02)

EXAMPLE 2.

“The God-Slaying Sword,” Excerpt 1. ACE+ (Tomori Kudo, Hiroyo Yamanaka, Kenji Hiramatsu), Xenoblade Chronicles, (2010); trans. Thomas Yee

EXAMPLE 2.

“The God-Slaying Sword,” Excerpt 1. ACE+ (Tomori Kudo, Hiroyo Yamanaka, Kenji Hiramatsu), Xenoblade Chronicles, (2010); trans. Thomas Yee

Similarly to “Zanza the Divine,” the track opens with quasi-medieval choral organum, now harmonized in parallel fourths. Sustained organ accompaniment, replacing the previous track's synthesizer drone, signifies an enhanced sacred-music topic. The harmonized melody, reminiscent of Gregorian chant via its contour and use of the Dorian mode, is considerably more extensive and complete than the brief introductory melody of the previous track. Thus, the sacred-music topic is more present and complete in “The God-Slaying Sword” than “Zanza the Divine.” As the music develops, the sole sacred-music topic continues without its previous rock-topic elements, redoubling its sacred overtones through the prominence of choir and church-like bells. Audio 5 displays the purely sacred music character of the main sections of “The God-Slaying Sword.”

Audio 5

‘The God-Slaying Sword’ Excerpt 2 from Xenoblade Chronicles (1:16)

Audio 5

‘The God-Slaying Sword’ Excerpt 2 from Xenoblade Chronicles (1:16)

The disappearance of rock elements in this battle theme poses these tracks’ greatest hermeneutic question. Why would the composer dispel the rock half of the sacred-rock trope while Shulk continues to fight as defiantly as ever? Why undercut the carefully crafted battle for dominance between the sacred and rock topics? This development certainly seems interpretively bewildering; if anything, one would expect the final phase of the battle to intensify its individualist rock-topic components, as the defiant willpower represented by Shulk and his friends at last pushes through to victory. Yet three considerations reveal why these musical choices are provocatively appropriate, contributing to the climactic scene's overall thematic meaning.

First, the vanishing rock elements symbolize how overpowering Zanza is in his full divinity, and thus how unlike all previous battles the climactic struggle is. In this—the gameworld's greatest conceivable struggle—there can be no hint of the mundane music fit for cleaning up low-level spiders and crabs. Accordingly, the dominant sacred-music topic and cinematic, epic orchestration utterly transcend the game's conventional rock battle themes. Second, the singular identity of the game's final battle theme functions as a semiotic beacon, alerting players that the events about to occur are significant and meaningful. Whereas a recurrent battle theme prompts players to enter ludic autopilot—processing stimuli necessary for gameplay but without much critical thinking toward the events’ thematic significance—a strikingly different theme suggests that the battle is narratively, not just ludically, pivotal. Since the most striking trait of “The God-Slaying Sword” is the prominence of its sacred-music elements, the shift suggests to attentive players that plot developments related to divinity will be key in interpreting the unfolding scene. Third, the track musically encodes Shulk's facing Zanza on equal ground, new god against old, rather than relying on merely human power as before. Shulk opposed Zanza previously as the embodiment of all that is human (rock topic); now, with his friends’ aid, he confronts Zanza using a new mode of divinity (sacred-music topic).

Evidencing this interpretive move is a subtle—but semiotically marked—relationship between the two tracks. The melodic elements of “Zanza the Divine” consisted primarily of solo voice, with the exception of a faint choral accompanimental texture above the main melody. In “The God-Slaying Sword,” the accompanimental choral voices are now firmly foregrounded in a chorale-like melody, suggesting the realization of Shulk's divine potential through the combined support of his friends. The significance of this development is apparent through the differences in solo voice and choral singing within the domain of the sacred-music topic. Olga Sánchez-Kisielewska describes the choral manifestation of the sacred topic as “anti-subjective,” subsuming the individual voice into the unified collective.39 In his persuasive semiosis of Final Fantasy X, Stefan Greenfield-Casas interprets the chorale setting of the “Hymn of the Fayth” in the game's climax as all Spira singing together, yearning for a new world.40 In Spira, as in religious congregations, the collectivism of choral singing can signify positively valenced unity in will or purpose in some situations even as it suggests negatively valanced suppression of individual will in other contexts. In “Zanza the Divine,” the melodic solo voice is emblematic of Zanza himself, a sole magisterial entity competing for dominance with the human individuality represented by rock elements. In “The God-Slaying Sword,” however, the dominant choral melody encodes the unified hopes of humanity, channeled through Shulk and the True Monado. The individualist rock topic thus gives way to communal song, as all of Bionis's hopes for freedom from Zanza join Shulk in battle, imbuing him with the power to defy a god.

Shulk fells Zanza with his god-slaying sword, and the Monado offers to remake the world however Shulk desires, with him as its new god. As Zanza decided the shape and structure of Bionis and became its god, Shulk may create the new world in his own image. Yet Shulk refuses both divinity and the right to decide the form of the future world, casting aside the Monado after proclaiming: “The future should be decided by each and every person in the world. And so what I—no, what we—wish for is a world with no gods!” The game's god-slaying narrative culminates in the abolition of the concept of deity itself. As with many god-slayer narratives, Xenoblade Chronicles ends in rebirth—the people working together to rebuild and transform the world into a paradise.

DESCENT OF THE GOD-EMPEROR: A CULTURAL-HISTORICAL READING OF THE GOD-SLAYER TROPE

But how is the god-slayer trope to be interpreted? What cultural meanings does it convey, and why is it especially common in Japanese RPGs? It is tempting to read the god-slayer trope as an “overtly antitheistic” Japanese rejection of monotheistic religion—after all, Christianity was outlawed and persecuted under the Tokugawa Shogunate and only has a one-percent population in Japan today.41 No other monotheistic religion has even that much representation in Japanese society, past or present. This reading would accord with the Nietzschean vision of deicide encapsulated by his seminal quote on the death of God. Yet that interpretive move would be too quick, as there is a closer connection in Japan's recent history. A foundational dictum of semiotics insists that in order to decode what a particular sign may mean, an interpreter must evaluate the sign's probable meaning in its original context—in this case, Japanese history and culture.

Stefan Greenfield-Casas analyzes similar narrative and musical themes in another god-slaying Japanese RPG, Final Fantasy X. The soundtrack's iconic “Hymn of the Fayth” plays multiple roles throughout the game's story. On the one hand, it does represent Spira's institutional religion, Yevon, especially in association with Yunalesca and Yu Yevon, two primary figureheads of the Yevon church. On the other hand, the hymn gestures at the simple, communal faith of Spira's people, particularly when sung in unison by the communal Ronso people and in six-part harmony by all of Spira.42 The sacred-music associations of the hymn are neither wholly negative—a hegemony to be overthrown—nor wholly positive. Rather, the hymn and the game's other religious symbols are part of the domain of myth, which functions to connect the fictional gameworld to Japan's own history and culture. “Myth in the context of FFX,” writes Greenfield-Casas, “disguises Japan's history—it presents a gamified and mythicized simulation of the past.”43 Greenfield-Casas concludes that the protagonists’ opposition to the Yevonite church and deicide of Yu Yevon himself is a double allegory—first to the European Enlightenment, and through it to Japan's own experience of modernity.44 I wish to further Greenfield-Casas's insight and argue that the ubiquitous god-slayer trope is a mythic retelling of one of the most formative moments in modern Japanese history—the Emperor's disavowal of divinity.

In the years leading up to World War II, Japan was one of the few remaining civilizations that believed its national leader was a god. Japan's pre-war constitution declares the Emperor “sacred,” “inviolable,” “heaven-descended,” “divine,” and “pre-eminent above all his subjects.”45 In 1945, New York Times correspondent Otto D. Tollschus described Japan's prevailing conception of its emperors as “deities superior to all others,” whose “descendants [the Japanese people] must likewise be superior to all other beings on earth.”46 After the destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima ended Japan's participation in the war, the experience of military defeat compelled a collective rethinking of this cultural doctrine. In the post-war period of political, financial, and societal reconstruction, Emperor Hirohito took two actions that have been called “the most significant act by any Japanese Emperor.”47

On August 15, 1945, Japan heard the voice of god—when Hirohito spoke to his people via recording in the Jewel Voice Broadcast. It is difficult to overstate how impactful hearing the Jewel Voice Broadcast would be to a Japanese citizen in 1945. The emperors remained behind a veil of obscurity, and contact with the average subject was virtually nonexistent—thus, to hear the emperor's human voice was worldview-shattering.48 Japanese author Ōe Kenzaburō vividly recalls:

… the Emperor as a god speaking to us in a human voice was beyond imagining in any reverie. The Emperor was a god, the authority of the nation, the organizing principle of reality. The military and the police, our system of social classes—the Emperor as a god was at the source of all things, and all the laws and systems under our Constitution had erected hard, high barriers of reality to keep the Emperor at a distance from us.49

Through the straightforward act of speaking to his subjects in a human voice, Emperor Hirohito dealt a lethal blow to the doctrine of royal divinity. The descent of the God-Emperor was completed by the “rapid process of ‘humanization’”50 that followed—most decisively in Hirohito's New Year's Rescript speech of January 1, 1946. Hirohito's public declaration brooked no ambiguity, describing the divinity of the Emperor as a “false conception” and “mere legends and myths.”51 On that day, Japan's god died in a very real sense, leaving its people to reconstruct their whole reality.

Yet the now-human Hirohito also paved the road to modernity, “the personification of a Japan that was able to rise from the ashes of war.”52 The unassuming, modest Hirohito became a symbol beloved by all for his humanity, rather than representing Japan's shame or humiliation. A widespread apocryphal parable depicts Hirohito's visit to a copper factory to meet its workers in person. When a workman approached to shake his hand—a boldness that would have been unconscionable before the war—Hirohito bowed first to the man, broadcasting humility unthinkable from a divine ruler.53 The telling and retelling of Hirohito's act restored national dignity and signaled the way to a future without a God-Emperor.54

As in Xenoblade Chronicles, the task of constructing a new world fell to Japan's people without reliance on its god. Hirohito's influential New Year's Rescript anticipates this, borrowing utopian language from the earlier Meiji Charter Oath: “All classes, high and low, shall unite …”; “All common people … shall be allowed to fulfill their just desires …”, “we will construct a new Japan through … the officials and the people alike …”55

Thus, the god-slayer trope is not one of nihilist deconstruction but of phoenix-like reconstruction. It is the entirety of Final Fantasy X's Spira united in harmony, singing the “Hymn of the Fayth” and desiring a new and better world.56 In Xenoblade Chronicles, it is Shulk's wish to create a world with no need for gods. It is Japan's rebirth into modernity envisioned as myth—a mediatized analogue to the telling and retelling of the copper factory parable. God-slayer games thus fulfill the human craving for meaningful metanarrative57—as Rachel Wagner writes, video games are among the “most powerful and poignant new modes of myth making today.”58 Through cultural-historical semiosis, we see the god-slayer trope not as a rejection of the divine, but rather the embrace of all that is human. As in Xenoblade Chronicles, it is often music that serves as “the bridge between our world and the gameworld”59 through topical signification, a hermeneutic key that vitally inflects the god-slayer trope—suggesting meanings beyond a Nietzschean death of God.

1.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1974), 181–182.

2.

God is defined here loosely as an entity or class of beings within a gameworld that is of highest rank in terms of power, bearing a high degree of responsibility for determining and maintaining the structure of the present state of the gameworld. Note that this does not require that the god in question is the only being with that degree of power (as in the evil god and pantheon variants), and also does not require that the god is transcendent or responsible for the creation of the gameworld. This definition is admittedly somewhat arbitrary but is patterned after its general usage in video games; further semantic specification must be left to theologians and philosophers.

3.

Typically, these synopses are posted on Wiki-style fandom websites dedicated to each game or game series. With full acknowledgement of the abundant inadequacies of utilizing Wikipedia itself in factual research, in matters of fandom on fictional content such as a video game, I find the pages to be predominantly accurate, updated, and beneficial.

4.

Recorded gameplay footage was compiled from video hosting websites such as YouTube, predominantly sourced from commonly dubbed Let's Play videos of each game.

5.

Raymond Monelle, The Musical Topic: Hunt, Military and Pastoral (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 29.

6.

Robert S. Hatten, Interpreting Musical Gestures, Topics, and Tropes: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), 2.

7.

Robert S. Hatten, “The Troping of Topics in Mozart's Instrumental Works,” in The Oxford Handbook of Topic Theory, ed. Danuta Mirka (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 515.

8.

Monelle, The Musical Topic, 95.

9.

A few examples spring immediately to mind: brass fanfares, military marches, the pastoral topical field, folk music styles, and, as we shall see, sacred music.

10.

Bruce Baugh, “Prologomena to Any Aesthetics of Rock Music,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 51, 1 (Winter 1993): 28.

11.

Travis A. Jackson, “Spooning Good Singing Gum: Meaning, Association, and Interpretation in Rock Music,” Current Musicology 69 (2000): 33.

12.

Susan Bleich, Dolf Zillmann, and James Weaver, “Enjoyment and Consumption of Defiant Rock Music as a Function of Adolescent Rebelliousness,” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 35, 3 (1991): 351.

13.

Baugh, “Prologomena to Any Aesthetics of Rock Music,” 23.

14.

Francesca Dillman Carpentier, Silvia Knoblock, and Dolf Zillmann, “Rock, Rap, and Rebellion: Comparisons of Traits Predicting Selective Exposure to Defiant Music,” Personality and Individual Differences 35 (2003): 1653.

15.

Jackson, “Spooning Good Singing Gum,” 11.

16.

Bleich et al., “Enjoyment and Consumption of Defiant Rock Music,” 351.

17.

Olga Sánchez-Kisielewska, “The Hymn as a Musical Topic in the Age of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven,” PhD diss., Northwestern University, 2018, 98.

18.

Sánchez-Kisielewska, 138.

19.

Sánchez-Kisielewska, 103.

20.

Sánchez-Kisielewska, 108.

21.

Sánchez-Kisielewska, 147.

22.

Sánchez-Kisielewska, 128–129.

23.

Sánchez-Kisielewska, 126.

24.

Sánchez-Kisielewska, 33.

25.

Sánchez-Kisielewska, 156.

26.

Sánchez-Kisielewska, 94.

27.

Sánchez-Kisielewska, 3.

28.

Sánchez-Kisielewska, 33, 45.

29.

Sánchez-Kisielewska, 87.

30.

Sánchez-Kisielewska, 57, 17.

31.

Sánchez-Kisielewska, 17.

32.

Sánchez-Kisielewska, 87.

33.

Eero Tarasti, A Theory of Musical Semiotics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 41–42.

34.

Robert S. Hatten, A Theory of Virtual Agency for Western Art Music (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018), 1.

35.

P.C.J.M. Paulissen, “The Dark of the Covenant: Christian Imagery, Fundamentalism, and the Relationship between Science and Religion in the Halo Video Game Series,” Religions 9, 126 (2018): 5.

36.

Xenoblade Chronicles (2010), Monolith Soft, North America/English, Nintendo Wii.

37.

Stefan X. Greenfield-Casas, “Between Worlds: Music Allegory in Final Fantasy X,” M.Mus. thesis, The University of Texas at Austin, 2017, 14.

38.

Hatten, “The Troping of Topics in Mozart's Instrumental Works,” 515.

39.

Sánchez-Kisielewska, “Hymn as a Musical Topic,” 94.

40.

Greenfield-Casas, “Between Worlds,” 16–17.

41.

Greenfield-Casas, 5.

42.

Greenfield-Casas, 11, 16.

43.

Greenfield-Casas, 23 (italics mine).

44.

Greenfield-Casas, 21.

45.

Frederic J. Haskin, “Japan's Divine Rulers: Emperor held to be heaven-descended and sacred,” Washington Post, August 6, 1905.

46.

Otto D. Tollschus, “The God-Emperor: The problem of Japan is the status of the Emperor who rules his people as a divinity,” New York Times, August 19, 1945.

47.

Robert Trumbull, “A New Role for the ‘Son of Heaven,’” New York Times, September 14, 1958.

48.

“Japan: The God-Emperor,” Time, May 21, 1945.

49.

Ōe Kenzaburō, “The Day the Emperor Spoke in a Human Voice,” trans. John Nathan, World Literature Today 76, 1 (2002): 20.

50.

Hal Brands, “The Emperor's New Clothes: American Views of Hirohito After World War II,” The Historian 68, 1 (2006): 18.

51.

Hirohito, “The New Year's Rescript,” New York Times, January 1, 1946.

52.

Shihoko Goto, “Hirohito's Long Shadow: Hirohito's descendants remain committed to Japan's traditional values, which desperately need reform,” The Wilson Quarterly 38, 3 (2014).

53.

Trumbull, “A New Role for the ‘Son of Heaven.’”

54.

Trumbull, “A New Role for the ‘Son of Heaven.’”

55.

Hirohito, “The New Year's Rescript.”

56.

Greenfield-Casas, “Between Worlds,” 16–17.

57.

Kevin Newgren, “BioShock to the System: Smart Choices in Video Games,” in Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, ed. Craig Detweiler (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 138.

58.

Rachel Wagner, “Gaming Religion? Teaching Religious Studies with Videogames,” Transformations: The Journal of Inclusive Scholarship and Pedagogy 25, 1 (Spring/Summer 2014): 110.

59.

Greenfield-Casas, “Between Worlds,” 32.

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