In Tim Schafer’s Broken Age, Mog Chothra is a large, nearly indestructible, man eating Lovercraftian monster. It is the latest in the long line of monsters that have been terrorizing the game’s universe for untold centuries. Mogs live and breed in some far-away, uninhabited region of the planet, but every decade or so one of them returns demanding a tribute. Locals name these returning creatures the way we name hurricanes, and they appease them via human sacrifice. Each village selects a handful of young girls whose virtues best exemplify the values of their society, and feed them to the monster. Over the years this custom has been so enshrined in tradition and ritual that few dare to question it.
I find the Mogs fascinating because it they are a condensation of several prominent cultural and storytelling tropes. Mog Chotrha it’s partly a menace (like a rampaging dragon) and partly an lovercraftian styled elder deity which gets treated more like a force of nature that a threat. It’s concept and design ties into many common monster and religious tropes and thus brings a lot of cultural baggage and symbolism into what otherwise is a light, fun and somewhat charmingly cute point and click adventure.
I wish Broken Age spent more time exploring it, but unfortunately it is present only in half of the very short first episode. By the time credits roll, the monster is defeated and the future episodes are unlikely to bring it back in it’s original form. If anything, the future episodes will deal with ramifications’ of Vella’s choice to kill the monster and the subsequent revelations about it’s nature. Personally, I think there is at least a full length game’s worth of content and discussion to be had just based around the concept of Mogs. For example, I would appreciate a more frank, mature and nuanced discussion of how it is to live in a modern society practicing live human sacrifice: what are the different ways it is rationalized and normalized and how that impacts the society and it’s moral values?
In an absence of such exploratory discussion however, we can still view Mog Chotrha as a metaphor that tells us something about our own society.
On some level the Mog Chothra story reminds me of Nick Bostrom’s Fable of the Dragon Tyrant. Both Bostrom’s dragon and Schafer’s Mog are nearly indestructible creatures of immense power which in the past could not be fought directly. They both require sacrifice: they insist we freely give up something our society values the most (human life) or have it taken from us by force. Both monsters are defeated by science and experimentation.
Bostrom’s fable is a transhumanist allegory which points out that acceptance of aging and death is not only morally wrong but also hypocritical. If our society holds human life as something intrinsically valuable, and considers preservation of human life to be the most noble cause there is, then simply letting people expire due to old age should be considered unethical and evil. Unfortunately in the past we did not know how to prolong human life and counteract aging and so we had to learn to accept it as something “natural”. Now that we do have technology that could help us live longer, if not forever, this acceptance of death is counter productive. It became so ingrained in our consciousness that immortality is considered unnatural (or an affront to the natural order) despite the fact there exist examples of functional biological immortality in the animal kingdom. We make all kinds of mental gymnastics to convince ourselves that death is actually a good thing: that it prevents overpopulation, keeps the societies dynamic and etc.. In many ways it is a survival tactic – it is mental self care that helps us deal with the inevitability of death. But, death does not have to be inevitable. Treating it as such blocks a lot meaningful research that could be done in the area by making it appear silly, or immoral where it should be the most rational and most noble of pursuits.
Similarly in Broken Age the Maiden Feast is considered something normal. The arrival of the next Mog is inevitable, and the locals have no means of defeating them. They come to terms with the need to sacrifice some of their members to preserve their civilization – but they go beyond that. They normalize it and turn it into a festive occasion. Being chosen as a maiden is considered a great honor and privilege.
Looking from the outside in, we the players, can of course see that the practice is clearly reprehensible and that the world-view of the in-game societies has been warped by the exposure to the terror of the Mog monsters. Vella can be seen as a transhumanist hero because she does against this established evil. She seeks to rescue the other maidens even though they have resigned themselves, and accepted their fate.
The Maiden’s Feast celebration during which young girls are fed to the Mog feels very much like a religious ritual. The practice of human sacrifice to appease a temperamental deity is nothing new and there have been many societies in our history which practiced it. However, it is commonly associated with “primitive” societies. We assume that most societies will eventually “grow out” of that phase mainly due to the increased understanding of nature through science. Once people realize that floods, plagues and droughts are natural events which cannot be bargained with they move to less bloody forms of worship… But on Vella’s planet the evil deity is a factual, living beast. The worship is not a matter of faith, but a matter of fact. And so the human sacrifice practice gets normalized well into post-agricultural age.
Coming to terms with the brutality of Maiden’s Feast is actually seen as a form of enlightenment. Near the beginning of the game we learn that Vella’s home village of Sugar Bunts used to be a tribe of warriors who resisted, fought and hid from the Mogs in the past. But in the last few decades the attitudes have changed and the towns-folk warmed up to the Mog worship. They decided that practicing occasional human sacrifice results in a hundred-fold net decrease of the human casualties caused by the monster menace. And so they put down their weapons and became a village of bakers.
But can that ever justify human sacrifice? Is creating peaceful and harmonious society a valid excuse to indulge in ritualized murder? This is more or less the basis for half of failed utopia stories: a superficially perfect society with a dark secret. But the inhabitant’s of Vella’s planet don’t even hide it – they practice their sacrifices openly and are proud of them.
This is a very interesting example in how an organized religion can potentially normalize behaviors which would otherwise be morally unacceptably by re-framing them as acts of virtue that benefit the entire society. Sacrificing maidens is no longer viewed as a lesser of two evils, or a necessary brutality. It becomes something inherently good and wholesome. A monster devouring innocent young women becomes a symbol of pacifism and civilized harmony. The ritual of human sacrifice becomes a happy and festive, family friendly celebration. This is the real power of organized religion: the ability to skew perception and not only justify but sanctify vile acts by turning them into wholesome acts of devotion.
The worst part is that this is not a sinister thing. There isn’t some evil cult leader hidden behind the curtain brain washing the flowers. This warped worldview has evolved naturally over many decades. The townspeople are neither evil, nor particularly gullible – they are just misguided. They are mostly portrayed as sympathetic, well meaning and sometimes tragic characters. There is a great scene in there where Vella talks to a “rejected” maiden in the town of Meriloft. The girl was chosen by the community to be one of the sacrificial victims, but not devoured by Mog Chotrha which is a deep sense of personal shame to her. By failing to be devoured she has not only shamed herself, but also her entire family.
So Mog Chotrha can be a metaphorical jab at modern religions, which typically do not practice human sacrifice but often do preach morally questionable truths. For example, some religions proscribe female circumcision because it aligns with their dogma, and is perceived to be socially beneficial to the entire community. Even Christian denominations are not immune from this, as they often preach intolerance toward LGBTQ+ folk and prop up outdated, harmful power structures as models to be followed. Vella can therefore be interpreted as an atheist hero because she dares to go against the dogma. She recognizes her religion is wrong, and that the rituals are morally reprehensible and rejects them. For that she is labeled as a pariah. To to those who fully internalized Mog worship, Vella’s rebellion is and ultimate act of selfishness – a refusal of a holy, righteous sacrifice on behalf of the community. This is very similar to the way in which the critics of organized religions tend to be treated: they are labeled as sinners or heretics and shunned or expelled from their communities and their families are shamed for allowing this to happen.
Finally, it is probably worthwhile to ask why do Mogs prefer “maidens”? Granted, the second chapter of the game may shed more light on this, since the end of Vella’s story reveals that Mogs are more than just mindless monsters. So perhaps there is a logic to their selection. As it stands right now however, the game does not comment on this. It presents the ritual of sacrifice as is. The fact that there isn’t even a dialog option which would question why an eldritch monster would care about the gender of it’s food is rather telling. Neither game designers nor most players probably even think about this when playing the game, because maiden/virgin sacrifice is a long standing trope within our literature.
More often than not, sacrificial victims in fiction tend to be women. There is a myriad of reasons for this, but this trope is closely tied to the perceived disposability of women in fiction. This is something Anita Sarkesian talked about at length in her latest video Women as Background Decoration – part 2:
As per Sakesian, it is common to see narratives in fiction (and especially in video games) to use victimization and brutalization of women for the sole purpose of fleshing out male protagonists or antagonists. For example a villain may be shown torturing or executing defenseless women to establish him as the bad guy. The same victims may also play a role of a Damsel in Distress to give the protagonist a compelling motivation. However the humanity or personal experience of said victims is mostly ignored.
Broken Age subverts this trope by putting the player character in the position of a victimized maiden who is to be sacrificed to an evil monster. The game does not feature a heroic male protagonist sweeping in to save the day, but instead the players see the experience through Vella’s eyes and rebel against the injustice with her. The maidens in Broken Age are neither damsels nor background decoration – they are people with agency and power to change their own fate.
During her short adventure Vella talks to several other chosen maidens, and they all are proud and happy to be participating in the ceremony. They are ecstatic that they won the popularity contest to earn this position and bicker about who will get eaten first. The order in which they are devoured will reaffirm their status and self worth. In a way this illustrates the way our society indoctrinates young women to accept and internalize deeply sexist beliefs even when they are obviously harmful. Their self-destructive behaviors are not only approved by rewarded by the community and held as an example to the younger generations. It is heart-breaking to hear Vella’s younger complain about her rotten luck: when she comes of age, it will be in the period between Mog incursions, and therefore she will never have a chance to become a maiden.
As I said at the beginning of this post, I kinda wish that Double Fine recognized the potency of Mog Chothra as a metaphor and focused on exploring all the themes and tropes that naturally feed into it. As it is right now, it plays a semi-important part in what seems to be a much larger narrative. The game as a whole ties to juxtapose two coming of age stories. That of Vella who is part of a community that expects her to make an ultimate sacrifice on their behalf, and Shay whose overprotective parents keep in a protective bubble, preventing him from ever taking any risks or making any sacrifices on anyone’s behalf. Unfortunately we may need to wait until Act 2 of the game to find out how this juxtaposition is going to pay off. In the meantime however we can discuss the existing themes in the game. Mog Chothra is definitely one of the more interesting aspects of the game.