So I was looking at the (short) list of old, cheap games I’d bought over Steam during their 5-day Thanskgiving sale and over the past month or so during a couple random weekend sales. GhostBusters, Mirror’s Edge, Crysis, Mass Effect, and Tomb Raider: Underworld was the haul, all for under 15 bucks (Mirror’s Edge I got for $5! Yay!). As I was perusing the haul, it occurred to me that not a single good game I’ve ever played or heard of had an overtly Christian theme. I’ve seen movies and heard music with Christian themes, and quite a few of them were good, but I’ve never actually played a Christian videogame, and all the Christian videogames I’ve heard of sounded pretty bad.
So out of curiosity, I googled for “Christian videogames”, and found www.gamepraise.net, a site that exclusively reviews Christian videogames. Their last news update was from 9/24/08, but I thought this should be helpful anyway, and I started browsing through the site. One thing that I noticed pretty quickly was that the reviewer(s) very often felt it necessary to mention that “the graphics are what should be expected from a Christian videogame”. Translated: that means they are sub-par. Most of everything else fell into family-friendly territory. They do run the gamut of genres, but after quite a bit of browsing, the only title I was only remotely familiar with was Left Behind: Eternal Forces, and that was probably due to some random article I’d read in CGM. For the most part, every title looked like exactly the sort of stuff I avoid when I go game-shopping. There’s probably quite a few decent puzzle and education-oriented Christian games out there. But that’s just not my cup of tea.
Which got me thinking… how would I expect Christian themes to be portrayed in the kinds of videogames I like to play? One genre I dig is the computer role-playing game, or crpg. Crpgs have been a genre dear to me ever since I spent weeks and weeks playing Ultima VII as a kid. This genre allows writers to work a thought-provoking story into the mix. Games like Ultima and the stuff Bioware puts out often had complicated plots that requires hours of exposition, a lot of it through dialogue, either through in-game conversations and in cutscenes. Having a chat in these kinds of games can get very involving: one common element of RPGs is you either get to respond to people like a nice a guy or like a jerk, and there will be consequences for your behavior.
Sounds like a good fit for a game that’s trying to get some deep ideas across, no? The one game I found that looked promising is Rebel Planet: Orion. The makers of this game have taken a period from biblical history, the time after the fall and before the flood, and imagined what the world might have been like during that period. The story follows Enoch who is on a quest to bring Adam back to a place of faith. That setup actually sounds pretty decent… if the execution was good, I’d play it. Unfortunately, the game has been on hiatus since 2005! That’s a shame, since the game’s graphics looked serviceable (if somewhat bland) for 2005. They are definitely last-gen today. But hey, if they were to release it now, they’d be right about where the Christian game tech curve usually is in relation to everything else. I’m personally hoping they’re working on a revamp of the project.
As much as I love crpgs, my main gaming fixes of late have come from first-person shooters (or fps). Ostensibly, they are simply run-and-gun action games, but what makes an fps unique is that your viewpoint of the game world is always through the eyes of your character (hence the term “first-person”). I just love that kind of immersion. Of course, it’s hard to come up with a game that mixes a high, bloody bodycount with the gospel of *ahem* peace. And the one recent example of a Christian fps I know of sounds pretty lame. Want to shoot Roman soldiers with a magic sword to convert them to Christianity, anybody? Well… you might. I don’t.
I’ve actually played a few first-person games where, though there is gunplay, the emphasis is actually on non-violent elements. Mirror’s Edge, a game whose protaganist practices the discipline of parkour, actually places it’s emphasis on running. Running across rooftops, running on walls, running away from the cops. The few times you can fight your pursuers, you have the option of doing so in a barehanded, non-lethal fashion. The fewer times you can pick up a gun, it severely hampers your ability to, you guessed it, keep running. You’re usually outnumbered in a firefight anyway, and since it only takes two or three shots to take you down, you usually want to avoid an all-out gun battle. So, much of the game’s violent encounters involves you dodging, weaving, sliding, and climbing away from the hot zones, with bullets whizzing past your poorly-armored derriere. Outside of getting shot at, there are plenty of challenging high-rise landscapes for you to traverse with your parkour skills. It’s a fairly unique experience that, at its best, is more exhilarating than taking out aliens with a rocket launcher.
I’m not saying that we should just take a non-violent (or relatively less violent) game premise and shoe-horn a Christian theme into it. However, games like these prove that immersive, state-of-the-art games don’t have to have violence at the core experience in order to be engaging. And it doesn’t have to be The Sims, either. All it takes is imagination. A restriction to non-violent gameplay, I think, actually provides a fertile ground for inventive ideas to blossom. It’s easy, in game design terms, to give the player a gun and say “get from point A to point B”. It’s harder when you require the player to do it without hurting anyone. The challenge is in giving the player alternative tools for doing so, and even better if you can tie the tools directly to the message you’re trying to get across. And, no, pointing a bible at the enemy and pressing “fire” isn’t imaginative.
So, are Christian game devs taking up this challenge? I think that some actually are. Case in point: I tried out the demo for the Left Behind: Eternal Forces game, which, despite some glaring technical issues (I think the game crashed about half of the times I loaded it up), had a few core ideas that, if implemented competently, could have resulted in something fairly entertaining. For those not in the know, the game’s genre falls under the real-time strategy, or rts category. The rts is a hybrid between strategic and real-time action gaming. You take command of multiple units, gather resources, and deploy them in a way that ensures your victory on the battlefield. Once upon a time, games like these were all turn-based affairs: you took your turn and made your moves, then it was your opponents turn. An rts has both you and your opponent(s) doing everything in real-time. Whether or not you take 5 seconds or 5 minutes to make your next move, your opponent gets to do whatever it is they want to do.
What Left Behind does that I found interesting was its model for resource management. The traditional model for past rts games was that you found resources scattered throughout the map, mined those resources, and used them to pay for your units. The most important resource in this game is people: the various random citizens walking through the streets of the cities that the game’s battlegrounds are comprised of. Basically you need to send out the few missionaries you start with, and have them spread the gospel to these people and convert them to your side. Only then are you able to train and deploy new units. I found that to be a pretty interesting idea that presents unique challenges from a gameplay perspective.
Now there was some controversy about the game concerning its purported “convert or die” themes… I can neither confirm or deny this aspect of the game, because I couldn’t get far enough into the demo to figure out if there was any way to kill anybody. Sad but true. The third level of the demo completely confounded me. Enemy troops were coming in too fast for me to convert them all with my Christian rock musicians (I am not joking), and I never figured out how to get a more meaningful defense up. Eventually I just surrendered, uninstalled the game, and moved on to other things. That said, it was encouraging to see Christian game devs trying hard at doing something new with gameplay, as opposed to simply forcing a couple words of scripture in between levels of a game you’ve already seen or played elsewhere.
So what’s the verdict? If I’m being brutally honest, as far as gamers like me are concerned, there’s just nothing out there right now worth playing that has a Christian focus. However, there are people trying. Maybe someday, we’ll get the videogame equivalent of U2 or Amazing Grace (the movie): mainstream entertainment that does not suck and talks about Jesus in a meaningful way.