“What is man, that thou shouldest magnify him? And that thou shouldest set thine heart upon him? And that thou shouldest visit him every morning, and try him every moment?” – Job 7: 17-18
For all the angels and messiahs and Raptures, Christian videogames, as a rule, just aren’t all that Christian. Oh, they have plenty of Scripture quotes, Bible stories and nonthreatening rock anthems by Jars of Clay. They deal with themes like salvation and the Post-Apocalypse, and players get to smite demons, lead Israelite armies and convert non-believers. God games cram together all the juicy features you’ve come to expect from pop-culture treatments of Christianity. But don’t be fooled. Even Jesus would be embarrassed to play Left Behind: Eternal Forces.
So many contemporary Christian games are unintentional self-parodies. By embracing Evangelical culture so indulgently and completely, these games are nothing but interactive stereotypes. Take the above-mentioned Eternal Forces. Rock stars as the messengers of the Antichrist? A faux-Pope, decked out in snazzy Catholic cardinal robes, acting as the right-hand man of evil? You can’t be serious. Anyone who willingly plays this cringe-inducing balderdash should rend her PC in shame. Worse, Eternal Forces is far from alone in its self-indulgence and supercilious attitude toward its “built-in” audience. Many Christian titles address their consumers as both simpletons and suckers: Because our game includes crucifixes, you’ll overlook its contrived, outrageous plotlines.
But as conspicuous as they are, these faults aren’t structural. Flaws like unbelievable characters or contrived storylines are just surface cracks, as easily repaired as, say, blocky animation or poor camera angles. It’s fixable. Just find the right story, the right characters and the right context, and you can make it work.
Then again, if you fix the surface cracks, the real defects bubble to the surface, and those are harder to scrub away.
Let There Be Violence
Christian developers suffer the same videogame violence Catch-22 as the rest of the industry, but in some ways, they get it worse. If they include death or combat in their games, Christian designers invite outrage from all quarters. Without physical conflict, however, their games will be financial failures, widely ignored by the gaming community. Exacerbating matters are certain self-righteous members of the media and gaming community, salivating like E.K. Hornbeck at a Tennessee tent revival, who gleefully, proudly denounce the obvious Christian hypocrisy, be it real or imagined.
That’s crap. If anything, God games aren’t violent enough – or, at least, violent in the right ways.
From the Mahabharata to the Old Testament, we’ve used combat, gore and death as a narrative tool to replicate and examine the similar violence raging inside each of us.
It’s a metaphor for the soul. That’s the core of religion, behind the Bibles and the singing and the wafers that melt on your tongue: that action-reaction conflict, the incessant animal struggle, that purging of whatever doesn’t work. It’s about the fear inside, a competition of identity and mortality, of righteousness and survival, and the hope that even if all things must come to an end, maybe, just maybe they don’t have to.
Eternal Forces tried to capitalize on 10,000 years of imagery and failed, because the game didn’t commit fully to those ideas. I mean, the Biblical Tribulation – that’s violent, juicy stuff. That should have worked. Instead, the developers held back, sanitizing the situation, wiping it clean of blood and gore, yes, but also of pain. As a result, death in Eternal Forces has no cost; it’s just a winking out, a tally mark on a scorecard rather than an intimate, terrifying event.
I’m not surprised, however. Pain is uncomfortable, unreliable and tremendous. It consumes you, casting doubt and shadows on everything you believe. Just ask Job.
Job and the Crisis of Faith
Squeezed between the friendlier Book of Esther and the more accessible Book of Psalms, the Book of Job is one of my favorite Biblical passages. It’s often ignored by aggressive Sunday school teachers, who purse their lips at its flowery language and themes of depression, loss and suicide. But this philosophical dialogue about why bad things happen to good people resonates in ways all of King David’s begatting doesn’t.
Job is a genuinely nice guy, the sort who looks after orphans, prays for his kids and never cheats on his taxes, and God rewards him richly for his goodness. But one day, Satan suggests that God put Job to a test, and God readily obliges. After Job loses all his livestock, suffers the death of his seven sons and contracts a nasty case of full-body boils, he loses heart. Depressed and defeated, Job famously begs to take God to court for His crimes.
But Satan had a point, egging God on like that. If by being good, you can entirely avoid misfortune, what distinguishes righteousness from commerce, a mere business transaction between you and God? If Job only reveres God because he receives blessings in return, does his worship mean anything at all? As nice as he is, Job never questioned or challenged this exchange, and he never had reason to. So he was trapped, stuck in his own ignorance. His faith was blind, empty, like a salve without a wound. It had no doubt to give it contrast and weight: Having never been tested, Job’s faith had never passed the test.
Job’s pain leads him to doubt, and he suffers a crisis of faith of such magnitude, you’d expect to read it in a Jean-Paul Sartre play, not the Good Book. Job and his three best friends argue over God’s motives for evil and loss, and our protagonist angrily accuses God of punishing righteous men while letting sinners go free. It’s not that he ever stops believing the existence of God (this is the Bible, of course), but the point is Job no longer believes in God – which in reality is far worse. His trust is gone, his faith decayed. That’s one hell of an unapologetic stance for a Biblical hero to take.
Job’s doubt is violent: Not bloody, of course, but painful, tumultuous and incredibly uncomfortable to witness. Yet, one of the lessons of the Book of Job is this doubt matters. It can’t be ignored or argued with or reasoned away. Instead, it’s a test we all take, where each of us comes to different conclusions; but there’s no avoiding the final exam – without it, spirituality, philosophy, even existence as we know it is utterly meaningless. Like a bridge walked upon, like a hypothesis tested, doubt is more important than reverence, sacrifice, even hope, because it brings you closer than you were to Truth and thus to God.
Doubt in a Pop-Christian World
Judging by Job’s happy ending, God agrees that doubt has its uses; and for his part, Jesus was quite tolerant of questions and challenges, too. He embraced Thomas, skeptic of the Resurrection, and fondly teased a seasick Peter after a storm nearly capsized their boat. (“Oh ye of little faith, why did you doubt?”) Jesus even experienced his own crisis of faith: As he died on the cross, he echoed the voices of countless future Christians and asked, “Father, Father, why have you forsaken me?”
But the New Testament – particularly the letters of the Apostles – preaches a different approach. Stuffed with reprimands against the faithless, the Apostles suggested constant vigilance against questioners and skeptics, arguing that they couldn’t be trusted or reasoned with. James, for instance, writes, “He who wavereth is like a wave of the sea, driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think he shall receive anything of the Lord. (James 1:6, KJV).” Ouch.
For the most part, the modern Evangelical movement abides by the Apostolic example, treating doubt like an intellectual plague that must be quarantined for the faithful to survive. Most Christian videogames, created with that same Testimonial bent in mind, also follow suit. If these games do address a crisis of faith, the outcome is inevitable, even pre-destined: The Good guys will hang with God, the Bad guys end up with Satan, and once converted, neither side ever looks back. (In fairness, Eternal Forces does address the conversion issue, but the process is glossed over; treated, once again, more like a plot or gameplay device than a compelling story in and of itself.)
Without spiritual challenges or questions, these characters become automatons of destiny, acting out a story they don’t control or participate in making. So you end up with violence without pain, faith without doubt – a one-dimensional cartoon of everything religion stands for, stripped of its sense and resonance.
Let There Be Light
Even still, the solution isn’t as simple as plunking a grieving father covered in boils down into post-Apocalyptic New York. Doubt is a deeply personal experience, one that everyone has. But oddly enough, doubt only makes sense at the time and to the person having it. Even Job is alone in his misery, and his friends, helpless observers, just can’t understand how he feels. So how do you replicate such a specific, unique experience as a crisis of faith into something as broad and mass-market as a videogame?
The trick, I think, is to make the violence inseparable from the player: That is, give the player the opportunity to explore her own crisis of faith, to feel it from the inside out, through her own actions and freedom of will. The interactivity of videogames offers a great advantage: The divide between character and observer is already half-scaled, and in certain types of games (adventure games or RPGs, for example), the barrier is even lower. So to seize upon that open-endedness, Christian games would need to take a page from GTA and allow players to make any choice that they see fit, be it Christian or evil or some gray space in between; and, more importantly, to permit all options at all times. Give players that freedom of choice to be tempted by Satan, to be convinced by God or to dabble with both – just like real life, just like the rest of us do. Give players the full experience of the consequence of free will. Games like Planescape: Torment understood this well, feeding off players’ emotions and moral choices to drive the plot.
Yes, it’s risky. Conceivably, some impressionable soul could be seduced by evil (or, well, as much as anyone could be seduced in a videogame). But you can’t do doubt halfway. A crisis of faith is a violent, brutal affair, and if it’s going to work in a videogame, that game has to commit itself to the idea fully. Sure, people might still shun these titles (after all, doubt is not nearly as sexy as exorcising demons), but then again, they’d probably have shunned them in the first place. At least this way, the games are honest, treating players with respect and not like some “built-in” audience.
Besides, look again at the Book of Job. After all his fears and suffering, after all his questions and tirades, Job scores a reprieve from his pain. God doesn’t apologize for the bad times, of course, but He does eventually restore Job’s fortunes, healing the sores, refurbishing his property and, best of all, blessing him with more children. Out of that darkness and tribulation, Job’s faith has actually become stronger than it was before. His doubt was not something to be feared, or avoided, or shunned, but rather embraced, because it made him a better person in the end.
Maybe it’s about time the same thing happened to Christian videogames, too. A crisis of faith is, after all, good for the soul.
Lara Crigger is a freelance science, tech and gaming journalist whose previous work for The Escapist includes “Mind Over Matter” and “Searching for Gunpei Yokoi”. Her email is lcrigger[at]gmail[dot]com.