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Escapist is Full of It

April 5th, 2007 by Troy Goodfellow · 10 Comments · Escapist

Full of the Spirit, that is.

Religion in gaming is a pet topic of mine, so I thought I’d link to this month’s Escapist. I’ll point to two articles in particular for your reading pleasure.

I love Nethack clones and loved to hate Ragnarok. So i enjoyed Christian McCrea’s article on that cursed game.

The strongest piece is, in my opinion, Lara Crigger’s think-piece on the problem of faith in games. Drawing on a (in my mind artificial) distinction between The Book of Job and the Apostolic tradition, Crigger writes about the place of doubt in faith and games. Though the title suggests that Christian games are impossible, at the end she implies that they are only very, very, very difficult.


10 Comments so far ↓

  • GyRo567

    Apparently Ragnar Tornquist turned somebody to religion with Dreamfall. Now that was in no way what the game was about, but he’s already pulled off the faith thing in a non-religious way.

    I do have an idea for two Judeo-Christian games though. They would be Point & Click Adventures (or thereabouts) that would essentially be machinima at their core. You could quite easily pull off an effective little game about the book of Exodus, which chronicles the Israelites exit from slavery in Egypt, and it also has lots of what we might call “magic” if it were to show up in a game. All you need to make it successful (at least to an “outdated” niche) are some decent puzzles and proper pacing for the story itself, which is already there.

    The other one would (obviously – it’s cliche & educational, and it’s been done in film more often than King Kong) be to follow the gospels. I can’t think of a way to make this one quite as exciting, but you know it would happen if a successfuly Point & Click game based on the Bible ever came out before this one. At the very least, you can throw in some good puzzles, then write off the rest as an educational game.

    That’s about as far as my thinking takes me, but then I only have five minutes before I leave for class & I haven’t read the article yet… >_>

  • Troy

    It’s easy enough to make a game that tells a story, but if the game is just an interactive Sunday School lesson then I don’t think it’s very ambitious. I think there are plenty of games like the ones you describe involving solving puzzles or completing maps and then the computer tells you what Noah did next.

    The thing is, religion is hard. As Lara says in her piece, you can slap a cross on pretty much anything and sell it to a certain market, but that’s not really grappling with what makes faith different from just a story. Mind you, not many games are philosophical either.

    The Dreamfall example is interesting. I wonder if more people aren’t brought to Ideas through gaming by accident than by ministry. As consumerist as The Sims is, it also has you make ethical choices for your avatar. Do you do outrageous things and try not to get caught? Whose priorities come first in a family? I’ve often argued that the lessons people get from games are largely accidental and incidental to the gameplay itself. I wouldn’t be surprised if Big Questions worked this way, too.

  • GyRo567

    Well the Dreamfall case gets even more unique. It was accidental that the game drove this one individual to… Actually I don’t even know what the religion was, but it was a religion of some sort. However, the game was specifically designed to make its players think about things. It always took careful precautions to remain entirely ambiguous (especially on the vaguely political subject – I think it’s pretty nifty how they put the opposite personalities on each side of the real world equivalent to make all direct comparisons moot) but in the end, it was about faith. It was about believing in SOMETHING. It just left that last part entirely open ended. It was quite compelling, if inconclusive. (frankly, I like the last part)

  • Matt Peckham

    Lara’s extended column-style article is fun (if a bit cross, to painfully extend the topic’s punning) but it’s also a bit obvious. Picking on Left Behind–and it certainly deserves it–is still a bit like taking aim at a reality TV show for claiming to be, well, real. Does anyone *not* get that Ken and Barbie act like slightly different screw-ups on camera than off? Lara’s point about freedom of will, metaphysics aside, is well taken, but it’s hardly a design issue unique to the only eschatology-gonzo game that’s been released in, what–ever?

    Moreover, Left Behind the game is based on what? Several (as I understand it, awful) fantasy novels that happen to loosely extrapolate from scripture or use select books as source material. So do plenty of better writers (Gene Wolfe, for instance). Should we really be judging Left Behind (not the company, the *game*) as emblematic of contemporary Christian Gaming? Or, like armies of its peers, just another RTS with wonky design mechanics?

    Think about any number of fantasy games you’ve played over the years (ahem, Tolkien) where good is Good and evil is Evil and ne’er the twain shall meet. Oh sure, plenty of temptation in Tolkien’s narrative, but–and I’m not underselling him saying so–he’s as black and white on the Big Issues as a piano keyboard. So where’s the clamoring for ethical ambiguity in something like The Battle For Middle Earth?

    Of course that’d be silly. Likewise, I think it may be straw-manning Left Behind a bit to critique it as a Christian Game. I realize Lara’s point is that as Christian games might go in her slightly more ideal world, it’s pretty much bunkum. I guess my response would be that it ultimately only claimed to be based on a bunch of bestselling fantasy books. I think we may lend it credibility as a Christian Game at a kind of double-edged peril.

  • Troy

    The Left Behind stuff is, as you say Matt, obvious. She says nothing that hasn’t been said a million times before. But as the most heavily marketed Christian game on the market it does stand for something. You can judge it both as Christian game AND as a terrible RTS, too. There’s no need it has to be either/or. It is emblematic of contemporary Christian gaming in the same way that WoW is emblematic of contemporary MMOs – too big to ignore what it claims to be.

    The difference between ethical ambiguity in Tolkien and tough decisions in “Christian” games is that, in the eyes of many, one is real and the other is not. If Christian gaming means more than having a game with Jesus in it, it has to deal with life’s issues in a serious and compelling way. There is a reason that people look to Planescape as a game worthy of light philosophical discussion and not Baldur’s Gate.

    This is clearly a wish-fulfilment essay and taps into a lot of the RPG alignment stuff that people have problems with, too.

  • Matt Peckham

    Sure, and that’s the story I’m interested in. The one about “mega-ministries” like Focus on the Family, Promise Keepers, and Concerned Women for America getting behind LB and adding it, along with Chicken Soup for the Soul, to the list of faith aids that comprise the pseudo-Christianity tsunami that’s extending orthodoxy to fetish.

    You can judge it as a Christian gamer, but calling it a Christian game suggests it ought to be labeled one in the first place. Should we call something scientific just because a sufficient number of people say it is? I didn’t mean that we ought to falsely dichotomize our assessment, just that one aspect of that assessment may beg the question and simultaneously reinforce the game’s status as something it’s not. That story: What about the series and perhaps the game makes the many so inclined to assimilate it as sufficiently Christian when the material’s as extrapolative as The Da Vinci Code? It’s the same question I’d ask of the books.

    I think wish fulfillment sums it up. If a game hints at moral complexity, we want more than just “Mage’s Guild or Dark Brotherhood?” I always think of Richard Garriott who, in an interview about Ultima VI just before it came out, was discussing somewhat prophetically why adventure games were in trouble. With Oblivion and GTA and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. we diminish mechanical linearity. That increased ethical nuance follows has always been writ in stone. The message as usual? Hurry up.

  • GyRo567

    There’s a reason I can drive a few miles and still see Richard Garriott’s castle in a completely unfinished state. (oxymoron adjectives are fun – well, until I start talking about them)

    It is because the linear game, the non-linear game (Far Cry is the first example that comes to mind) and the open ended game are just as similarly different (more fun! – okay I’ll stop now) yet equal as are text, 2D & 3D games.

    Okay, bad example, because Interactive Fiction is almost gone outside of freeware and 2D survives by a few threads when it’s not on handhelds…?_?…

    Perhaps the singleplayer/multiplayer comparison then. Two methods. Different. Uniquely awesome. Each quite self sufficient in their own right. Hell, there’s even a 3rd option of MMO here.

    I have no idea what I came here to talk about.

    In any case, I remember what it was that I came back to the thread to say. A long time ago my little brother actually did play one of those games. It wasn’t really related, and I suppose it was more of a kids game than anything, but there was a Veggietales Point & Click Adventure. It kinda sucked… Well, there goes the entire point (pun not intended – this one is not fun, and I demand a thesaurus – and a dictionary so I can spell thesaurus) of my first post here…

  • Lara Crigger

    Hi Troy, thanks for the pimpage! Sorry it’s taken me a while to respond (I have contracted a particularly nasty strain of the flu, which has been keeping me occupied. It’s the Passover gift that keeps on giving).

    As for why Left Behind? Well, for starters, it’s a hideous RTS, it’s based on the franchise with the most squandered potential in history, and it’s been marketed to high heaven as THE ultimate Christian game. A juicy trifecta of blunders, right?

    But there’s another more important reason: Last year, I wrote an article on Christian games for Computer Games Magazine (*sniff*), for which I needed to speak to a number of Christian developers. Each dev I interviewed considered the upcoming Left Behind game as a make-or-break, standard-setting game for the Christian gaming industry, a title that could potentially revolutionize the genre and make it mainstream (or set it back ten to fifteen years). Some people didn’t like what LBGames was doing, some people admired them – but everyone in the Christian development community was interested, and most watched Eternal Forces’ release very closely.

    Granted, those interviews took place a year ago. But no other Christian game has come out yet that was so high profile, with so many hopes placed upon it from inside the Christian gaming community and out. That’s why I focused so heavily on the game. It really was a benchmark for Christian gaming. Such a pity that benchmark should be so shoddy.

  • Bruce

    A better question is – who cares? Philosophical issues in games are largely irrelevant for exactly the reason Troy said more than once here: “the lessons people get from games are largely accidental and incidental to the gameplay itself.” The answer to:

    “As consumerist as The Sims is, it also has you make ethical choices for your avatar. Do you do outrageous things and try not to get caught? Whose priorities come first in a family?”

    is “whatever wins you the game.” Since the point of The Sims is getting a good job and lots of simoleons, or it seemed to be the time that I played it, that’s the answer. I don’t even think of these as ethical questions – just as evaluations of game mechanics.

    It’s not interesting to discuss incidental issues in games for exactly that reason: because all of these issues are incidental. And the people making Left Behind games clearly have no idea what makes games interesting. So it all seems kind of like a giant non-issue.

    I thought Lara’s article was well written, though.

  • GyRo567

    The Sims is just a bad example for you. You played it in a certain way that didn’t get the real point across.

    Perhaps something like Knights of the Old Republic gave you more time to sit back and think “am I being a good or bad fictional person here?”