Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sanitization and "Christian" video games

Earlier today, I stumbled upon the kickstarter page for The Call of Abraham, a "Judeo-Christian Video Game" that markets itself as "Moral & Fun." Right near the top of the page is a quote that apparently sums up their mission: "I'm excited to see how [the game] will be able to stimulate greater interest in the Bible in today's youth."

Let's take a look at this game. First off, it claims to be an "exciting, top-quality video game that follows stories directly from the Bible." It will have "top-notch graphics" and "the action-packed storylines will keep players engaged."

But there's more! This game will include "Hundreds of characters,  ancient cities, and hours of engaging sub-plots." And in addition to "build[ing] their character and fac[ing] intriguing challenges," players "will also have the opportunity to enrich their knowledge of the history and cultures surrounding Abraham’s famous journey."

And how exciting will that be? "We’re actually following stories directly from the Bible with game play that you will respect. Of course, there is violence in the Bible, but even when the main character must kill a rabid wolf attacking Abraham’s sheep, or run into battle, there is always a just cause and you are only able to engage in activities that are honorable.  And on occasions where there is a better alternative to violence, you are rewarded for finding and choosing it."

I know that this game is coming from people who want to accomplish something good and meaningful. I know that their hearts are in the right place. But there are a ton of problems with this, and most of them boil down to the fact that video games are fundamentally different from any other kind of media. As it is, I don't ever see a game made with this mindset being successful. 

"Not ever?" you might ask. No. Not ever. Not the kind of game these people want to make.

I mean, first there's the fact that achieving top-notch graphics is going to be literally impossible with the resources these people have access to. Then there's the fact that in terms of gameplay, their game appears to be inferior in every way to most comparable secular games (in fact, they would have been much more successful simply making a mod of  Skyrim).

When you look at the elements of a game--graphics, gameplay, and story--they're only competitive with their secular counterparts in one of those areas. And even then, even in the area of story, I think they're crippling themselves.

See, they want a "Christian" game. They want a game that's pure, that promotes Christian values, where "you are only able to engage in activities that are honorable." They want a game that will not imitate the dangerous and vulgar world.

In essence, they want a game that is sanitary. And that's a problem when you're making something that requires interactivity as the core feature of the product.

GK Chesterton says that "to a Christian, existence is a story, which may end up in any way." He goes on to clarify:
In a thrilling novel (that purely Christian product) the hero is not eaten by cannibals; but it is essential to the existence of the thrill that he might be eaten by cannibals. The hero must (so to speak) be an eatable hero. So Christian morals have always said to the man, not that he would lose his soul, but that he must take care that he didn't. ...
All Christianity concentrates on the man at the cross-roads...The true philosophy is concerned with the instant. Will a man take this road or that? that is the only thing to think about, if you enjoy thinking. The æons are easy enough to think about, any one can think about them. The instant is really awful: and it is because our religion has intensely felt the instant, that it has in literature dealt much with battle and in theology dealt much with hell. It is full of danger like a boy's book: it is at an immortal crisis. There is a great deal of real similarity between popular fiction and the religion of the western people. If you say that popular fiction is vulgar and tawdry, you only say what the dreary and well-informed say also about the images in the Catholic churches. Life (according to the faith) is very like a serial story in a magazine: life ends with the promise (or menace) "to be continued in our next." Also, with a noble vulgarity, life imitates the serial and leaves off at the exciting moment. For death is distinctly an exciting moment.
But the point is that a story is exciting because it has in it so strong an element of will, of what theology calls free-will. You cannot finish a sum how you like. But you can finish a story how you like. When somebody discovered the Differential Calculus there was only one Differential Calculus he could discover. But when Shakespeare killed Romeo he might have married him to Juliet's old nurse if he had felt inclined. And Christendom has excelled in the narrative romance exactly because it has insisted on the theological free-will.
Free will. The "eatability" of the hero. The cross-roads. To Chesterton, that is what sets Christianity apart, and that is also a huge part of what makes a good game (at least, a game of the scope that Abraham is aspiring to). And that's just what Abraham is going to lack.

If you want a form of media that only allows people to make "honorable" choices, make something else. Make a movie, make a cartoon, make a comic strip. Make something that isn't built on dynamic interaction. It's still not going to be very good, but it's not going to be as bad.

But if you want to make a video game of that scope, of that scale--if you want a game where you can truly experience the human stories told in the Bible--then you have to give the player free will. 

Last thought, to give you a better idea of where I'm coming from.

 Just last week, I finished my play-through of Dishonored. It's a game where you play as the former bodyguard of the Empress: You're framed for her murder, you break out of prison, and you spend the rest of the game trying to rescue her daughter and put the daughter on the throne.

You need to advance through cities and palaces, finding the people who framed you and killing or otherwise eliminating them. In between you and them are guards--lots and lots of guards, who are doing the best they can to protect their leaders from the evil, traitorous bodyguard who killed their Empress.

You can do what I did, and remain hidden whenever possible. Take the guards out with sleep darts, choke them out from behind, and remove them from the picture without killing them: After all, they're relatively innocent. And at the end, when you allow the new Empress to take her throne, you pave the way to a new golden age. You showed her that there was a way to do what had to be done, without losing yourself.

Or you can take another approach. You can wade through rivers of blood on your way to the masterminds, indiscriminately killing the guilty and innocent alike. And as you proceed, the city will deteriorate. People will shrink from you in fear, they will attack you out of horror, and at the end, you will have shown the young Empress that people aren't to be trusted, and that the only way to rule was through fear.

Freedom and consequences. Good and evil. Dishonored puts you there, at the crossroads, and says, "Choose." And that's what makes it a good game. But more importantly, that's a much closer approximation to the reality contained in the Bible than what Abraham is going to achieve. And that's why even if Abraham is released, it's going to be a failure as a game, suitable only as a vaguely  interactive way of exploring the ancient Biblical world (a worthy goal, but one that could be accomplished with much less trouble).

EDIT: I want to clarify something. I do not want to be Chesterton's "uncandid candid friend; the man who says, 'I am sorry to say we are ruined,' and is not sorry at all." I don't take a "gloomy pleasure in saying unpleasant things." Nothing would please me more than this game succeeding. Nothing would please me more than to find that these guys were able to produce a game that is legitimately good in its own right, and Biblically relevant. That would be so cool. But I just don't see it happening: Not from the info on their Kickstarter.

EDIT: After failing to raise even 20% ($20,000) of their goal on Kickstarter, they renewed the project on Indiegogo. The advantage of Indiegogo is that even if you don't make your funding goal, you still get what money you've raised (unlike Kickstarter). And to date, after a full week of funding, they've received $825.

If anyone affiliated with the game ever reads this, listen: don't blame this failure on "the world" or "the culture." It's not that "the world is opposing you," or that "the culture just isn't ready for a Christian video game of this scale." It's that your game looks like a bad game, and your pitch is awful. Your game just isn't competitive with mainstream games. You've either got to seriously step up your game, or completely shift the type of game that you're making.

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