"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.