"I need to be clear on this point: Are you telling me that Satan is literally working to confound your plans to release this game? You're saying that the actual Devil is scheming against you?"
I'm sitting in a nondescript office in an unremarkable neighborhood in Bakersfield, CA, interviewing three men about their plans for a Biblical game based on the life of Abraham.
"I believe that, 100 percent," replies Richard Gaeta, a co-founder of Phoenix Interactive. He argues that since the launch of the Kickstarter for Bible Chronicles: The Call of Abraham, trouble has come into all their lives.
"It's very tangible," adds his business partner Martin Bertram. "From projects falling through and people that were lined up to help us make this a success falling through. Lots of factors raining down on us like fire and brimstone."
Nobody is winking or joking or pulling my leg. There is no irony here. They are absolutely serious.
In the end, the game's Kickstarter raised only $19,000 of its $100,000 target. The game, which follows the life of Abraham, a central figure in Judaism, Islam and Christianity, is now seeking alternative fund-raising efforts.
"Lots of factors raining down on us like fire and brimstone."
"If Satan is rallying some of his resources to forestall, delay, or kill this project, I think, this must be a perceived threat to his kingdom," adds Ken Frech, a religious mentor to the project. "I fully would expect something like this to have spiritual warfare. Look at the gospel accounts of demons and so forth. That's reality. Many Americans don't believe it anymore. That doesn't change reality."
In my 25 years or so of interviewing game developers, I have heard many complaints about malicious forces conspiring to confound a game's launch. Generally, money and time are the culprits. This is the first time I have heard the Devil cited as an obstacle.
But then, this is an unusual interview. Phoenix Interactive's executives are Biblical literalists. Gaeta scoffs at the wishy-washy notion that Bible stories are allegories. Bertram dismisses the theory of evolution as "wrong." I ask them if they believe the world was created 6,000 years ago. "Yes," they both say, without the faintest hint of prevarication. They also believe that the extraordinary stories surrounding Abraham all happened, just as they are described in the Book of Genesis.
Bakersfield is an agricultural city with a high unemployment rate. It is one of the most religious towns in California.
For my visit, the struggling city takes on an especially diabolic aspect. Forceful winds blow through deserted downtown streets of tattoo parlors, pawn shops and bail bonds outlets. Spectral trash-bags flap in skeletal roadside trees. A chronic drought has thickened the air.
My interview with the Phoenix guys is a few hours off, so I return from strolling around Bakersfield to sit in my hotel room and read the Gideon Bible.
It turns out, Abraham was a rum fellow. Having been told by God that he will father great nations, he impregnates his elderly wife's servant. He also talks all the fellows in his group into removing their foreskins, including his own, which I imagine took some significant powers of persuasion. He is a skilled warrior, and a generous leader, but then again, he sets out to prove his devotion to God by sacrificing his and Sarah's only child, an act which God, prudently, prevents.
"Not everything that happened in the Bible was sanctioned and good."
Abraham is not above negotiating with God. On the matter of Sodom, a city that God decides to eradicate. Abraham wins concessions. Sodom is required to produce ten good people, from among its disappointing denizens, but fails to do so. In the end, the city is thoroughly smited.
Bible Chronicles: The Call of Abraham tackles all these issues (the mass circumcisions are referenced, rather than witnessed) as well as some other thorny subjects, such as Abraham's nephew Lot offering up his virgin daughters to brigands who are intent on raping male visitors to his house (the guests are messengers from God.) Lot also gets wasted, at one point, and sleeps with his daughters.
"Not everything that happened in the Bible was sanctioned and good," says Gaeta during our interview. "It's going to be portrayed in the proper context, that this was a dark thing that happened and it was wrong.
"Even in the case with Abraham and taking Sarah's handmaiden and laying with her to have a child, because they didn't believe that Sarah would have a child, that was another one of those episodes. That was a failing of Abraham's. That was definitely not a sanctioned event, not something that was supposed to happen."
None of these men are frothing at the mouth or wild-eyed with beatific zeal. But their world-view is significantly divergent from the generally socially liberal, scientific consensus of gaming circles. There is talk, during our interview, of the evils of welfare, popular entertainment and promiscuity.
Gaeta talks about the "darkness" of Sodom, a city of bona fide criminals and "its same-sex relationships". When pressed on this, he and Bertram say that direct messages about gays and the offensive lumping of homosexuals in with thieves and scumbags won't be too closely worked in the game. This decision is based on a desire to seek a children's age rating rather than any apparent embarrassment about the story itself. Their go-to on all subjects is The Old Testament, which is, in many particulars, hostile to the hard-fought individual rights of our modern era.
"There's only one correct interpretation," says Frech. "That's what the author [of The Bible] intended. And so our job, today, 2,000 or 3,000 years later, our job is to look at a text and try to determine its meaning. But there are certain themes that are very repetitive in the Bible, particularly in Genesis. You can have some strong convictions because it's so repetitive."
There is talk, during our interview, of the evils of welfare, popular entertainment and promiscuity.
"It's accurate to the Old Testament," says Gaeta, a lifelong and devout Roman Catholic. "It's not in any way the objective to single out any groups or folks or make people feel like their choices are terrible, go repent and go flog yourself. In a lot of ways, this recount of what's already been written will allow folks to get reacquainted again with the full version of what that story is."
"It's not going to be really affected by the political, social environment of today, so much as it's just the story," adds Bertram.
Bertram tells the story of his own conversion, as a young man, living in Michigan. It's a perplexing tale.
He was working on a farm, unhappy following the end of a relationship. He was milking cows. He broke down, started kicking buckets, shouting. With its comedic setting, this is a story that is almost begging to be infused with comic relief. But Bertram's telling is completely earnest.
"I said, just take my life. I can't take this anymore. I wanted to die. Then I felt a sense of peace and love just take over. It was really a tangible experience for me, where all that worry and all that pain just lifted off of me. It was like God giving me a hug."
Both men speak of coming to business decisions through prayer. They regularly gather in a local diner, along with a panel of religious advisers (all men, all middle-aged). As they wait for their pancakes and fried potatoes, they hold hands and pray for guidance. This, they say, helped them decide to make their game about Abraham, rather than other options, like Moses or Jesus. They want to tackle those other Biblical stories at a later time. God, they say, will help them choose when and how.
Bible Chronicles: The Call of Abraham is an action-RPG in which you play as an attendant in Abraham's party. You witness Biblical events, and play a role in the overall group's adventures, fetching, fighting and questing. God appears from time-to-time.
"We have this hope that the game will touch people."
Members of the religious panel have helped in matters of practical and theological import. Abraham's skin-tone was darkened according to their advice. They pitched in on the issue of whether or not angels ought to be depicted hovering above ground, with wings; or as humans, walking.
The most important thing for them is to portray the stories as accurately as they believe Genesis does. They want to avoid a touchy-feely Chronicles of Narnia version of The Bible. "People relate to that stuff. But that's not what we want to do," says Gaeta. "If we're going to make a Biblically accurate game we really want to tell people the story that's already been written and share it in a way that's engaging."
Their aim is to turn a profit, of course, and to spread the word. There can be no doubt that they are of an evangelical bent. "I'm hoping that through this game, people will see a divine intervention," says Frech, who works for Campus Crusade for Christ. "We're not deists. We don't think God started the game and left. He's very much involved in our lives."
"We have this hope that the game will touch people, and it'll stir up a hunger for learning more about the Bible and God's word," says Bertram. "But at the same time, we're not putting in messages of turn or burn or anything like that. We're presenting the Bible story as accurately as we can, in the most engaging way that we can, and with the highest level of quality that we can within our budget, to just present the Bible story in a very profound way. They'll engage with it in their own way, between them and God. Some people will be moved by it. Others will just enjoy the game and that'll be that."
Religious games have a bad reputation. According to Gaeta and Bertram, they generally take standard gaming mechanics like platforming or shooting and graft on some proselytizing. The sector has not been helped by an SEC investigation into fallen Christian games company Left Behind.
Just as Christian music, literature and movies have found a dedicated and significant audience, they believe that games are next. "There is an enormous group of potential players, a market, the Christian market," says Gaeta. "Those families are also going out after Sunday services, driving to Wal-Mart, and buying Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto games. We're not oblivious to that. But we can give them an alternative to what they've accepted from the mainstream media when it comes to video games."
Grand Theft Auto 5 comes up during the conversation. They do not see the game as merely a grotesque refraction of the modern world, as parody. They see it as an entertainment norm. To them, it is merely another manifestation of society gone wrong. "That's what we all have learned about how Satan works," says Gaeta. "It's taking us even further away, accepting the things that push you further away from the kingdom of God."
They dislike the violence in the game and its sexual promiscuity. I point out that their game, Call of Abraham, features the supernatural razing of an entire city, a hero who cheats on his wife, attempted infanticide, rape and incest.
They see GTA 5 as an entertainment norm.
"It's not only the content of the game, but the context in which it's presented and what's promoted, what is glorified," argues Bertram. "In a game like Grand Theft Auto 5, it's about just having as much fun as you can at the expense of the people whose property you're destroying and the girls that you're trying to pick up and use for a night. It's really glorifying those things. Whereas the violence, the things that happened, particularly with Sodom and the judgment, those are tragedies. The reasons behind them make more sense. There is a moral argument for it. It's about that, the context."
Frech is blunt about the story of Sodom. He strays into realms that many readers may find offensive. "God really restrained himself. He didn't destroy everybody. God is a gracious God. But you look at it today, [mimics liberal perspectives] 'they were born that way, be tolerant'. I mean, just a totally different perspective in our culture."
Of course, operating at the schisms that divide our society, between believers and nonbelievers; between the patriarchy and equality; between liberal and conservative values, the guys at Phoenix Interactive see themselves as the victims of intolerance and hostility.
"I think it's pop culture," says Bertram. "There's a lot of push against the Bible, especially with the social, political issues of homosexuality, abortion, things like that, where there's a lot of polarization. Putting down the Bible as being ridiculous, being homophobic, bigoted, all that stuff, there's a lot of negativity toward the Bible in a lot of pop culture today. That's one of the biggest divisive issues in our society."
They laugh at the irony of being told, by a self-professed atheist critic on an online comments thread, that they are "going to hell."
They believe Grand Theft Auto is a sign of the end-times.
Some of the criticism is restricted to the game's relative lack of graphical sophistication. (It's being made in Unity and, according to Bertram, still early in production.) There are others who are uncomfortable with Abraham's actions, which seem so outlandish to those of us unconvinced by the existence of a caring deity or of a leader whose willingness to murder a child is supposed to be viewed as admirable.
"It's about Abraham being this weak man that we see that he is," says Bertram. "He's a regular person. But God made a promise to him, and he stepped out in faith and believed God, and despite all of his failings, some of them very bad, he believed God, and God accounted that belief to Abraham as righteous and said, alright, you're my friend. It was the faith in God that made Abraham the father of faith, and God accounted him a righteous man."
Three major world religions are founded, partly, upon the story of this man and his relationship with God. It is right, surely, that a way is found to tell these remarkable stories through video games.
But, of course, The Call of Abraham is not seeking to bring an ancient myth to life as a celebration of its storytelling credentials. It is seeking to persuade the player that the story's meaning ought to take a central place in their lives, just as it has done in the lives of these three men. They believe their work is divinely sanctioned. It has the approval of the Almighty, and is in direct opposition to an actual entity called Satan. They believe Grand Theft Auto is a sign of the end-times.
"We can sit here and preach all day," says Gaeta. "When the end happens, they describe it very specifically, and we're heading in that direction. We'll never know when that day will come, but if today is a reflection of the end times, we're not that far off. It's kind of a scary thought."