How a group of game makers are attempting the impossible: Making Christian games that aren't terrible.
Being told your one year-old child has cancer is a devastating blow. Only a minority of parents are forced to endure it. For game developer Ryan Green, hearing that news was only the beginning of his nightmare. Ten months after Green's son Joel was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor, and underwent extensive chemotherapy and radiation, he and his wife received the devastating news: Joel had only four months left.
Any parent would fall apart. But Green's response has been strange — he’s hopeful. It's his Christian faith, he says, that keeps him going. That same faith has prompted Green to do something unusual: turn Joel’s experience into a video game. "I want people to step into the world I’ve been in," he says. "Living in the shadow of death."
Green is intent on making his faith a key part of this game, inviting players to experience his doubt, frustration and unusual joy over the past two years. Yet such a conscious effort to include religion would typically categorize a game as faith-based: a Christian video game.
But the definition is curious when applied to Green's project, which sounds nothing like what the gaming community is used to seeing from faith-based entertainment. Green's story is touching, riddled with unimaginable fear. Christian games, on the other hand, are infamous for lacking the slightest touch of nuance. More often than not, they're terrible.
Games like Left Behind, based on a popular apocalyptic book series, and the NES-era Spiritual Warfare, from Christian distributor Wisdom Tree, are some of the better known and widely-mocked examples. But a growing group of Christians, including Ryan Green, is consciously trying to change the perception of religious video games. They want to tell stories that include a wider range of human experiences. Stories like Green's — stories about heartache, grace, mercy and pain.
Christian Games Developers' Conference
More than 100 developers gather every year at the Christian Games Developers Conference to discuss how they can make their games better. It's a diverse group, representing five continents in the conference's best year. It's a serious affair. They have volunteers, plenty of discussion. Even matching t-shirts.
The conference was founded in 2002 by Tim Emmerich, a soft-spoken engineer who works at HP to pay the bills. He wanted to improve what he thought was a lack of support and experimentation in the Christian games community.
"My expectations have been really blown away by the conference," Emmerich says. "I was just expecting 12 in the first year, and we got 30. Now we're getting over 100."
Emmerich isn't the type of person one would imagine founding a conference, and he readily admits he was out of his depth. Over time, he says, he's become impressed, and maybe a little intimidated, about what the conference has become. It's a small gathering by most professional standards, but it's no less enthusiastic. Even developers who identify as Christians from major studios like BioWare attend, offering their expertise on topics ranging from level design to story.
The developers who come are mostly young, but they're fiery. They're upset with the way some Christians have portrayed their religion, and are adamant at backing away from an aggressive advertising campaign for their faith. They just want to make good games.
Chris Skaggs, co-founder of Soma Games, is frustrated by the insular nature of religious games. But most of all, he says, it's the lack of quality. It isn't that Spiritual Warfare is bad — although many believe it is — it's that it's just kitschy enough that even the mainstream gaming community knows about and mocks it. Correcting that shift is made even more complicated by what Skaggs claims is a stark religious conviction.
"I do very much feel called by God to do this," says Skaggs, who has become a type of unofficial spokesperson for the conference. "I want to be myself. I'm not trying to convert anybody, but I'm also going to be honest about who I am."
Skaggs and others at the conference are inspired by a rich history of art found in religion, and not just from Christianity. They're taking cues from the artistic expression of all faiths, pointing to examples of how they can combine art and belief in a way that doesn't shy away from big ideas or complex debates, instead embracing the complexity of spirituality.
Soma Games' first title, G Into the Rain, isn't obviously theological. As the reconnaissance officer of a spaceship, the player uses propulsion rockets to investigate solar systems. It's simple. Innocent. That's the way Skaggs wants it.
"The vision for our company is to make allegorical games," he says. He's alluding to the fact that G Into the Rain is a telling of the Noah's Ark story — not that any uninformed player would know.
"We've never billed them as Christian games for Christian players."
A history of mediocrity
CGDC attendees could be forgiven for their frustration. Having grown up on a diet of classics in the 1980s and '90s, these developers see the low quality of religious games in sharper focus.
At the same time, they've been subjected to a movement within the Christian subculture to keep everything insular. The incredibly rich and successful Christian music scene began in earnest in the '80s as a response to "evil" mainstream music. Small-town Americans might remember church bonfires in which their tapes and CDs were set alight, with pastors declaring parishioners set free of the evils of secular rock music.
The same desire that ignited those bonfires led Christians to start their own entertainment industries, but the talent pool is shallow and games are no exception. Walk into any Christian bookstore and you'll see copycat titles like Praise Band, or Dance Praise, both obvious clones of mainstream successes.
They're cringingly bad, the obvious nature of the emulation making them all the more difficult to swallow.
But the worst offence isn't that these games are bad, Skaggs says. Their worst crime is that they shun complex thought at a time when games are exploring more complicated issues than they ever have before. Deep, meaningful and affecting issues — like cancer.
"I want to reach people who are thinking about deep spiritual things," Skaggs says. "Not necessarily Christians, but anybody who thinks they can think about life and Earth and purpose and thinking.
The desire for Christians to create their own alternative forms of art and entertainment is a complicated issue.
"I don't see myself being in an evangelism role, and yet when people know I'm a Christian they assume that's what I'm doing." This is actually a key debate in the CGDC community, whether games should be used as simply pieces of art as an end unto themselves, or whether they should be used to spread a particular message as an evangelistic tool — that is, to help convert people to Christianity.
From a gamer's perspective, it sounds like an obvious decision to make, but Christians often face being shunned by their own kind if their work isn't overtly "Christian" enough. Earlier this year, best-selling religious writer Don Miller released a film based on his popular book Blue Like Jazz. He received criticism from traditional Christian circles for daring to make the film's storyline focus on an individual's messy journey through faith, ending with a somewhat uncertain conclusion.
The desire for Christians to create their own alternative forms of art and entertainment is a complicated issue that can be attributed, partly, to the Protestant Reformation. Since Martin Luther broke away from the Catholic faith, certain groups have believed that art cannot merely exist for its own sake — it must accomplish the work of God. Game makers have not escaped the debate.
"We have this discussion at every conference," says Emmerich. "There are those that use the Bible as a wealth of material for games, and there are others that make mainstream games with those types of spiritual themes. There are those that say they want to do neither, and some that want to do both."
It's that strange combination — the need to evangelize through art — that can result in poor quality work. Left Behind depicts the biblical book of Revelation as an extremely literal interpretation of the worldwide apocalypse, complete with deadly horsemen and scorpions with human faces. The evangelical community made the books best sellers.
But not only was the Left Behind game confusing and behind its time, it faced accusations of misogyny, racism and of being downright offensive to people of other religious beliefs. The negative reaction to the game wasn't made any better by the fact that the game's developer, Inspired Media Entertainment, sent a harsh legal note to bloggers and reviewers saying they would face action unless they took down what the company considered to be false and misleading material.
Subsequent sequels received similarly poor reviews.
The idea that religious games are bad has permeated popular culture; it couldn't even escape The Simpsons' grasp. In one episode, Bart plays a video game with the sons of über-Christian Ned Flanders. Bart blasts non-believers with lasers, converting them into fine upstanding Christians.
"Got one," Bart yells. His playmate corrects: "No, you just winged him and made him a Unitarian."
"You just winged him and made him a Unitarian."
A funny gag, but funnier if you realise how eerily accurate it is. The Wisdom Tree games are some of the most iconic examples of kitschy Christian media. Spiritual Warfare may not be a total Zelda rip-off, but it's close, making players hunt down demons and convert "heathens." Left Behind continues the tradition of poor quality games, standing alongside Praise Band and Dance Praise on the shelves of mediocrity.
Along the same lines as these are more educational games like Bible Man and Bible Builder. They're certainly not built for the same audience, but as games go, they're discount-bin stuff.
"When someone makes a Christian video game, that automatically pigeonholes it into certain moral boundaries," says Joe Siegler, a former community manager for 3D Realms.
Siegler became a Christian in 2006, years after he first started attending church as a family habit. He came to be somewhat of a Christian force within the office.
The need for Christians to separate themselves from "the world," he says, is something that developers desperately need to get away from. Once you fence yourself off from exploring certain topics or themes, the talent available to you rapidly deteriorates.
"There are such boundaries in what you can do. Want to use Jesus as a character? Well, you can't do that, because it's ‘sacrilegious.' So what you end up with is most Christian games being used as teaching implements, and they're not games designed for fun."
The developers at CGDC are no less divided. Some, like Brent Dusing of Lightside Games, make games that tell overt theological stories, titles like the explicitly Christian adventure tale The Journey of Moses. It's fun enough as a social game, but there is likely no reason why a non-Christian would feel compelled to play it. Others are experimenting with ways to make Christian games just plain likeable in a way they haven't been before. Lawyer Thomas Boto is developing interactive storybooks. Four Story Creative is trying to sell a type of Christian MMO. Their work is distinctly religious, yes, but with slightly more of the polish that's been lacking from classic religious games.
Adam's Venture, an adventure game series made by the Dutch studio Vertigo Games, lets players take the role of an archaeological explorer looking for the Garden of Eden. It's explicitly Christian, yes, but more playable than that label implies. The puzzles are challenging enough for the core audience, and at the very least, it's an attempt to do something different.
Josh Larson, another CGDC attendee, represents a meeting in the middle. He's working with Ryan Green to develop the video game about Joel's cancer. It's a part of his desire to see Christian games become soapboxes for discussing important spiritual and moral issues, rather than sermons.
Larson says he used to be offended by the lack of quality in Christian video games. Now, he's offended by the lack of activity.
"I really wish there were more people doing things. It doesn't seem that there is, outside of a small group of people. That really sucks. Especially when Christian games are compared to the general indie scene that's so colorful and vibrant."
"I really wish there were more people doing things. Especially when Christian games are compared to the general indie scene."
Larson's story is unusual, he freely admits. While attending worship services, he claims to have started seeing visions — simple ones — flashes of color and light flickering like a kaleidoscope. The colors were immediately accompanied by what he calls a conviction to turn his vision into a reality.
His subsequent project, Wiev, uses Wii remotes to guide visual representations on large screens used in churches. The visuals are like the abstract representations you would see in the visualizer of an audio program like iTunes, but instead of music, they are responsive to user input.
"I just started to sketch out what I was seeing. The people I spoke to were excited about being able to make these experiences during a worship experience. It's a way to express yourself visually."
It's niche stuff, made completely for a Christian audience. But there's a key difference, Larson says, between his work and other projects — it's not pretending to be something that it isn't.
Instead, his video game, "if you could call it that," acts as an evolution. A religious game that isn't evangelical. This evolution must be embraced by Christian developers if they want to make better games, he says. They just need to let go.
There are others following Larson's lead, and moving even further away from the Christian message altogether.
An evangelical crisis
Ryan Vandendyck has had a tough ride. His game, Waveform, may be finished, but his Kickstarter came up several thousand dollars short. It's frustrating, he says, especially during a time when games are getting funded every day. "That was discouraging," Vandendyck says. "Because of that failure it just took me longer."
Shortly afterward, other developers accused Vandendyck's Waveform of copying another game. The mix-up was eventually sorted out, but it's frazzled him. Developing games, he says, is hard work. Indies know this. Yet Vandendyck tries to make it a little easier through one self-imposed rule: He keeps religious beliefs out of his games.
"I do understand there is some tension there," he says, referring to that dreaded onus some Christians have of making sure all their art expresses their beliefs.
"I'm not opposed to putting my beliefs out there through the game; I just think unless I come up with a really good way to — that people appreciate — then it's not necessarily the right medium."
Just like G Into the Rain, Waveform is a simple game. Players direct a beam of light across the screen, solving puzzles and navigating through space. There's nothing religious about this game whatsoever. And, just like Chris Skaggs, that's the way Vandendyck wants it.
"For me, it's just about making fun games first, because for most people, they're not going to know who I am."
Vandendyck faces a dilemma which many Christian developers admit experiencing: how to use their art to reflect their beliefs without coming across as preaching them.
"I don't want to make games that would reflect poorly on Christian beliefs," he says. "Those types of decisions affect how I create the game, but beyond that, there is room to portray themes that would make people think.
"Themes like self-sacrifice, and grace. Themes that come up in Christianity again and again."
This is the source of the new wave of Christian games: humanity. These developers view the human condition as completely God-created, so any games that shun aspects of humanity like depression, or doubt, are being dishonest. The way developers explore those themes is by detaching themselves from the impulse to evangelize — they're leaving conversion behind.
Create excellent games
Lance Priebe is another developer and CGDC attendee who takes his development extremely seriously, but his games have nothing to do with faith at all. His most popular title is Disney's Club Penguin, a social game series geared towards younger players, with absolutely no ties to religion. He fundamentally disagrees that there's a need to make overtly "spiritual" games.
"I don't see how a game can be spiritual. We are spiritual," he says.
For Priebe, the wonder of Christianity comes through in something simple, like the curiosity of a child. He cites games like Minecraft and Scribblenauts as examples of games that "celebrate a child's desire to explore and create."
"I believe God calls us to a level of excellence. Christian game developers should create excellent games."
"Build games that allow sons to adventure with their fathers."
Throughout these conversations, a name comes up independently, again and again: C.S. Lewis.
The British author, responsible for The Chronicles of Narnia fantasy series, is seen as a master craftsmen among Christians in terms of allegorical skill. Lewis was never shy in admitting his series was a retold story of Christ's death and resurrection. These developers want to follow his lead.
"Why build for the Christian audience? C.S. Lewis didn't write for the Christian audience," Priebe says. He issues a challenge: "Create games that respect the players' investment and time.
"Create games that connect people. Build games that allow sons to adventure with their fathers, build games that encourage creativity, build games that celebrate teamwork."
In other words: build something authentic.
The desert of the real
Richard Clark started playing his Xbox during a troubling time. He and his wife were having some trouble, and his father was growing sicker by the day with cancer. He was lonely.
Clark, who is not a game developer but edits the Christian-themed critical analysis websites Gamechurch and Christ and Pop Culture, says he turned to games for some distraction. What he found surprised him. Titles like Braid explored and reflected the essence of Christianity better than most religious entertainment.
"Really, our best examples of 'Christian' games are games made by non-Christians."
It's a striking statement, not only because it comes from the mouth of a man educated in a Southern Baptist seminary, but also because of its apparent truth. There are endless games in the mainstream market with narratives that appeal to religious beliefs, even if they are not in and of themselves religious. Red Dead Redemption is essentially the story of Christ — John Marston sacrifices himself for a greater good. His grave marker literally reads, "Blessed are the peace makers," a quote attributed to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Whether or not the creators of these games are Christians, they are not making games from a purely evangelical point of view.
"In many ways, my life has sucked since I've become a Christian."
Journey can be interpreted as the quest for spiritual enlightenment. Deus Ex: Human Revolution explores the very nature of who we are, and our ability to play God. It's as Clark says — mainstream games deal with the issues of humanity and brokenness better than the religious ones that claim to understand these subjects best.
It's this dark exploration of the grit of life that attracts Clark. These games are a reflection of his experience.
"In many ways, my life has sucked since I've become a Christian," he says. It's an observation, not a lament.
"But it's a question of why? The Christian purpose has helped me get through that, and I think games can tell that story. They can tell the story of what's happening on this earth without teaching anything overt.
"What I really appreciate is honest, truthful stories about pain."
Clark mentions two games in particular that reflect this type of analysis. The first is El Shaddai, an action game made by Ignition Entertainment. The story is based on the ancient Jewish text the Book of Enoch — a scribe must find fallen angels to prevent a great flood.
This story, Clark says, is what he wants to see from Christian games. Something that feels like it has resonance beyond any evangelist's agenda.
"A Christian game I'd love to play is something that struggles deeply with what it is to trust in a God that does not seem to be there, or at times, just seems to be on someone else's side. Those are the things that should be acknowledged."
The second game he mentions is one perhaps more well-known: The Binding of Isaac.
A house divided
Edmund McMillen grew up in a religiously divided household. Devout Catholics dominated one side of the family. During his childhood, he attended church, and even enjoyed the idea of the organization. He was drawn to the mystery.
"It's why I liked things like D&D. My grandma would cast spells in the same way a cleric would, doing prayers of safe passage and so on.
"I did enjoy that part of the religion, the weird, dark stuff that comes along with it."
The other side of McMillen's family was hard-line Protestant. They would constantly berate him for his personality, confiscating his Magic: The Gathering cards and D&D books. He felt, as many children of religious parents do, as though they had stripped him of his identity.
"Aspects of who I was were defined as incorrect by both sides, and in a lot of ways I was condemned."
The Binding of Isaac is an exploration of that conflict. Isaac lives with his mother, who one day receives a message from God that her son is filled with sin. She takes away his toys, pictures and even his clothes. He's locked away. God then demands Isaac be sacrificed. It's almost a straight retelling of the biblical story of Isaac.
The autobiographical nature of the game is obvious, something McMillen has always freely admitted. But he also says he wanted to make the game more than a tale of his own woe.
"The game takes place in the mind of this creative child. I wanted to explore the dark side of how it can affect the child if they fit into the wrong category of what people think is good."
This is the type of game Richard Clark wants to see more of in the religious space. Something that honestly and explicitly expresses the truth of the human condition. Apparently, he's not alone. McMillan says while he has received the usual protest, several pastors have contacted him to express their thanks for exploring these confronting issues.
"For the most part the game could be perceived as negative," McMillan says. But his response to this perception is surprising — he just wants more people to explore religious themes, whether that be positive or otherwise.
"There is a reason why religious texts like the Bible are critically acclaimed books. There are a lot of written stories in there that could be explored in ways that are really well-designed games," he says.
McMillen says if Christian games want to survive, they need to set aside the notion that everything is positive. The heart of a good religious piece of art can be found in conflict.
Games like Journey and Papo & Yo aren't interesting because they're safe — they are the digital manifestations of deep and personal pain. They are explorations of years of neglect and heartache, fierce personal debates over the profound mysteries of the world and our place within it.
"Art revolves around honesty."
"You see their preoccupations, their obsessions, you see every little aspect of who they are," McMillen says of the creators of these titles.
"I think there's a lot of room for this, even if these games were evangelistic in nature. But they need to be honest, and they need to come from one person's vision. There's more than enough room for it."
The key is honesty, McMillen says, whether it's Chris Skaggs being honest about his allegory, or Ryan Green's raw emotion about battling his son's cancer.
"Art revolves around honesty. If we're talking about religion or spirituality in a video game and if you said in that game you never once doubted the religion to be true, then you are lying.
"Without honesty you have no connection, you have no ability to relate. If it's coming from a space of ‘I'm right and you're wrong,' then it's just cold and uninspired."
It's the difference, he says, "between advertising and art."
An evolving culture
In many ways, the culture around Christian video games has evolved beyond its industry. There are already several blogs and websites, like Christ and Pop Culture, analyzing mainstream games like The Walking Dead or Halo in a Christian context.
Drew Dixon, an Alabama pastor and editor of Gamechurch, is already confident about the quality of Christian criticism. It's just waiting for the Christian games to catch up, so it searches for meaning in other games — like in Red Dead Redemption.
"As a Christian, I think God created the world. And so we're going to see some of God's character in these games, because everything is made in God's image. They have the potential to say something truthful about the way we live."
The rest of the Christian community is slowly beginning to realize how games can be used in a worshipful context. Andy Robertson, who runs the GeekDad blog for Wired.com, took it upon himself earlier this year to combine the concept of religious worship and video games. During a Catholic worship service, he played the game Flower — showing how interactive art could be used in conjunction with worship.
"The existence of a dark game, owned appropriately, isn't necessarily a sign of social illness," he said in a recent TED Talk.
"Perhaps, in the way we used to teach our children the horrific tales of Noah's flood, the presence of dark games helps us avoid inoculating ourselves against darkness and danger, and helps us engage with those difficult subjects."
"We're going to see some of God's character in these games, because everything is made in God's image."
As Dixon explains, this shouldn't make Christians shy away, as they often do when confronted with complex analysis — after all, their story of the death of Christ is a truly gruesome tale.
"Christ's death on the cross was horrifically brutal, and what Christians believe is that he was literally paying for the sins of the world. One of the most important doctrines in Christianity is that people are not inherently good.
"Now, if games are willing to take the reality that not everything is good, that there are things in this world that are not all positive, then that can be really interesting."
Games like Papo & Yo, he says, serve as a good blueprint. The game is an honest expression of what it means to live with an alcoholic and abusive father. Dixon points to stories in the Bible that address similar scandals — like David, who sleeps with another man's wife, and then kills him to cover up her pregnancy from the affair.
The best games, Dixon says, are ones that make you answer interesting questions. Games like The Walking Dead explore this concept well, extracting an emotional response from the player without judging them.
"I think Christian game makers should try to ask interesting questions of players rather than constantly seeking to answer questions," he says.
"I really don't want to see Christians [just] making art for Christians," Dixon says. "We need something that feels really sublime, and pure."
That purity is something Ryan Green is striving for with the video game about his child's cancer. It's only in the planning stages, but as Josh Larson explains, their project is an attempt at experimenting with the experience of living as a Christian in a brutal world.
"It's not the idea that things should have Bible verses in them, but stuff that reflects our world view. There's really a lack of authorship in Christian games right now. It really frustrates me."
Green and Larson's game won't be something you could put in your console and play; it'll be more of an interactive experience you'd encounter in a museum or gallery. At this stage, Ryan isn't sure what that will be: whether it will include paintings, or allegorical elements like swordplay.
But their goal is clear: to move beyond accepting that the genre will always be bad. With independent games now able to reach levels of success they never have before, Larson says, it's up to the development community to reach out and tell their own stories.
"The responsibility is on the developers to make stuff. The main thing is that more stuff needs to happen. I'd like to see game jams happening at least once a month. I really want to try and get people to think more about experimentation, and growing the body of language in our development."
Ryan Green views his son's cancer as a story in itself. Just as Dixon says games are able to portray the nature of God through art, Larson says cancer is a manifestation of the human self. God made the world, and cancer is a corruption in that world. What could be more Christian than writing a story about his struggle through that journey?
"Cancer's a funny 'disease' because it's not really an external thing. You don't pick it up from a virus or bacteria; it's a perversion of your own DNA. It's you, broken, and it will kill you because it doesn't die.
"I see cancer as a much more intrinsic aspect of the nature of man."
Unfortunately, Joel's diagnosis has worsened. Even after extensive treatment, and an initial period in which his cancer receded, a recent MRI uncovered another tumor. It doesn't look good. Joel's doctors have said he may not have much time left.
Yet Green holds on to what he calls "a stubborn hope." He and his wife fully understand what is happening, and aren't denying reality. But Green says there is a chance Joel could recover, and he intends to hold on to that small chance, even in the face of overwhelming despair. And he's still going to make his game.
This is the pain of human existence, Dixon says. Games that don't even acknowledge that are being dishonest. When they do, they can be more striking than any sermon.
"We can investigate the human condition through games, and still say something honest that makes a difference."