141. Let’s Make Better Christian Video Games

It’s a bitter truth, but we must face it bravely.

Christian video games stink.

Almost without exception, Christian video games are cheap knockoffs of mainstream video games. Christians have made superb contributions to practically every other medium in the world—art, music, literature, film—but not video games.

Why is this?

Well, there are lots of reasons. Video games require money to make, and Christians are a minority demographic in the video game industry. It’s more profitable to make games for larger audiences. More to the point, most Christian video games seem to be made by developers with good intentions, microscopic budgets and practically no experience. The fact that Christian video games tend to be derivative, preachy and poorly designed doesn’t help.

Perhaps the greatest problem is that Christian game developers often focus too much on the message of the games. (This may sound blasphemous, but please hear me out.) Other media can focus primarily on message and succeed, but video games are different.

Video games are built upon gameplay, the way a player interacts with the game. Elements like story, theme and message are secondary. The Mario games, which are amazing, feature the same story over and over again: rescue the princess from the bad guy. Many excellent games have no message—they’re simply entertaining. Even games like Portal and Bioshock with clever plots, deep themes and well-developed characters work only because they are fun to play. For a video game to have a compelling message, it must first have good gameplay.

That’s where Christian video games seem to fail. No matter how good their messages, these games are too flawed for any gamer to care. A video game must succeed as a video game before it can succeed as anything else.

How can we fix Christian video games? Listen up, Christian video game developers. (You all read this blog, right?) I’ve got some suggestions for you.

Focus on gameplay. Don’t preach. Let the game captivate the player with its excellence before introducing profound messages. Put together an adequate budget before starting development. Work with experienced developers. Did I already advise you not to preach? Borrow—but don’t steal—elements from other games. Get lots of feedback. Market your game cleverly and extensively to both Christian and mainstream demographics.

You still need ideas? All right, here are a few concepts for Christian video games that might actually be worth playing. When you make one of these games, just list me in the credits as Creative Consultant.

Underground

Genres: action-adventure, open world, stealth

Influences: Assassin’s Creed series, Metal Gear Solid series

It is the dawn of the fourth century A.D. Diocletian, Emperor of Rome, has intensified the persecution of Christians: burning sacred texts, leveling church buildings and brutally executing Christian leaders. In this time of terror and darkness, a young Christian—let’s call him Socrates—volunteers to be a courier, delivering urgent messages and carrying out secret missions for underground churches.

Underground would borrow much from Assassin’s Creed with its emphasis on historical details, roaming a vast environment and sneaking around without getting caught by the bad guys.

Unlike Assassin’s Creed, the focus of the game wouldn’t be assassination. Socrates would parkour his way around Rome and the surrounding country: clambering over rooftops, creeping through sewers, clinging to the undersides of chariots and generally getting from Point A to Point B without getting caught. (Socrates would also avoid detection by hiding in clay jars, Solid Snake-style.) Since the early church frowned upon murder, killing an enemy would be an instant Game Over. Socrates would have to find creative, nonlethal methods for incapacitating his foes.

Add a story rife with intrigue, betrayal and excitement, and Underground could work.

Pilgrim’s Progress

Genres: RPG, action-adventure

Influences: Legend of Zelda series, Final Fantasy XII, God of War series

The plot of John Bunyan’s classic allegory is perfect for a video game: an unlikely hero sets out on a quest, receives a sword, fights monsters, traverses dangerous environments and finally reaches a happy ending.

Pilgrim’s Progress would give players the choice of playing as either Christian or Christiana. Setting out from the City of Destruction, the player would follow a mostly linear path through exotic locales like the Slough of Despond and the Valley of the Shadow of Death, defeating enemies, solving puzzles and collecting treasures along the way. The ultimate goal? The Celestial City, a place of safety and rest.

The game would include RPG elements like experience points and leveling up, and equipment could be upgraded. Special weapons and tools would be used for combat and puzzle-solving. (Who wouldn’t want to use the Staff of Moses to cross a heretofore impassible river, or the Light of the Word to illuminate a dark cavern?) Progress would be recorded at Save Points. These would also provide a feature called Pilgrim’s Journal, which would allow the player to revisit areas explored previously. (This feature would keep the player from physically backtracking, which is antithetical to the plot of Pilgrim’s Progress.)

The story would have to be tweaked a bit, of course. Although there are one or two “boss battles” in the original allegory, I suggest adding more. For example, there really ought to be a final boss battle right before the player crosses the River of Death to reach the Celestial City. Perhaps Christian (or Christiana) could confront his (or her) greatest fear or worst temptation or something.

Gun for Hire

Genres: third-person shooter, adventure

Influences: Resident Evil 4, Ace Attorney series

Daniel Grey is a private investigator whose tiny office is a mess. A worn duster is draped over the back of his chair. Across his desk are scattered a revolver, a fedora, a Bible and a cup of coffee. When a businessman comes begging him to recover his kidnapped daughter, Grey has only one condition: “Nobody dies.”

As a third-person shooter, Gun for Hire would have plenty of shooting. Grey would venture into some pretty shady places, and bullets would fly. As with Underground, however, killing an enemy would mean an instant Game Over. The game would challenge the player to find creative uses for firearms. When shot, certain pipes would vent clouds of steam to blind foes. A well-aimed bullet would bring a shelf crashing down on an unsuspecting criminal, and shattering a dog’s chain would set it free to chase away potential threats. Of course, a pragmatic player could simply shoot to injure enemies, or knock them out with a blackjack and leave them tied up in a closet.

The game would also focus on investigation, allowing players to examine areas for clues. Important things—facts, documents and miscellaneous items—would be filed away as clues. Aligning the right clues would lead to conclusionsClues and conclusions would be used as keys to unlock answers in conversations with suspects, eventually leading to each mystery’s solution. Gun for Hire would balance exploration and shooting with investigation and perhaps a few puzzles.

The cases in Gun for Hire would be part of an overarching story involving a criminal conspiracy. The game would be set in a big city, probably in the early twentieth century. Daniel Grey would be a Wanderer-Hero with a strong faith, a kind heart, a quick wit and a tragic past. (Why does he drink so much coffee? Is he sublimating a craving for drugs or liquor into a harmless addiction, or simply using the buzz of caffeine to distract himself from some painful memory?) Strong gameplay, clever writing and good acting could make Gun for Hire a great game.

Will some experienced developer please make a good Christian video game? Someone? Anyone?

11 thoughts on “141. Let’s Make Better Christian Video Games

  1. Another idea: Colosseum
    You.
    Lion.
    Go.

    Influence: Mortal Kombat series

    Simple combat game, fighting more difficult enemies as you progress. This one culminates with a boss who looks suspiciously like Nero.

    On second thought, this one might be seen as being in poor taste.

  2. Keen suggestions, my friend. Those sound like some very playable games. Pilgrim could even be done as a 2D indie game pretty easily (a la Braid, Dust, or Mark of the Ninja). One thing I have often wondered about is how to make an appealing action/adventure game that doesn’t require killing. I like your suggestions, but I wonder if the games would be better off if killing was not an automatic game over, but something that led to profound or even severe consequenses. Violence is always an option, but is it a good one? Is it ever as good as we think it is? Those are some great questions I think we would be better off exploring thru video games.

    • It would be cool to have a nonlinear game in which killing led to dire consequences, but it would be awfully tricky to develop (and would probably upset lots of Christian parents). A simpler option might be to have multiple endings, Bioshock-style, with a “Good” ending for players who killed no enemies and a “Bad” ending for players who took lives. I think violence is definitely something video games have the potential to explore in a meaningful way.

  3. I like the Parkour idea for Underground, Like Mirrors edge (while your not Truely punished for killing people, combat seems to break the fast paced gameplay, So most of the time i felt i spent avoiding combat (unless the game forced me) and certainly never picking up a weapon, If you were to have a Legion of Roman Soldiers Chaseing after you, your less likely to want to Spend those precious seconds killing that one gaurd, So Maby certain quick defenceive moves …. (Pressing E to hold your arm out so you can push people out of the way … may have a catch, like for example it work on Romans with sheilds so you will want to take alternate paths)

    While its true Mirror’s Edge was as Linear as … Linear gets, But, i am sure the idea could be adapted for an Open World.

    • I hadn’t really thought about it until you brought up ideas for combat in Underground, but there are all sorts of nonlethal weapons that fit the context of ancient Rome. Slingshots come to mind!

      It would be a challenge to develop a compelling combat system that didn’t kill enemies… though, now that I think about it, Batman: Arkham City did just that! If Batman can be an awesome fighter without killing anyone, why can’t the hero in Underground be the same?

  4. There already is a version of “The Pilgrim’s Progress” in RPG form made by Scott Cawthon. It’s not too bad, but the Expert mode in it is poorly balanced. Enemy scaling is a lot more reasonable in Normal and Difficult, but in Expert it’s a horrible, grindy experience to get past the hardest enemies (especially if you invested in the wrong stat increases). It’s also way too linear, and the battle system is a bit dull in terms of repetitiveness.

    • Thanks for commenting! Believe it or not, years after writing this post, I found out about Scott Cawthon’s version of The Pilgrim’s Progress. (When Five Nights at Freddy’s became a phenomenon, I looked up the rest of Mr. Cawthon’s work.) I haven’t played it, but remain glad that SOMEONE made a game of it. 😛

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