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This is a repost from a recent question posed to a Narrative Designer community I help moderate, and worth discussing here.
I'm afraid much of this is anecdotal, as I have not worked for an
explicitly religious game company of any faith. Much of my experience
comes from playing games with family members that are exceedingly
religious, particularly computer, board and the few console games that
are out there that are focused on that market. Faith in these games
played a very central theme, rather, the core premise of their story
was always centered through a specific interpretation of scripture.
While this is, in and of itself, not a bad thing, I think it highlights
a problem when developers focus too much effort on the message of the narrative at the expense of the interactivity of the game.
this goes beyond the normal video game realm, particularly into the
realm of television/video, I'll be citing relevant points through
analysis of additional media beyond video games. This is due to a lack
of availability of content - I'm a console developer, primarily, and
there is a notable dearth of religious console titles which makes
completely analysis of a specific section of media, in this case, video
games, difficult at best. I'm also going to be focusing on
Christian-faith based games. This isn't due to laziness, rather, the
problems that are illustrated in religious-based games aren't unique to
any one faith and that Christian-based games are far easier for me to
come by over Islamist, Hindu, etc. based game.
The most famous
christian game of late that received both wide release, thanks to being
carried by WalMart, and wide critical press would be the RTS Left Behind: Eternal Forces.
The game, as evidenced by the Metacritic score, was very poorly
received by the gaming community. Going through the reviews, even the
best reviews provided via Metacritic indicate that the gameplay
experience was, over all, poor. The story didn't get much better
reviews, but, given that the gaming press is largely secular, this
isn't much of a surprise, with some critics lauding the depth of
information available for units, while others pointing out the
simplistic and, as one reviewer put it "ham-fisted preaching" of the
storyline. Because the game itself is focused on recreating a world and
universe centered around a specific, christian, interpretation of the
"End of Days", the game - at its core - must hold onto this premise in
its narrative. More noticeably, this adherence to christian
interpretation takes precedence over the development of core gameplay
mechanics, as evidenced by the generally poor reviews the gameplay
Why is this? Why can't religious-focused games,
regardless of faith, present both a compelling gameplay experience AND
a strong faith-based message simultaneously?
The first, and
foremost reason, is that the audience for these games don't necessarily
care that the game is fun as long as the faith-based message is
prominent. The adherence of the communication of the message takes
priority over everything, and as long as the media - in this case,
games - clearly communicates this message, then the consumers and
developers consider the game a success. This is clearly evidenced in
the general abysmal reviews of Left Behind as a game - the gameplay is
considered derivative, boring, with terrible controls, the list of
severe criticisms goes on and on.
The second is the IP holders.
Like the audiences, they see the game as a marketing tool not just for
their IP, but also for their message. So, again, if the message is at
the forefront, clearly presented, and continues to be inline with the
ultimate religious philosophy, the IP holders don't care if the
gameplay is good. The message is key, everything else is secondary.
how can we get by this and how can developers bring together these
seemingly exclusive worlds together in such a way that these games
appeal to both gamers and the faithful?
Allegory could work, but
this tends to be perceived as diluting the message despite its use
throughout history in other media. Allegory is, in and of itself, open
to interpretation, which goes against a strict view of religious
information. If the message isn't clear and explicit, I'm not sure how
it will be received by the audience, as the tradition in media these
days is to be as explicit to the literal message as possible. The Left
Behind series is a pretty good description of that; while it is couched
in Bible, it is a thoroughly modern take on the End of Days that is
firmly couched in the prophecies as found in the Book of Revelations.
the gameplay would, of course, provide these religious games with a
wider audience, but that is a fine line to tread. Gameplay is iterated
upon to create a fun experience, and normally that means - in
story-based games, particularly games based on texts - that both
gameplay and narrative are molded together into a fun whole. This is no
different than translating books into movies. Some aspects of books are
invariably cut to create a much more compelling, both visual and
pacing-wise, product. Using religious text as a narrative source,
however, limits this flexibility. Altering the narrative potentially
alters the message and this would be unacceptable, while strictly
following religious texts can lead to tremendous success as The Passion of the Christ
illustrates. Gameplay, as a result, can only be modified so much as
long as strict and explicit interpretations of religious texts are
followed. The results, as we can see via the Left Behind: Eternal Forces,
show out that an adherence to inflexible narrative content hinders
gameplay mechanic growth. Gameplay and Narrative must be malleable
enough to allow for the creation of fun gameplay, and this gameplay
should then allow the player to experience a compelling narrative.
So, I pose this question to you, Constant Reader: Can inflexible
narrative content provide a suitable backdrop for iteration of gameplay, and if so,