Plowshares into Skyhooks: The Evolution (Intelligent Design?) of Bible Games 6


This month, the Ontological Geek has a theme: reli­gion and/or the­ol­o­gy in games. We have a great bunch of arti­cles lined up, from the very per­son­al to the deeply the­o­ret­i­cal, from both reg­u­lar OntoGeek con­trib­u­tors and sev­er­al guest writ­ers. We’d love to hear from you with your thoughts on speci­fic arti­cles and the month as a whole – com­ment freely and e-mail us at editor@ontologicalgeek.com!

And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many peo­ple: and they shall beat their swords into plow­shares, and their spears into prun­ing­hooks: nation shall not lift up sword again­st nation, nei­ther shall they learn war any more. – The Book of Isaiah

Beat your plow­shares into swords and your prun­ing­hooks into spears: let the weak say, I am strong. – The Book of Joel

Frequent read­ers will note my inti­mate famil­iar­i­ty with the Evangelical sub­cul­ture. It wasn’t until I grew out of my lar­val form that I rec­og­nized just how sub that cul­ture was. To me, it was nor­mal to repu­di­ate the machi­na­tions of the sec­u­lar, decry the sub­ver­sive whims of a lib­er­al media, and lion­ize such defend­ers of the faith as the Billy Graham Crusaders, the Gaither Vocal Band, and Randy Hogue.

In TobyMac, Switchfoot, and Relient K, we had our own music; a pro-family, pro-social answer to every genre of song – many Christian acts of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, in fact (the hey­decade of the move­ment) con­sist­ed of pop­u­lar sec­u­lar tunes repur­posed to affirm our social agen­da. We had our own car­toons, some of them actu­al­ly rather clev­er and tech­no­log­i­cal­ly ground­break­ing. We had huge ral­lies in sta­di­ums of mil­lions, and popped out “world out­reach cen­ters” like sneezes: some of which have passed on into obscu­ri­ty, some remain a force with which to be reck­oned, and a cer­tain quite famous one in my home­town is under scruti­ny for har­bor­ing some dark prac­tices with­in osten­si­bly benign, if rad­i­cal, quar­ters.

We had hit nov­els, major motion pic­tures. We refit­ted hol­i­days to elim­i­nate pagan (or even neu­tral) ele­ments, and had our own youth orga­ni­za­tions, like AWANA, as a cul­tur­al coun­ter­point to the Deistic-in-theory American Scouting move­ment. It might be said that, for some, or even many of us, the Boy Scouts weren’t con­ser­v­a­tive enough.

And, of course, we had our own games.

This impulse was borne from the Pauline com­mand­ment to “be not con­formed to this world, but be trans­formed by the renew­ing of your mind.”

Worldly” was a slur.

The 1980s: BibleBytes, and Kidware Shareware Adware Underwear

The con­cept of the Christian com­put­er game began with the upris­ing of mod­ern Evangelicalism with its soon-to-be-realized theo­crat­ic ten­den­cies and its recon­struc­tion­ist empha­sis on the bud­ding cul­ture war between the “old-time Religion” and the open sec­u­lar­iza­tion of the West. Focusing on the Family meant meet­ing the pub­lic main­stream cul­ture point for point: in pol­i­tics, in art, in hob­bies and enter­tain­ments all alike.

As with cer­tain evan­gel­i­cal lead­ers (Dr. James Dobson), inter­na­tion­al­ly rec­og­nized con­ser­v­a­tive think tanks (Focus on the Family), and pop­u­lar, still-running radio pro­grams (Adventures in Odyssey), the “Christian” game was born in Colorado. BibleBytes was found­ed by the Conrod fam­i­ly with the express mis­sion of bring­ing com­put­er games into the main­stream with overt­ly reli­gious mes­sages. This being the early 1980s, videogames weren’t met with the scorn we wit­nessed in the early-to-mid 2000s, for exam­ple, on the charge of being unspeak­ably vio­lent (and cer­tain­ly they’ve earned that dis­tinc­tion, regard­less of how that makes you feel per­son­al­ly). Instead, this was an answer to the emer­gent pop­u­lar­i­ty and ram­pant growth of infant gam­ing, anoth­er tit-for-tat appro­pri­a­tion of an aspect of mod­ern cul­ture and inte­gra­tion into the fledg­ling Christian subcul­ture.

BibleBytes was suc­cess­ful in mar­ket­ing the first Christian games on the era’s micro­com­put­ers, which includ­ed those man­u­fac­tured by Radio Shack, Texas Instruments, and Timex.

The over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of Christian games pro­duced dur­ing this peri­od were devel­oped by BibleBytes, and port­ed to the appro­pri­ate hard­ware plat­forms, includ­ing the Atari 2600 and Commodore 64, as those became wide­ly avail­able. The games were released in mul­ti­ple vol­umes and iter­a­tions as a col­lec­tion rather straight­for­ward­ly enti­tled Bible Computer Games.

Today, BibleBytes con­tin­ues to oper­ate as the dread­ful­ly named “Kidware Software,” sell­ing primers on pro­gram­ming basics designed for chil­dren of home­school­ing fam­i­lies. They’ve since stopped sup­port­ing the old soft­ware, and no longer devel­op or dis­trib­ute new games.

The wave of Bible games had begun, but it had yet to swell, until…

The 1990s: The Tree of the Knowledge of Dreams and Piracy

Like BibleBytes before it, the role of Flagship Developer of Bible Games fell to Wisdom Tree – the com­pa­ny for­mer­ly known as Color Dreams – dur­ing Our Most Awkward Decade.

Color Wisdom Dreamtree has sev­er­al notch­es on its Belt of Contributions to Gaming History, the first being its devel­op­ment and dis­tri­b­u­tion of the first-ever side-scroller for “IBM Compatible” (as the par­lance went) PCs. The next two hon­or­able men­tions aren’t near­ly as hon­or­able, though they’re cer­tain­ly not unim­pres­sive: Color Dreams man­aged to devel­op a work­able hard­ware bypass for Nintendo’s 10NES chip, the sil­i­con gate­keep­er of the Japanese company’s famous­ly strict licens­ing rules. Later in the decade, they’d also pub­lish the only unli­censed SNES title ever, Super Noah’s Ark 3D.

Wisdom Tree’s first release after their rebrand­ing was Bible Adventures, for the NES, a three-in-one-pack fea­tur­ing the fol­low­ing:

  • Noah’s Ark, a plat­former where­in the goal is to gath­er up all of the ani­mals by pick­ing them up. The ani­mals are pre­sent­ed as being hoist­ed above Noah’s head, and they can be stacked one atop the other, mak­ing Noah only slight­ly weak­er than Superman (which I don’t remem­ber from the Bible). The game­play and pre­sen­ta­tion are sim­i­lar to that of the American Super Mario Bros. 2.
  • Baby Moses, in which the play­er takes on the role of Moses’ sis­ter Miriam, attempt­ing to deliv­er him safe­ly to the palace while evad­ing guards after Pharaoh’s decree that all male Hebrew first­born be killed. Miriam, like Noah, trans­ports her charge by hold­ing him direct­ly above her head. Intriguingly, she is able to throw the infant prophet around the screen with no penal­ty dam­age to the child. She is, how­ev­er unable to use the invin­ci­ble slave-spawn as a blud­geon­ing weapon.
  • David and Goliath is sim­i­lar. You’re still pick­ing up ani­mals as the psalmist shep­herd and stack­ing them over your head. Except this time, once David suc­ceeds in car­ry­ing enough sheep to safe­ty, he is trans­port­ed to the front lines of the Philistine war armed with a sling­shot, with which he even­tu­al­ly defeats Goliath in the final stage by land­ing the per­fect shot right in the giant’s fore­head.

The Bible Adventures com­pi­la­tion was port­ed to the Sega Genesis as well, with vir­tu­al­ly no changes to either graph­ics or game­play.

Wisdom Tree would con­tin­ue to release games through­out the rest of this decade, many of them with ele­ments bor­rowed heav­i­ly from other more pop­u­lar titles, like Zelda expy Spiritual Warfare for Game Boy, NES, and Sega Genesis. Sometimes, the games would be out­right clones and re-skins of titles Color Dreams released before they re-styled them­selves as a Christian devel­op­er, like top-down puz­zlers Exodus: Journey to the Promised Land and Joshua: Battle of Jericho, both of which used the same game­play mechan­ics and level lay­outs as the sec­u­lar Crystal Mines, with dif­fer­ent graph­ics reflect­ing the bib­li­cal them­ing.

Perhaps the most bizarre was the afore­men­tioned Super Noah’s Ark 3D, which could only be played by load­ing a licensed car­tridge on top of Noah while it was con­nect­ed to the SNES con­sole. It was an actu­al level-for-level clone of the pop­u­lar Wolfenstein 3D by id Software, with Noah replac­ing the meaty mus­cled bloody guy (did he have a name?), a sling­shot for a weapon, and var­i­ous ani­mals stand­ing in for Nazis. A widely-spread rumor claims that id Software gave the source code of their Wolfenstein game to Wisdom Tree as a revenge on Nintendo for releas­ing an infe­ri­or port of their pop­u­lar game, mak­ing it a point to tone down the vio­lence (Nintendo was known for being espe­cial­ly par­tic­u­lar about games for their sys­tem being Family-Friendly). The details sur­round­ing this bit of cor­po­rate intrigue have never been released, and the facts remain unclear to the present day.

Technically, Wisdom Tree is still active, sell­ing their own games and those of even small­er devel­op­ers on their web­site, on which they promise to make their entire past library avail­able for the cur­rent ver­sions on Windows, even­tu­al­ly.

So, you know, if you ever real­ly, real­ly want­ed to spend $22.95 on a videogame called JESUS IN SPACE, now’s your chance.

The 2000s: Cacti and Catacombs

So far, the for­mu­la for most Christian games, as cod­i­fied by Wisdom Tree, was to adapt well-known sto­ries from the Bible into playable adven­tures, most often by tak­ing an exist­ing sec­u­lar game and copy-pasting kitschy reli­gious imagery (the stan­dards, most­ly; beard­ed men in dress­es and plen­ty of camels). In the early 2000s, the stan­dard began to shift from adap­ta­tion to sym­bol­ic imag­in­ings of the Christian jour­ney and comic-style por­tray­als of spir­i­tu­al war­fare.

Arguably, one of the only explic­it­ly Christian games to enjoy sig­nif­i­cant main­stream suc­cess and recog­ni­tion was Catechumen, a first-person shooter which tasked the play­er with a jour­ney to trav­el down into a Roman-inspired cat­a­comb to defeat a demon­ic horde enscon­ced there­in. Along the way, the play­er char­ac­ter increased in spir­i­tu­al power until final­ly gain­ing enough strength to ban­ish Satan him­self from his lair in the bot­tom­most parts of the cav­erns. The qual­i­ty of the action, pro­gres­sive game­play, and “mature” them­ing drew many gamers from both inside and out­side of the Evangelical com­mu­ni­ty.

Cactus Game Design entered the scene a lit­tle later in the decade, bring­ing yet anoth­er more adolescent-oriented shooter offer­ing, Saints of Virtue, to the range of Christian games avail­able to con­sumers. The play­er jour­neyed into the cen­ter of a young man’s heart in an attempt to purge it of sin­ful­ness from the out­side in, gath­er­ing items rep­re­sent­ing the dif­fer­ent pieces of the “full armor of God” along the way. These were accom­pa­nied by vers­es explain­ing dif­fer­ent facets of the Christian inner life, and at times could be oddly intro­spec­tive in its rather per­son­al, if clichéd and Totally Rad! ™, explo­ration of the mean­ing of the mod­ern Christian walk. The weapon in the game was the “Sword of the Spirit,” which was not used as a typ­i­cal blad­ed tool. Instead, the play­er was able to fire bolts of light­ning at the (quite scary) ene­mies, masks which took the names and traits of var­i­ous sins or fol­lies.

The Saints of Virtue char­ac­ters would come to be used again in Cactus’ Magic–like trad­ing card game, Redemption. Instead of drain­ing the oppos­ing player’s life points, the objec­tive of match­es in the card game was to come into pos­ses­sion of the opponent’s so-called “Lost Souls,” claim­ing them for the Kingdom of God with bib­li­cal hero char­ac­ters, while at the same time defend­ing their own souls with evil char­ac­ters. The game worked well, and became pret­ty suc­cess­ful for a few years, host­ing nation­al and local tour­na­ments and gain­ing a cult fol­low­ing even among those Christians not express­ly invest­ed in the cul­ture of Evangelicalism.

The lat­ter por­tions of the decade saw a tril­o­gy of Left Behind games, based on the pop­u­lar and long-running series of nov­els sets after a pre­mil­len­ni­al dispensationalist’s idea of the Rapture, which faced some con­tro­ver­sy from the main­stream regard­ing var­i­ous charges of cul­tur­al insen­si­tiv­i­ty and (of all things) vio­lence.

Other than this briefest of deba­cles, and a few rhythm games, which were basi­cal­ly Dance Party and Guitar Hero but with con­tem­po­rary praise and wor­ship music, the rest of this decade saw no notice­able influ­ence of explic­it­ly Christian games on the main­stream.

The Present

We’re now well into the New Tens, and, as it turns out, they’re sus­pi­cious­ly absent of any note­wor­thy Christian games. Many of the old devel­op­ers are either closed com­plete­ly, or sus­tain­ing them­selves by repack­ag­ing, reselling, and some­times half­heart­ed­ly sup­port­ing or updat­ing their old titles. It seems that, by and large, the Evangelical sub­cul­ture has given up on appro­pri­ate games into itself. This may reflect the poor qual­i­ty of the early games, the lack of sig­nif­i­cant com­mer­cial suc­cess of the newer ones, or the Evangelical movement’s with­drawal from the impulse to cre­ate a new, “Christian” world in lieu of being par­tic­i­pa­to­ry in the new one.

It’s true that reli­gious themes abound in mod­ern games, as inter­ac­tive media matures and becomes able to com­ment on more and more aspects of cul­ture, lay­er­ing com­plex­i­fy­ing nar­ra­tives over dynam­i­cal­ly evolv­ing artis­tic struc­tures and play mechan­ics. As with BioShock Infinite and Fallout: New Vegas, these new rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Christianity and other reli­gions seem to refrain rather cau­tious­ly from com­ment­ing on pop­u­lar reli­gion specif­i­cal­ly, choos­ing instead to focus on gen­er­al themes, pat­terns from his­to­ry, or minor­i­ty faiths (Mormonism is a pop­u­lar one, and by some accounts New Vegas man­aged a nuanced and respect­ful por­tray­al of the Latter Day move­ment).

This advance­ment of a more sub­tle reli­gious them­ing has allowed the faith­ful among us to project our jour­neys onto the adven­tures we under­take in our game­worlds of choice, with­out the exclu­siv­i­ty implic­it in play­ing a “Christian game.” We’re allowed to think about the spir­i­tu­al paths we choose, even as we con­sid­er the paths we under­take when synched-up to play­er char­ac­ters. We’re allowed a wider dis­course, incor­po­rat­ing gamers of other faiths, or no faith, to engage with us in our uni­ver­sal quest for per­son­al, imme­di­ate, and tran­scen­dent truths. We’re allowed to put our prob­lems, like vio­lent impuls­es, misog­y­ny, and all those sundry trou­ble­some –isms, on dis­play with­out fear of ret­ri­bu­tion from a com­mu­ni­ty which once sought to bur­row in and ignore or down­play the dif­fi­cult issues which come along with being human, indeed, being fun­da­men­tal­ly world­ly.

There may well be some­thing pro­found to be said of a free­dom in Christ, but it seems like today’s sec­u­lar games offer us a lot more free­dom (even to be in Christ more fully and hon­est­ly, should we so choose) then would Christian games, had they got­ten the chance to become as suc­cess­ful or ubiq­ui­tous as our more famil­iar, reli­gious­ly neu­tral engage­ments.

Perhaps the cen­tral impulse of the Christian sub­cul­ture of the past twen­ty years was slight­ly twist­ed: being “in the world, but not of it,” does mean reject­ing ties to his­tor­i­cal bar­barism, check­ing destruc­tive pri­mal urges, and striv­ing to cre­ate a more bal­anced, peace­ful social order. All great ide­als, but if we want to achieve them, we do have to be “in” the world. We don’t get to opt-out of the real­i­ties of earth­ly life before we’re through with it. Before we’ve man­aged to accom­plish being in it, even if we choose to iden­ti­fy with an oth­er­world­ly ideal. Even if you sus­pect that your Real Home might be else­where, this is def­i­nite­ly where it is now.

So, “world­ly,” per­haps, shouldn’t be a slur. Succeeding in embrac­ing the world, lov­ing it, being Home-for-Now, might be the first step toward trans­form­ing it into some­thing bet­ter, toward mak­ing the “world” some­thing not to be reject­ed, but to be cared for and nur­tured. Something to be proud of.

So, yeah.

Anyway, go play some games.

What is the king­dom of God like? What shall I com­pare it to? It is like a mus­tard seed, which a man took and plant­ed in his gar­den. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air perched in its branch­es.” – The Book of Luke

A note: for some fun, check out the Angry Video Game Nerd’s three-part series on Bible Games. He cov­ers just about all of the Wisdom Tree titles of the 90s in detail, with his typ­i­cal humor (which means the videos aren’t safe for work, obvi­ous­ly, and screw you for watch­ing YouTube at work, you lazy ass).


Aaron Gotzon

About Aaron Gotzon

Aaron Paul Gotzon is a beguiling ne’er-do-well, prancing about the stage by night, and hawking shrimp and cheap alcohol by day. He’s about as qualified to write about games as the average squashed cockroach. He does, however, run an extremely successful male escort service and bait shop out of his grandmother’s basement. If you’d like to send him a message, put it on a piece of paper, and throw it away.