Left Behind, the video game: My review in Wired News

Since I haven’t blogged in two months, I have a big pile of stuff I’ve written — at Wired and other places — that I’ll slowly link to over the next few days. One of the things I wrote was this gaming column for Wired News, in which I played the Christian-Rapture game based on the gazillion-copy-selling Left Behind series. The column is online here, and a copy is archived below!

Going Into Godmode in Left Behind

by Clive Thompson

One thing you can’t deny about the Bible: It’s got an awfully thrilling plot. The Book of Revelation — the story of the end days of Earth — is treble-charged with Jerry Bruckheimer-style combat. Armies of darkness trample the earth; the ultimate villain ascends to power; then a final conflict rends the fabric of space and time. You could be forgiven for wondering: Why hasn’t someone made a game out of this?

Next week, your prayers will be answered — with the arrival of Left Behind: Eternal Forces, a game based on the Left Behind books. For those who just teleported in from the moon, the massively popular Left Behind series tells the story of the Rapture, in which millions of the world’s Christians are whisked off to heaven by Jesus. Those left behind form into two armies: The Tribulation Force of the newly repentant born-again, and sepulchral, one-world-government forces led by Nicolae Carpathian, a man who is charismatic, effeminate, European and thus quite obviously Satan.

I confess I did not expect much of the game. The history of Christian computer entertainment is not particularly, uh, blessed. The games have tended to be numbingly boring side-scrollers in which the action serves merely as a clumsy deus ex machina to entice kids to reading dollops of in-game scripture.

They suffer from the tragic flaw of all “serious” games, which is that they get so wrapped up in honing their message that they don’t notice until too late that, yikes, the gameplay sucks. Play is an incredibly precious thing, and an extremely difficult thing to craft. Forcing it to serve moral instruction is like dipping it in formaldehyde.

So the great surprise of Left Behind: Eternal Forces is that it actually kind of rocks. It’s a classic real-time strategy game: Starting with a single “recruiter,” your job is to proselytize followers, level them up into an army of soldiers, medics and “spirit warriors,” then bring a hard rain down on the forces of the Antichrist. This all takes place in a sprawling version of Manhattan that is rendered with breathtaking accuracy — down to the precise location of Duane Reade drugstores — and superb camera work. Actual battles offer nail-biting action, forcing you to make split-second decisions as helicopters swarm through the air.

But what’s particularly intriguing is how the developers incorporated prayer as a central game mechanic. Each of your team members has a “spirit” ranking. If you let them get too fatigued or hurt, their spirit drops into “neutral” territory and you lose them. You can sway enemies to your side by unleashing your “spirit warriors” or Christian-rock singers, whose joyful noises raise the spirit of anyone near them. (You can even convert evil forces if you’re persuasive enough. Of course, the Antichrist has his own evil heavy-metal musicians who work precisely the opposite effect.) And if your forces accidentally kill neutral innocents, their spirit drops further: The act of murder actually has a moral dimension in this game.

Yet as I clicked away on my spirit warriors, and the glowing balls of spirit shot through my team members, the gameplay began to feel oddly familiar: It was rather like casting an endurance-boost spell on fellow guild members in World of Warcraft. Traditional elves-and-sorcery video games are pagan, of course. But the worldview neatly overlaps with Christianity: In both cases, the world is controlled by magical, invisible forces that only potentates can understand.

That’s the paradox of making a really good Christian strategy game. If you pull it off, it’ll have more in common with other strategy games than with the official message of Christianity. Gameplay always overshadows cultural content. In the thick of a really hectic Left Behind battle, I’d click the prayer button so instinctually that I pretty much forgot I was, well, praying.

Indeed, I kept wondering when the game was going to throw it down and truly embrace the apocalyptic Christian vision. This story line isn’t merely of armageddon, but Armageddon. Thus, the last Left Behind book — Glorious Appearing — concludes with the ultimate triumph of Jesus in a phantasmagorically gruesome holocaust. As predicted in Revelation, the savior returns to Earth, chides Satan for defiling the planet (and for inventing Darwinism), then proceeds to slaughter all unbelievers, dissolving their tongues and bursting their bodies like overstuffed sausages. As millions die in transports of agony, the ground becomes a swamp of blood and mud, and some extremely unpleasant things happen to the Jews who refuse to convert. As for the born-again? They stand around watching and cheering.

Critics and moderate Christians were, as you’d expect, totally appalled when that book came out. But what’s truly fascinating is that, at least as far as I played the Left Behind game, nothing remotely this ghastly takes place. Indeed, it’s quite sanitized: Those killed in battle fall to the ground without gore, and eventually fade away.

Why not go the extra mile? We’ve got all these cutting-edge computer graphics — couldn’t they easily render this bloodbath? Sure, but as the Left Behind game designers explained to me, they were worried about offending their audience by having too much gore.

Which is the ultimate, and gorgeous, irony of this game. Left Behind fans are apparently more worried about simulated violence in video games than about believing an actual prophecy of the future — endorsed by their spiritual leaders — in which their friendly Jewish, Islamic and atheist neighbors have their tongues dissolved in screaming agony by a fire-eyed Jesus.

Wheels inside wheels.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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