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Message and Merriment

The Push and Pull of Religion and Gameplay. Can these two disparate worlds be brought together?

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.

Because 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 received.

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.

So, 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.

Improving 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, how?

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