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Postmodern Village
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Playing God: Two Christian Game Platforms Reviewed
By Chuck J. Sticker

When Microsoft announced its new †-Box at this spring's Famdex, the unabashedly evangelical consumer electronics convention, its target was obvious to all. Sony's Praystation 2 is by far the dominant player in the world of Christian game consoles. Given the fantastic success of the PR-2, the world's biggest software company is gearing up to plunge into the thorny arena of evangelical-oriented gaming. Said Microsoft representative Huck S. Turing, “Now that Sony has proven there is a viable market for Christian-themed video game consoles, we're going to invent the concept.” Though he hasn't made any official comment on the impending release, Microsoft co-founder Gates is reported to have said, “The only god I worship is named Mammon, but those Southern Baptists got some serious cash to throw around. That's the road ahead, if you ask me!”

Though basically a throttled back version of the software giant's X-Box platform, the specs for the new game console are still fairly impressive. Turing explains, “Explicit sex and violence are not appropriate for this market, so we could go with a less expensive 3D renderer. But we do have hardware optimization for the blurring and blocking effects used to cover up inappropriate material.” The †-Box also has an impressive audio system with Dolby Surround and Burning Ears™ 'bleep' generator. The latter uses technology Microsoft acquired when it purchased Pre-Emptor Systems of Marietta, GA. last year. This real-time voice recognition software probes the disk or CD read-ahead cache and flags offensive language before it is played. Flagged audio is replaced by user-selected samples from a variety of sounds stored in the machine's ROMs.

“Our market research tells us that people tire quickly of the same old bleeps and bloops. We want to give the consumer a choice in how their products are censored,” says Turing. Bob Nobbles is the president of Gethsemene Digital Miracles, a firm promising to offer third-party expansions that will allow consumers to record their own audio to replace the offensive language. “We think kids would have a great time thinking up clever things to say in place of the obscenities. We've come up with all kinds of great things and really have a blast playing with our prototypes here in the office.” But one ultra-conservative watchdog group has already criticized the product, claiming that kids will just use it to re-insert filthy language into the games. Nobbles' response is dismissive: “Oh, they're a bunch of poo-poo heads.”

Sony representitive Canus Cashini isn't worried about Microsoft taking away marketshare. Says Cashini, “We just think we've got the best titles. You can talk specs and marketing savvy all day long, but what it boils down to is blistering gameplay. And a commitment to family values. We just don't see that coming from Microsoft.”

So what about the games? Microsoft did have a few beta games to demo at the spring show, and this reviewer was able to get a close look at some of them. One of the slickest was Crusades I, the first installment in a promised 5. I said this game was slick, and there's a reason for it. It is really just a reworking of the mature game engine from Microsoft's more secular Age of Empires series. Just how well this crossover conversion will fare against PR-2's critically acclaimed Walls of Jericho remains to be seen. Likewise IAF Holy War: 1967 is nothing more than yet another version of Microsoft's venerable Combat Flight Simulator series. Furthermore, with the mediocre 3D engine on the †-Box and a campaign limited to six days, this offering is less than cutting-edge.

The one truly original demo I saw from Microsoft was Monkey Trial, an immersive first-person 3D adventure set in an alternate version of the 1920s, in which the player hunts for archaeological evidence that contradicts the “Theory” of Evolution and presents it at trial. The action part of the game is reminiscent of Tomb Raider but with no scantily clad woman and no guns. Players are faced with treacherous terrain, some puzzles based on more obscure Bible passages, and the tortured ghosts of unbelieving scientists who try to prevent them from finding the evidence they seek and will often try to trick them into taking fossils that seem to support evolution. These demonic spirits can usually be vanquished with the quick dispersal of one of the Gospel Tracts that litter the spooky subterranean mazes. The player can also find caches of Bibles, useful against the more influential scientists and the truly satanic apparition of Darwin himself, who makes frequent appearances in the lower levels. After each level is a courtroom scene where a judge and jury examine the evidence you have gathered and weighs it against the best the Darwinists can offer. The atmospherics in this game are truly magnificent and there is certainly some replay value here, but the game was still somewhat buggy at the time of this review. Though it has promise, †-Box's Monkey Trial will be hard pressed to beat Praystation's Martyr for sheer furious gameplay. It will be interesting to see if the boys in Redmond have cleaned it up a little for the final release, slated for the fall.

A title not demonstrated at the spring con is the widely anticipated Ark: The Gathering, in which players trade fanciful virtual animals via the Internet and vie for a place on the famous gopher-wood ship. This real-time strategy game includes an earth-cleansing flood every year, wiping out those species not safely en-stalled on ship. Players will buy “packs” of digitally encrypted virtual animal cards from game vendor HisTruth.com and hope to acquire or trade for a male and female of the same species. But that's not enough, says company spokesman Earnest Weiner. “The animals that finally make it on board need to have traits that will allow them to be noticed by Noah and taken on board. One of the themes this game aims to teach is the Theory of Intelligent Design. Random mutations will get you nowhere.” The planned obsolescence built into the game's yearly simulation of worldwide inundation will certainly provide the company with a flood of revenue, if the game takes off as expected.

Other games promised for release with the †-Box include: Christians vs. Lions; The Babtyzer; Pent-A-Crostic; Trials of Job; Martyr'sQuest 100AD; and Summer of ^NO Mercy.

Even so, Microsoft's massive marketing muscle will need to be flexed to the maximum to overcome the inertia of the Praystation 2 with its huge (and still expanding) battery of titles like David & Goliath 2 (Electric Boogaloo); Theocracy; Moses: River Run; Escape from Herod!; Lost Soul Breakout; The Evangelyzer; School Board Madness: Evolution in Revolution; Abstinence (and its new Latter-Day-Saints X-pansion Pak); Jezus Chrise Pro-Savior III (with the Crown of Thorns expansion module); the breathtaking Rapture 3.0; and the wildly popular Final Epistle VII.

Simulation games are hot, and the two newest for the Praystation are T.V. Ministry Tycoon, and the latest of the ever popular Sim series from Maxis, Sim Job. Maybe as an act of repentance for outraging the religious right with its popular secular release The Sims in which the little simulated people can engage in same-sex relations and shack up without hitching up, the venerable kings of simulation games recently announced their first title aimed at the evangelical market. In Sim Job you take the part of God, trying to impress Satan with the stalwart faithfulness of his servant Job. Says spokeswoman Edie Meeyup “You get to do all kinds of unspeakable things to him and he usually just shrugs it off. It's really cute. Sometimes if you do too much to him at once he gets really mad. And Satan will try to make him curse your name, so you have to watch out for that.”

The most interesting and controversial new development testing the boundaries of Christian gaming is the so-called “Scrip-Tease” game. These titles are clearly aimed at the more mature audiences and boldly take on themes involving sexual morality. But their makers insist the games are not pornographic. “Our games are strictly Bible-based. They teach good traditional values, and they reveal less skin than what you see in the checkout lane at the supermarket,” claimed Juan Overaña, public relations representative of Dos Marias Software, publishers of Eve and the Serpant and Pick yer Sin Fashion Doll. “Look, kids are gonna see this stuff whether you want them to or not. Wouldn't you rather it bring them a Christian message?” His is a point well taken, though some other companies' titles in this genre are doubtless more gratuitous. Take for example RepentanSoft's Jezebel Poker, or Wholly Roler Studio's Whore of Babylon. These games definitely exercise to the fullest the Praystation's parental controls, and though the setting for both games is quite rigorously Biblical, and numerous scriptural references are thrown in, this reviewer has yet to determine, even through multiple playings, just how these games promote the values that consumers of Christian content are ostensibly looking for. No one at RepentanSoft could be reached for comment, but a Wholly Roler rep has this to say about Whore of Babylon: “The Bible is the infallible Word of God and Wholly Roler Studio remains faithful to every word of Truth presented therein. If you don't feel comfortable with some of the content of the Word of God, you better get right with the Lord before His day comes!” A press release on Wholly Roler's web site says that a †-Box version of the game is due out before the end of the year.