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Thoughts from the Left Behind: EF demo January 6, 2007

Posted by joshg in Christianity, mainstream games, prayer.

I’m back from a nice Christmas spent with family, and I finally tried out the Left Behind: Eternal Forces demo. I guess it felt like an obligation at this point to at least try it, but the demo didn’t seem to pull any surprises on my point of view.

The prayer mechanic worked as I’d heard, and I have mixed feelings about it. It’s a simple model of both prayer and the effects of prayer, which manages to convey some interesting messages. Units need to pray regularly to keep from falling away into neutrality, which expresses how a Christian needs to keep in active contact with God to maintain their faith. (I like this.) On the other hand, prayer never actually does anything external to the unit in question – ie. no healing prayer, no asking for divine intervention. Admittedly, this is hard to map into game rules without turning prayer into a magic-like guaranteed divine action.

(A whole lot more below the break.)

Similarly, the ways you influence other units’ “spirit” value are sometimes good, sometimes weird. From an RTS game play perspective, I’ve always been a fan of having the ability to convert or steal enemy units. But having a small army of worship leaders standing outside of a church to neutralize attacking enemy soldiers is just, well, surreal. Is this because it’s an implausible portrayal, or am I simply unable to process the inclusion of peaceful resistance as an effective RTS game mechanic? Frankly, it’s hard for me to tell right now. Perhaps it feels like it fails to convey a plausible model of the world because of the lack of character emotion. Peaceful resistance turning away an attacking soldier feels like it should have an emotional impact, whereas these soldiers simply stop and drift away randomly.

The general model of having musicians exert spiritual influence is an interesting way to express how music and spirituality combine in the Christian faith. The use of music to align people in worship to God is both a tradition in modern churches and in the Bible. Musicians often led the way to battle, and were called on to prepare a prophet to inquire of God. So I appreciate music having a spiritual effect, but the degree to which it affects people just seems odd to me.

Converting units one at a time through one-on-one evangelism in the game is a bit more clearly mappable to real-life Christianity. Again, though, there’s a sense that this isn’t so much about encouraging people to make a choice so much as coercing them to your side. A neutral character who is being actively recruited will, as far as I’ve seen, never say no. What does this say about Christian evangelism? Is successful evangelism simply battering away at people with The Truth until they give in? It seems like more of the usual guilt / responsibility complex that evangelical Christianity has in general, where one is led to feel responsible when unbelievers reject the Gospel. (Doesn’t really fit Jesus’ advice to “shake the dust from your feet” afterwards, in my opinion.)

A common thread running through my mixed reactions seems to be the all-encompassing “spirit” stat. By taking all spiritual effects and reducing them to a single numbered stat, different concepts are being lumped into the same category which perhaps should have been kept distinct. The effects of musicians makes sense when you view “spirit” as an indicator of the character’s emotional or spiritual state – are they bogged down with anger, fear, etc expressed by the music of the bad guys, or are they being emotionally and spiritually lifted up by positive music that draws their focus on God? However, that same spirit meter is being modified by preaching, and is the deciding factor in whether or not a character believes your message. This conflates the usual definitions of “spirit” with one’s rational worldview, something that is affected by one’s spirit but is certainly not identical. I’m not sure what the answer to my concerns is. Splitting the Spirit stat into Spirit and Mind, maybe?

I think the best way to sum up the impression I get of “spiritual warfare” through these mechanics is, unfortunately, nothing more than psychological warfare. Prayer is an internal, psychological improvement without any external effect; singing and preaching can affect others, but these mechanics map just as easily onto a psychological explanation as a spiritual one. Why is a rampaging demon in bad-guy multiplayer the only sign of a distinctly spiritual reality in the game design? Why can’t you pray for people who aren’t within earshot? Where’s God in this game?

The violence aspect is weird-feeling as well, but I don’t feel I’ve played enough of the game to say a whole lot on it. Playing only a small subset of the overall single-player game makes it hard to tell if the game’s plot does a good job of justifying why this Tribulation Force should have soldiers on its side. The juxtaposition of worship leaders and trained soldiers feels weird and off, but that might just be a side effect of the game portraying an end-times fiction which I’ve always found to feel weird and off. Is this sort of “fight to defend the last remnant to keep the Truth alive” stuff just as present in the LB novels as it is in the game?



1. joshg - January 6, 2007

I’ll add as an afterthought that even with the most recent patch to the demo, I experienced technical problems with the game that made it hard to enjoy. As well, the UI is a bit awkward, which combined with the game’s tendency towards micromanagement often makes things frustrating.

2. Nate - January 10, 2007

It would be interesting to see a tactical game centred around nonviolent resistance methods. I’ve been reading ‘Nonviolence: History of a Dangerous Idea’ which has some very interesting history about the role of nonviolent activism in the background of, eg, the American Revolution and Civil War; and how in many cases, the political power realignment of a revolution or civil war scenario is actually resolved before the shooting starts, but it’s the expectation of the various factions that often provokes an escalation to conflict. I would like to see more exploration of what kind of social dynamics are involved.

What do you think about the current flap over Super Columbine Massacre RPG and Slamdance Game Festival? Can a game where the main interaction form is stylized cartoon violence contribute positively to portrayal of a historical event? If we can learn useful things from recreations of mass killings from the killer’s point of view (which is largely what WW2 FPSes are), should we encourage the development of a subgenre of ‘historical crime reenactments’ – and if not, why not? Is there a line between game-as-boundary-breaking-art and game-as-entertainment, and should what is permitted in one submedia be disallowed in another? Or should all subjects be open for exploration in all media?

3. joshg - January 10, 2007

I was thinking about posting re SCMRPG, but wasn’t sure what to say. I think that it was a bad decision for Slamdance to pull the game from the competition, but I’m not really a fan of the game. I guess I’d echo the sentiments of the statement made by the developers of Braid when they pulled their game in protest, who basically said, I don’t like it, but it has artistic value, and pulling it after it’s been jury selected as a finalist is wrong.

I haven’t played the game and don’t really plan to. My wife is a high school teacher, so playing the part of a school killer is a little too personal for me to handle. Consequently, I don’t really have much to say about the game’s merit one way or the other. From reviews I’ve read, it sounds like it has some artistic value. On the other hand, I think the title of the game is too tasteless and is probably the biggest reason why people are ready to label the game as exploitive from the moment they hear about it. ie. Whether the game itself transcends being exploitive or not doesn’t change the fact that the game’s appearance is exploitive. I don’t think that’s good for the indie game scene no matter how good the game itself is, and it’s possible to argue that exploitive promotion is immoral even if the game’s actual treatment of the topic has value. (But this whole situation is messy enough that I don’t really feel like arguing it much, and I don’t think that justifies the poor decision made by Slamdance.)

4. joshg - January 10, 2007

Oh, and re: non violent political gameplay, check out The Republic. The game is about bringing your revolutionary party into power through various political means. Some of them are violent (threatening people, attacking an opponent’s rally) but it’s quite possible to play the whole game using only peaceful means of protest and coercion.

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