(Note: This review is based only on the demo, released September 1 and available here.)
Now that the demo has finally arrived and we get to see how things work, will the controversy revive, or just fade away? Left Behind: Eternal Forces is an RTS game based on the Left Behind series of novels by Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins. The books in this series depict a vision of the end of the world loosely based on the Book of Revelations where the central event is the Rapture or mass disappearance of all of the world's Christians. Since the novels take an Action / Thriller approach, it's perhaps not surprising that a video game based on the books would be similarly action-oriented, as opposed to the generally mild and pedantic fare so far offered in most Christian video games. It is also not surprising, then, that this game has already generated a good deal of controversy, leading to a screed or two from anti-game activist and general weirdo Jack Thompson, as well as an expose of sorts at Talk 2 Action, where Jonathan Hutson was particularly critical of the game publisher's strategy of marketing it through the same network of Evangelical Churches that helped make Purpose Driven Life a best seller. I've withheld a full commentary until I got to see how the game played, but now that the demo is here, I think much of the criticism aimed at the idea of the game has been more or less right on.
If the main problem people have had with the idea of the game is that it promotes violence in the name of Jesus', then I have to say that so far in the demo, it hasn't depicted a lot of violence. More importantly, though, there's a general theme and assumption of violence throughout the militaristic imagery and its basic advocation of Christian dominion. Still, (at least in the demo) you don't get to commit much violence but spend plenty of the time walking around recruiting (evangelizing) and building things like Churches and banks. With that in mind, and since I'm assuming the more violent conflicts are reserved for the full game, I want to take a closer look at some of the fundamental game play elements to see if and how they reinforce the particular worldview of the Left Behind industry.
The game play itself seems pretty straightforward. First of all, you view the streets of New York from a "God's eye view," which is, of course, ironic given that your interface suggests that you are actually playing as God. I don't know that this possibility is ever acknowledged or dealt with in any direct way within the narrative, but when you click on a "friend" unit, it often responds reverently with something like "I am at your command." The "you" here and in the tutorial narration seems to refer to the player, but since each of the missions starts with a central "Disciple" character, the narration sometimes seems to be addressing that character, e.g. "Go and meet your friend Bruce."
In any case, the mechanic will be familiar to anyone who has played Warcraft or pretty much any other RTS. You click on units which have specific abilities and direct them to complete objectives, making sure to manage resources, balance unit abilities within a group, and keep an eye on your units' health and "spirit" meters. The most important "friend" seems to be your Disciple, whose primary ability is recruiting. He (though you can eventually train extra disciples, only male units can be disciples) approaches a neutral civilian and at the click of a button, engages in a life-transforming conversation with the civilian which results in his or her conversion into an untrained recruit.
One cool thing, by the way, is that every unit has a backstory which you can access while they're selected. You can view their brief biography, which reflects if that unit has been recently converted or has defected (units return to neutral if their spirit level becomes too low).
Recruiting is the basic process by which units are generated and managed, but since it takes the form of evangelism, I think it's important to point out what I think are some major problems here. First, as others have already noted, there seems to be no racial diversity among the Tribulation Forces. All of the units are apparently caucasian. Not only that, raw recruits take on a homogenized, preppy look with burnt orange sweater-vests and plaid:Figure 1. Not only are newly recruited Christians always Caucasion, they also, apparently, dress like dorks.
This uniformity is a function of game play (one needs to quickly distinguish between untrained recruits and specific career units), but in terms of ideology, there's a race and class being associated with Christianity here. Not only are the recruits now docile and available for commanding, they are visibly better off than they used to be -- spiritually, that is, as well as hygenically.
Take, for example, Ned Hull. Ned (figure 2) is a decent Civilian Man in good, 40/40 health enjoying a casual walk through the war-torn streets of New York. After a quick talking-to (figure 3) and a puff of white light (figure 4), Ned is cured of his non-committal, denim-wearing ways and assimilated into the Tribulation Force collective (figure 5). His hat, we must assume, has been confiscated.Figure 2. Ned Hull, average guy. Figure 3. Recruiting Ned Hull. Note the column of energy flowing into him. Figure 4. Ned Hull, the newest recruit. This moment is usually signalled by the convert casually saying "Yeah, sounds good" or "OK." Figure 5. Ned, sans-denim.
Now, it may seem unhelpful of me to mock what is definitely an important play mechanic that actually makes sense within the context of the game, but in a game that exists with the expressed purpose of actually doing to the player what just happened to Ned, I think it's very important to look closely at this because it reveals the values at the core of this game. Moreover, the lack of racial diversity may be unintentional (as the developers have claimed), but as a visual message, the exclusion of minorities is profound and troubling. For a game developer to go to so much trouble to include backstories for its unit characters (some of whom are, it turns out, Asian Americans) without bothering to program in corresponding appearances indicates that they didn't think it was important.
Along with minorities, women are also excluded from doing much important in the game. Again, I've only looked at the demo, but so far, women can only be trained as Medics, thus excluding them from such career paths as Builder, Soldier, Disciple, and Musician. Female units are also distinguished in that, whereas untrained male units bear the label "friend", female units are identified by "friend woman." This qualifier, "woman," here serves the purpose of signalling to the player that this unit is not as useful as an unqualified "friend." And since men can also be medics, women may not be necessary at all in terms of completing one's goals in the game. Note as well the difference between male and female medics:Figure 6. Male and Female Medics in Eternal Forces
Unlike the uniformity of the Young Republican look, I can't identify any game-based reason for excluding women this way. I understand that a successful RTS depends on balancing unit types and their respective abilities, but I see no incentive at all for recruiting a "friend woman" except that as a medic, her white hat makes her easy to pick out in a crowd. That never came up either, though, because I didn't come across any violent conflict other than a sudden ambush in which all my units were instantly slaughtered. (I couldn't tell if I was actually supposed to survive that or if it was a "rhetoric of failure" moment -- I did get a reassuring message about how people die sometimes, though). Again, it may seem harsh to criticize this aspect of play without seeing the whole game, but this apparent, programmatic sexism is a big problem, especially since the game claims to be about the most important conflict in the world. If the stakes are so high, why can't we all chip in?
One final point about the recruiting function and then I'll leave off until I play the full game. Like the books, Eternal Forces presents spiritual warfare as an armed conflict in which both sides vie for the conversion of souls to their cause. Converting neutral civilians and keeping your troops "prayed up" is likely a feature that evangelicals will praise as demonstrating real Christian behavior, assuming, therefore, that the game's players will be led to emulate that behavior in their own lives. But it's important to insist that the evangelical model presented in the game is not a very good analogue for spiritual reality. Obviously, real conversion takes longer than a few seconds (and usually lacks special effects), but more importantly, the evangelical model for which the game tries to provide an analogue is itself controversial and possibly without theological merit -- in other words, wrong. That is, many Churches and Denominations really do take the "Us vs. Them" rhetoric to approach evangelism as a kind of game in which points are kept and for which there are prizes. For example, I used to attend a Church that lit a candle every week if someone in the Church brought a soul to Christ. Each week, the Pastor would announce the weekly results and produce a tally which was always met with thunderous applause.
This, then, is the real problem I see with the ideology embedded in Eternal Forces: the world of the game is not really that far-fetched in terms of what its intended audience already takes for granted. We can see in our current political environment the effects of a worldview in which proponents literally believe that, any day now, they will be exempted from apocalypse while the rest of the world suffers, so as we try to figure out how to react to this game, it's important that we identify and call attention to the ways this ideology is built into its fabric. It's not just about the graphic depiction of violence or its inserting anti-Science propoganda between levels -- we need to understand and explain how the game's systems structure its version of reality around a conservative, dominionist view of the world that extends from the Fundamentalist version of Christianity and does not accurately reflect the views of mainstream Christians.
I feel like I could go on and on about this game, but I guess that will have to wait until the full version is available, at which point I'll probably have even more to say. There's lots to talk about in the demo alone, so please take a look at it and post your own reaction and comments. As game critics and scholars, it's vitally important that we make sense of games like this, so let's talk about it.