Friday 30 January 2009

Jan 09 Round Table: The New Testament for Windows, Mac OS and Linux

Jan 09 Round Table - Putting the Game Before the Book: What would your favorite piece of literature look like if it had been created as a game first? …rather than challenge you to imagine the conversion of your favorite literature into games, I challenge you to supersede the source literature and imagine a game that might have tried to communicate the same themes, the same message, to its audience.

Now I know the New Testament of the Bible is not strictly speaking one book, it’s made up of a bunch of them and they’re written by a number of different authors, however many Christians like to think of the Bible as expressing a single idea – or rather more specifically, the single voice of God. There are, as you may or may not know, many different views, perspectives and beliefs on how to read the Bible – all too many to count and list here in fact. So I will instead explain how and why I read the Bible in my own fallibility and imperfection and then get onto the interesting business of imagining how “The New Testament: The Videogame” (for Windows, Mac & Linux) would play and what it would be like if it were originally authored as a videogame.

I read the Bible because I do believe that it really is some kind of ‘designer’s handbook’ for life and living. And I believe in the central figure of the story – you know, that Jesus guy. Yeah he’s alright with me. However, I’m not altogether convinced at the moment that the Bible is as infallible as the institution often portrays and I similarly struggle to believe that it’s entirely reflective of exactly and specifically the intent of the author (talking about God as the author in this case not the human writers) but there are still plenty of people that do. And there are also plenty of people that think Braid is exactly authored the way Jonathan Blow wanted it to be. (Admittedly, that is rather a reduction of their arguments and points about the games, but an overarching theme of much of the discussion has been ‘what Blow was doing’ with the game and it’s hardly been studied in from the modernistic perspective as an independent work, studied in a vacuum if you will, with one notable exception.)

So let’s pretend that God sent his son Jesus to earth not in the first century but in the twenty-first instead. Two points make The New Testament for Windows, Mac OS and Linux a convincing possibility. Firstly, knowing that Jesus was a pretty contemporary dude for his time, it makes sense that he’d encourage his followers to be down with the ways and the means of the time. The 12 apostles would probably have held wicked awesome Halo LAN parties and frag each other late into the night, trash talking about who was greatest in the kingdom of Halo and all that. It would probably get a bit out of hand when Judas started TK-ing and the other disciples left Jesus to fight by himself, but somehow the peace would always be kept and a good time would be had by all. Jesus being the prince of peace and all that.

Also, as someone who was dedicated to speaking to people in a way that they could understand, using parables and stories to communicate his message, it seems rather credible that his followers would be just as dedicated, and want to tell people about him via the medium that they are both well versed in and which is rapidly emerging as the newest medium for human expression.

Obviously throughout the short history of games there have been a bunch of limp wristed, patently pathetic Bible based videogames and I’ve only (thankfully) been witness to a few of them. The most high profile of recent bible games would have to be the Left Behind game, based on the popular ‘Left Behind’ series and which plays as a spiritual focused RTS. No game, as far as I know has tried to be the Bible, even if many have tried to re-tell the Bible. So how would the Bible authors make The New Testament: The Game?

While the gospels in the New Testament are about telling the story of Jesus, the point of the gospels is not found within in the narrative, that is, by reading, studying and learning the order of events. Instead it’s about character and characters, people that are both saintly and flawed. The important things to take away from the Bible are not names and places and dates, but implications and ideas. Let’s take a small look at one idea that this Jesus fellow wanted to get across – this short passage is from The Message version of the Bible, which has deliberately been paraphrased from the original Greek so as to (hopefully) speak in a contemporary vernacular much as it would have for readers in the first century.

(This is Jesus speaking)

“Be wary of false preachers who smile a lot, dripping with practiced sincerity. Chances are they are out to rip you off in some way or other. Don’t be impressed with charisma; look for character. Who preachers are is the main thing, not what they say. A genuine leader will never exploit your emotions or your pocketbook. These diseased trees and their bad apples are going to be chopped down and burned.”

The passage is from Matthew, Chapter 7, verses 15-20 (for those so inclined to go look it up) and the point Jesus is making could be told in any number of ways through a videogame.

Maybe the videogame of The Gospel of Matthew is a tile based top down RPG, where you play as a follower of Jesus or even play through a series of Galileans, Judeans, Pharisees and Sadducees in a kind of fractured narrative style game a bit like the Call of Duty games and their three-way US/British/Russian story splits. The ‘game’ could even be a series of fully fledged proto-games, like a harvest moon clone where, in one of a number of vignettes, you’re a poor fisherman performing your daily chores only to hear of a visitor in town promising to make your sick daughter well. However the trade off is that if you don’t catch enough fish then you’ll go hungry tonight and your daughter will only get worse. Do you investigate or ignore this stranger? Maybe he hangs around for a few days, with each day your daughter getting progressively sicker until she either dies or you decide you’re getting desperate and what could it hurt to just go and see? Simulating the conditions for a random encounter with Jesus could be a method of showing something about Jesus’ life to people – he was around for only so long before he had to be elsewhere and if he’s truly as important as we say he is then you’d better go see!

After a bit of play testing however, maybe Matthew decides that, as the currently game works it’s making people think that the message of the game is “Go see Jesus or your daughter will die” which is pretty extreme and not exactly what Matthew wants. So he goes back to the drawing board and for a second version creates an interesting dynamic story where your daughter’s chance of survival is a mix of random chance and how well you care for her, with story options for what Jesus would do when he heard she died, if she recovered on her own, etc, etc… Like the real world, in The New Testament: The Videogame sad and terrible things happen and they’re often out of our own control.

But just because Matthew is an indie dev of shmups and RPG’s in this scenario doesn’t mean that the disciple Luke will be – maybe he’s much more into the FPS. In his gospel, the focus is less on the experience of meeting Jesus and more about remediating the ideas that he espoused and personally represented. So to express something like the passage above – that charisma is less important than character – perhaps Luke designs a mod for an existing game, like Half-Life 2.

In The Gospel of Luke, a mod for Half-Life 2, he codes and makes changes to the levels, giving you the player the ability to divine the real nature of a character, and see past the facade. It’s probably a bit more of a ‘proof of concept’ demo than full mod because it only works on that first level after you get off the train and until you reach the building where you get chased by the combine. But in the first area of the game, it works by letting you touch a human or combine NPC to see a short flashback from an earlier moment in that person’s life – with each example being something the person has done that has contributed to making them the person that they really are. Maybe one of the flashbacks shows a person surrendering to the combine and turning collaborator, naming their friends as members of the resistance. A flashback for a particular Metrocop could show quick, rapidly cut scenes of the combine transformation process – how they were afraid before it happened, and how that fear turned to terror as their personality was destroyed and replaced with machine.

Why do you have this mechanic? There’s no in-story reason for it, but it’s a nice experiment as part of The New Testament for Windows, Mac OS and Linux. The point of the mod is to show that appearances can be deceiving and while there’s no ‘practical application’ involved with seeing these flashbacks it would probably change the way we perceive the particular NPC’s. Imagine if you could do the same thing in the real world – think of all the things you would rather keep hidden from random strangers, all the things you’ve ever done you’re not proud of.

So I’ll leave the rest of the imagining up to you – these are just a few ideas I half-baked in my noggin, I’m sure the real version would be way better and have much higher production values anyway. I mean, have you seen how much money is in Christian lifestyle books these days? Then again, maybe the early Christian’s would have been edgy and cool and gone pure indie – 8bit all the way. Yeah, I think that’s it. Solid.


Krystian Majewski said...

Hahaha! Hilarious choice. It certainly made me laugh :-)

But on a second thought - is the Bible Literature? It is very different from the kind of Books we were talking about.

As for the game you proposed - you are trying to tame two beasts at the same time: translate the teachings of the bible into a videogame on the one hand AND create a scenario where they are published in a modern world for the first time.

As for the videogame part - you gave a couple examples but if you would continue applying that design strategy to the whole thing, you would come up with a HUGE amount of games. You haven't really addressed how the finished product would come together.

Also, one important function of the Bible today is the ability to identify and reference passages. In fact, you did this yourself in your very own review. How would that work if the Bible was a videogame?

As for publishing teachings in modern times - I doubt it would work. Our culture was in many ways constructed on the ideas represented in the Bible. Re-publishing the ideas would have little impact was we already live climate dominated by folow-ups to those ideas. They would seem simplistic in comparison.

And, where did you get the idea that any work can be studied in a vacuum?

Ben Abraham said...

Oh okay, you got me! All valid points, and I guess it's inevitable with any book as big and as old and steeped in history and tradition as the new testament that it's going to be hard to adapt.

I guess I liked the idea of each 'book' within the bible being a game in it's own right because it's a much more interesting and diverse prospect to me and all it would nerd to tie them all together is throwing them all in a .zip and putting them all up on a blog somewhere.

Referencing specific passages? Now that's a problem that I don't have an answer to - swapping savegames maybe? ;-)

With this whole scenario I've completely disregarded the fact you acknowledge - that almost all western society is based on a Judeo-Chrisitan foundation that would simply not exist in this version of history. But it makes for a cool story!

Krystian Majewski said...

It certainly makes a cool story! :-)

I just thought maybe a smaller-scale approach would work. Making each vignette REALLY brief and condensed. Like something along the lines of Wario Ware.

And I just realized that your idea with the fisherman and his daughter is very similar to Gravitation:

Spencer Greenwood said...

My own impression is that The Bible would be forced into a strange position were it to be made into a video game. I'm not sure that interpretation of scripture and the non-linear narrative are really ideas which complement one another.

Plus, ti sounds as though you mean "canon gospels" rather than New Testament. Can you imagine a game which spent most of its content dictating how women should behave in church, and ended with a spectacular finale involving a dragon with ten heads, each of which had ten leopard's heads, each with fifteen dogs' claws? It'd be impressive, but I'm not sure that it'd be precisely what you're talking about.

I guess it'd be hard to maintain interactivity with such a fixed message, though, as nice as it'd be to prove that video games don't necessarily *need* violence.

Ben Abraham said...

Hey Spencer. Regarding your first point, I think that if The New Testament were originally authored as a videogame as I'm hypothesizing here, then there would still be 'interpretation' involved in reading what it meant. After all - here we are 6 months and hundreds of discussions on and can anyone really say for certain what Braid means? What it's saying? I mean, and it's not even claiming to be divinely inspired! =P So I guess I don't see any problem with having a non-linear narrative game make the same points as the linear Bible does, if that makes sense.

Regarding your second point, I'd actually considered that and I now wish I'd included something about it in the post. I can definitely see the potential for a videogame that could explain the context, the reasoning and the thinking behind WHY Paul said to the Corinthian church "I don't permit women to teach men".

A lot of liberal theologians believe that each book should ideally be read in context and with the knowledge that it was directed to particular churches and their own particular set of problems. There are lots of modern Christians that don't believe women should be banned from teaching, and I think a videogame New Testament could do a lot of good to explain why some of the things that are in the Bible appear there.

I mean, for goodness sake there's one passage that says women should not speak up in church and be quiet. It's widely understood by many that Paul brought it up that particular epistle because there were a number of disruptively loud women in that congregation ruining it for everyone else. =P Some background context could do wonders, and a videogame has the potential to explicate that particularly well.

Krystian Majewski said...

Here! I can say what Braid means. ;-)

Nerje said...

Hey Ben, Krystian made a good point over at my blog - I believe I've developed your antithesis.

Ben Abraham said...

Hey Nerje, yeah I read your entry too. I haven't read The God Delusion so I don't think I understood it as well as I might have otherwise.

I'm not really a fan of Dawkins though as he comes across as an intolerant prat in my view, but that's mostly preference I guess. =)

Spencer Greenwood said...


It may be best for me to avoid this conversation, though I'd like to suggest that it's also possible to view St Paul as the king of intolerant prats, and Richard Dawkins as, at worst, an intellectually honest biologist who fails to cover all of his tracks when he talks about theology.

Nerje said...

He certainly is intolerant, a friend of mine said to me once that he's basically a fundamentalist figurehead for the atheist movement, but I can't help but agree with the majority of his points so he sort of sticks in my mind. One of his points, though, is that most forms of religion are largely intolerant. :)

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