The greatest story never played
Why don't religion and video games mix? The industry's top developers ponder the question.
NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - There aren't a lot of taboos in the video game industry. The Vietnam War, drug running and brutal homicides have all featured prominently in past and upcoming releases.
But mention religion to most publishers and they'll break land speed records as they dash in the opposite direction.
<!-- var clickExpire = "-1"; //--> To figure out why, I spoke with the makers of some of the industry's biggest games.
"What you might think is ... couldn't you make a religious game where critics, fans and retailers would all line up and universally say 'Here's a game that has some sort of moral or educational value?'," said Todd Hollenshead, CEO of id Software. "But people tend to take religion extremely personally and therefore have more opportunity to be offended. If you make, say, a Christian based game, are you going to make it a Protestant game? If so, that might offend the Catholics."
Publishers aren't the sole reason we haven't seen many religious-themed games, of course. Some developers say the church hasn't been quick to see the benefits of the gaming industry.
"Embracing the medium is the way [for churches] to get across and deliver the message they want to," said Bill Roper, CEO of Flagship Games. "They've done that with music. They've done that with books. They've done that with movies. I don't think they've done that with games yet."
That's not to say no one has tried. Several small companies, such as N'Lightning Software and Wisdom Tree Games, have released titles with moderate success. And there are more are on the way.
Crave Entertainment will bring religion to the PlayStation 2 and Game Boy Advance in October with its trivia intensive title: "The Bible Game."
And "Left Behind," based on the best-selling book series and using prophecies from the Book of Revelation as a framework, is a real-time strategy game putting you in charge of battles between good and evil during the apocalypse.
Neither game, however, is being published by one of the industry's big names, which would give it more power at retail stores.
While top tier publishers haven't put out many games with overt religious themes, several titles have injected a moral underpinning.
Chief among these was the "Ultima" series in the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s. Creator Richard Garriott made role-playing games where, aside from killing monsters and collecting treasures, you also were presented with certain moral quandaries.
Done right, adding a moral element can bring a new dimension to games. Done wrong, it can be heavy-handed and ruin the experience.
"I really do believe that putting parables into gameplay in an interactive way makes the storylines much more interesting and more compelling to play," said Garriott, who is now CEO of NCSoft North America. "The issue is: They are just really hard to do. If all you're going to do is commentary about morality, that would be technically very easy, but very boring – and it would detract from the products."
Making games based on stories from the Bible, Torah, Koran or any religious scripture is a tricky affair, since many religious tales have little to do with the skills of man. So by having a player's choices affect the outcome of those stories, are you pushing aside a higher power?
"Taking those stories and putting ... your skill, reflex and wit as the determining factors would remove God's intervention ... and potentially place the glory on the Bible hero (or the player) and not on the God who ordained the course of events," argues David Fifield, a former game developer who worked on several titles including "Majesty" and "MechAssault 2: Lone Wolf".
"I think it becomes a real challenge for a developer to make it interesting and compelling, but at the same time walk the line of not offending the sensibilities of anybody," he said. "I don't think anyone is going to get too pissed off if you misconvey what Hell looks like, which is what we've done. But boy, if you give players the chance to have Moses make choices with some ambiguous moral consequences, you've stepped in a deep hole of trouble."
With all the challenges, I started wondering: What would today's AAA developers do if they were to create a religious-themed game of their own.
id's Hollenshead said the company would likely pick a story from the Bible and have you play as the protagonist.
Garriott said he'd do something along the lines of what he did with the "Ultima" games: Put you in situations similar to those described in sacred texts, let you choose a path, then show the ramifications of your actions.
Fifield said he would use biblical stories as a framework. "The story of Moses has multiple decade long breaks in the text," he said. "Fill in those blanks and detail his rise to prominence in the Egyptian military, his wanderings and encounters in the wilderness and end the game with God's Judgment of Egypt and deliverance of the Hebrews through the Red Sea."
Flagship's Roper may have the best idea for bringing together people from different walks of life, though.
"I think it would be interesting to try to do a faith based MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online game)," he said. "It would be a great way to bring people in the Christian community together from all over the world. ... You'd also get interest and traction and a way for there to be an outreach outside of the Christian community."
Will Hollywood's slump seep into the video game industry? Find out here.