Thursday, June 01, 2006

72 Virtual Virgins?

Five or six years ago, on a Friday night with little else to do, a few friends and I rented "Left Behind: the Movie," a filmic adaptation of the best-selling series about the Rapture and subsequent struggle for control of the world between the remaining Christians and the Anti-Christ, who comes to prominence as the Secretary-General of the United Nations. It was, in a word, awful--not even really enjoyable as kitsch, and kind of troubling in the moral absolutes it flourished.

But then, that series of books did sell 60 million copies, despite probably having less literary value than Saddam's romance novels and about as much redeeming social quality as any of Ann Coulter's prose defecations. So I guess there's an audience for this.

The question I have now might be whether that audience plays XBox:

Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.

As the video game industry gathers at the Los Angeles Convention Center this week for the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, a devout group of publishers is praying for a direct strike on their elusive target: the eternal souls of game players.

One game, "Left Behind: Eternal Forces," which debuts today at the expo, features plenty of biblical smiting, albeit with high-tech weaponry as players battle the forces of the Antichrist in a smoldering world approaching Armageddon.
" 'Left Behind' has the Antichrist, the end of the world, the apocalypse," said co-creator Jeffrey S. Frichner. "It's got all the Christian stuff, and it's still got all the cool stuff."

That's why industry watchers predict that titles like "Eternal Forces" will find a broader audience in the same way Christian houses of worship like Pastor Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in Lake Forest have attracted followers — in part by not being overly doctrinaire.

"The reason that I think this game has a chance is that it's not particularly preachy," said Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Morgan Securities. "I will say some of the dialogue is pretty lame — people saying, 'Praise the Lord' after they blow away the bad guys. I think they're overdoing it a bit. But the message is OK."

The game is based on the best-selling series of "Left Behind" books, which offer an account of the end times as predicted in the biblical book of Revelation. One of the series' authors, Tim LaHaye, said the game had the potential to communicate ideas such as salvation to people who might not think of themselves as particularly interested.

"We hope teenagers like the game," LaHaye said. "Our real goal is to have no one left behind."

The 14 "Left Behind" books, which LaHaye wrote with Jerry B. Jenkins, have sold about 65 million copies. Lyndon and Frichner recognized that the series had all the elements of a successful game — namely, action and conflict.

It took 18 months to raise enough money to secure the license from Tyndale House, the Christian publisher of "Left Behind," in 2001. They financed the early game development themselves, with Lyndon mortgaging his home twice and Frichner selling his house to raise cash. Some programming is done in Kiev, Ukraine, to limit costs. After the commercial success of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," the two were able to raise the money to finish the project.

"There's an audience here," said A. Larry Ross, president of a Dallas-based Christian public relations firm that helped to market Gibson's "Passion" and three movie adaptations of the "Left Behind" books.

"In addition to the youth audience — that's the primary target — there are parents who are concerned about what their children are exposed to and are encouraged by products that are biblically based," Ross said. "I would assume, if there is violence, it's the cosmic struggle of good versus evil, not gratuitous violence."

At the Carpetbagger, where I read about this yesterday, some readers have suggested alternate titles to follow up on the success of "Left Behind: Eternity Force." (He also references the wonderful Simpsons episode in which Rod and Tod Flanders, grieving for their late mother, play "Billy Graham's Bible Blaster!" with Bart, in which you have to shoot the heathens to convert them; a non-direct hit makes them Unitarians.) One is "Inquisition"; another is "Kill the Jews." I'm guessing that "Inquisition" is more of a strategy/role-player, where "Kill" is more of a first-person shooter title.

Others noted the parallels between the righteous Christian violence of this game and the deplorable Muslim violence we see all too often in the real world. But they don't develop the concept; that's why I'm here today. If only there were a viable videogame market in the Arab world; suicide bombings and terrorist attacks also have those vital elements of "action and conflict."

Just imagine a whole series of these games: starting with "Jihad: Resistance!," you train in the Afghan base camp, master small arms, explosives and basic insurgency techniques, and then attack the infidel occupiers. Then in "Jihad: Martyr!" you run suicide bombing missions: first the Israeli schoolbus, then the nightclub in Amman, and finally the U.S. Army barracks. Finally, in "Jihad: Sheikh!" you get to *play* bin Laden, directing your finances from sympathizers in oil ministries throughout the middle east and elsewhere, recruit planners and operatives, and finally draw up and carry out spectacular attacks that kill thousands and set the stage for that battle of civilizations you've been aching for.

Hey, it's the cosmic struggle of good vs. evil. What's a little violence thrown in?

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