These Evangelical Twins Want to Make a Bible Video Game That Doesn't Suck
Business-wise, it's not a bad idea.
All images and photos courtesy the Meulenbergs
Business-wise, it's not a bad idea. If Christian rock bands like P.O.D. and Creed can release multi-platinum records, and Mel Gibson can make more than $600 million off The Passion of the Christ, why can't Ruben and Efraim Meulenberg make a successful video game based on the Bible?
"We know a bunch of pastors, quite a bit of them, that are gamers themselves," Ruben said. "I think that negative stigma is mostly gone, and now people want something that will be high quality. I think it's more that Christian games have been flopping and people go, 'Please, don't give me another one of those.' Even Christians. It's not that they don't want a Christian game, they just don't want another bad Christian game. I think the bar for Christian games is higher than for games in general."
Christian developers have been trying to make games about the Bible for decades. In 1991, a company called Wisdom Tree worked around the Nintendo Entertainment's 10NES "lockout" chip to develop an unlicensed game called Bible Adventures. Players collected animals for the ark as Noah, carried baby Moses to safety as his mother, and even herded sheep as David.
The two Christian-themed games that have come closest to breaking into the mainstream recently were The Bible Game, a trivia title which was released on PlayStation 2 and Xbox in 2005, and Left Behind: Eternal Forces, a real-time strategy game released in 2006 based on the evangelical, post-Rapture novels, currently being made into a movie starring Nicolas Cage. Both were critically panned.
The Meulenbergs have been working on The Bible Game: David for the last five years, hiring freelancers who've worked on projects like Assassin's Creed as needed, up to 24 at the same time at their busiest. They've been thinking about making it since they were 12.
Christian games have been flopping and people go, 'Please, don't give me another one of those.' Even Christians.
Initially, they wanted to create a fully immersive, Skyrim-like first-person experience that let players explore ancient Israel, but the twins know enough about game development to realize that a game of that scope was out of their reach.
Instead, The Bible Game: David will be more like recent indie hits Limbo or Braid. They resemble the original Super Mario Bros. (and Bible Adventures) in form, but establish a much more involved story and engrossing mood with high production values and clever mechanics.
Players will control David in his journey to becoming King. He'll be able to run and jump around on a 2D plane, but in a 3D environment, so threats can approach from the background and foreground. In the first chapter, for example, players will have to avoid wild animals and Philistine raiding parties as David makes his way back to his hometown of Bethlehem. In order to maintain the connection with the original story, pressing the pause button at any time will tell you what chapter you're playing.
Rick Warren, the pastor at the Saddleback Church that the twins attend, gave them his blessing, saying it's "a game-changer for families and gamers alike."
The brothers were inspired to seriously revisit the Bible game idea after working with kids in church youth programs. They noticed that kids weren't reading anymore, but that they were playing a lot of video games, and that it was becoming more common for parents to be playing games too. They wanted to create something that they could all play together, but that wouldn't remove the tension from the stories.
For this reason, the first two ground rules the Meulenbergs set for themselves in the Kickstarter pitch video for The Bible Videogame: David is to stay true to the Bible, and avoid gratuitous violence.
If you know anything about the Old Testament you'll know that they couldn't have picked two more conflicting rules. The original text is filled with more horrifying violence than all the Call of Duties put together.
Greg Perreault, a Ph.D. candidate at the Missouri School of Journalism whose research focuses on depiction of religion in games, told me that many Bible games failed because they toed the line for the "family-friendly" demographic.
"There's a segment of the population that buys into this Precious Moments version of Christianity," Perreault said, "where things about the Bible need to be fluffy and friendly and kind. But at the same time a look at the text reveals that it's actually messy, there's violence, there's sex, there's gore, and I think that's honestly why it makes for such a compelling narrative. It's telling stories that you can identify with."
The Meulenbergs stressed that they don't aim to follow in the tradition of Christian games. "Our aim is to rival the industry standards of quality and go beyond it," Efraim said. "The most popular book in the world deserves the best quality."
The first violent act they'll have to face is also the part of David's story everyone remembers. The redheaded, teenaged David, then just a simple shepherd, kills the giant Philistine Goliath with his sling. It's a violent act in its own right, but the part of the story that's not emphasized in Sunday school is that the Philistine soldiers only retreated after David decapitated Goliath and presented to them his severed head.
"I mean, the way you show violence in a film or in a video game is very similar," Efraim said. "You can choose to zoom in on things or you can choose to have things happen off screen. So of course with a kids-friendly version we would rather go with the latter than zoom in and have blood gush everywhere. We can communicate the same point in a much milder fashion."
That sounds like a reasonable solution. Not many of us have stomachs for torture porn (Gibson's The Passion of the Christ being a perfect example), and the films and games that suggest rather than show violence arguably are more interesting anyway. But there are many other aspects to David's story that'll be harder to avoid.
I try to mention one of these issues to the twins, but I'm too embarrassed to say it. I stall and try to work my way up to it for several painful seconds before Ruben graciously puts me out of my misery.
"You want to know about the 100 foreskins, right?"
Two-hundred, actually, but yes. "Yeah, the foreskins," I say, and they both laugh.
"Yeah, that's going to be awkward."Before he became king himself, David wanted to prove his worth to King Saul by promising to bring him the foreskins of 100 Philistines, similar to the way scalps were traded in the Wild West. The ambitious David returned with double the amount he promised.
World of Warcraft and similiar role-playing games often ask players to gather 20 Shadow Wolf pelts, 30 Basilisk Shells, etc. The foreskins are actually a perfect biblical "collectable."
"That, of course, we're going to have to do a little bit differently," Ruben said. "I think if Saul says 'defeat 100 men,' that is for a kid kind of the same mission. We'll have to work around that."
Then there are unpleasant aspects of David's personality. When he sees the beautiful Bathsheba, for example, he arranges to send her husband Uriah to a battle he can't win. When Uriah inevitably dies, David takes Bathsheba as his wife.
"I personally love that the Bible doesn't hide that fact," Efraim said. "It doesn't say David was perfect. It doesn't take out his shortcoming. If you take someone's wife and then you kill him while that person is serving you, that's not a great fact, and the Bible shows how God punishes him for that too. It tells it like it was. It doesn't brush over things. I think that's one of the treasures that you have in the Bible."
The brothers were less diplomatic about more modern interpretations of the story. I bring up the second book of Samuel, first chapter, verse 26: "I am distressed for thee, my brother Yehonatan : very dear hast thou been to me : thy love to me was wonderful, more than the love of women."
That, along with repeated statements of love for one another and a few kisses, has led to modern interpretations that see the relationship between David and Yehonatan as possibly gay.
The brothers said they weren't familiar with the interpretation, and frankly, sharing it with them was the only time our conversation became tense. Ruben said that in his mind, the gay relationship didn't make sense because Jonathan was too old for David, and that David probably loved him as a mentor, not a lover.
If that interpretation sounds pretty flimsy, then so does every interpretation of the Old Testament. The infinite reinterpreting and rereading, especially of the parts that are vague and disturbing, is what I love about it, and why I'm afraid no game will ever do it justice. On this, the Meulenberg's and I agree.
"I feel that there's of course no artwork derived from the text that will fully do it justice," Ruben said. "Even a translation doesn't do justice to the original text. Every artwork in a way puts an emphasis on one piece of it."
"I think there are some unique things a game can do to show the culture of those times," Efraim said. "Of course, when people read the Bible they may say I see this in a different way, but I think this experience will show the story in a way they haven't seen before, as well as encourage them to read the text for themselves and explore what their interpretation of it is."
Even if Ruben and Efraim don't make the first Bible game that doesn't suck, someone else will. There's simply too much money to be made, and omitting the difficult parts is not necessarily a symptom of Christian influence.
Religion is a minefield for a medium that has the maturity of a 5-year old kid.
Matteo Bittanti, a writer, artist, and teacher in the Visual Studies program at California College of the Arts, told me that we're still waiting for the video game version of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ or Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew, but that we shouldn't hold our breath.
"Religion is a minefield for a medium that has the maturity of a 5-year old kid," he said. "Beyond the photo realism of the latest video games, we are still playing variations of cowboys and indians—pardon—aliens game. The same infantilization that has killed mainstream Hollywood cinema, with its inane super-heroes and comic book characters, has plagued the game industry for three decades. It is not getting better. In fact, the stultification of gaming and the dilution of anything remotely controversial—and no, I do not mean female breasts, something that only puritanical Americans may find problematic—is a fait accompli."
Perreault said that the fear of the Bible in games is historically rooted. "Back in the 90s, when Nintendo ruled the roost and were in two thirds of households, they had a very, very stern censorship policy for what would appear in American games. In particular, there were no depiction of gore, sex, or religion," he said. "In many cases this meant that in translations things were taken out."
Nintendo was so strict about taking religious iconography out of games on its system that in DuckTales crosses on coffins in the Transylvania level were replaced by "R.I.P." In Final Fantasy IV, "Holy" spells were renamed "White" spells, and a Tower of Prayers was renamed the Tower of Wishes.
It's the same thing that happens to almost every interesting subject adapted by mainstream video games. First-person shooters about war are commercially viable precisely because they skirt the parts of war that are complicated or depressing. Call of Duty never asks the player to file claims with the VA. There isn't a part of the game where you and your squad need to speak to the village elders through a translator, train the local police, or question the very purpose of the mission.
A Bible game also could never really doubt David's sexuality. It can't ask what kind of monotheistic megalomania is required to drive a shepherd boy from the fields to the throne of the united kingdom of Israel.
With the current limitations of mainstream Christianity, and, more importantly, mainstream gaming, the most we can hope for is that The Bible Videogame: David will at least be fun to play.