Play in Process: Outland and Faith-Inspired Game Development

Each week in Play in Process, Richard Clark shares what he’s been playing and why it matters.

I’ve been playing an exploratory platform game called Outland, primarily a game about following a path from one place to another, with occasional detours and avoiding obstacles along the way. Every aspect of the game feels really good to pull off. Platforming, combat and using various acquired skills all seem to flow seamlessly from one to the other.

Then there’s the story element: it seems to be a strange potpourri of new age religious elements, most notably the assertion of a “light” and “dark” force that are both, according to the game, good and necessary in the world. This truth informs the gameplay as well, inspiring one of the most enjoyable play mechanics in the game: the ability to change colors in order to interact with various aspects of the world. Still, when the game finds the need to spell it out for us, by way of scrolling text and an overwrought voice actor, it’s hard not to cringe.

In Outland, we have an example of both how and how not to apply one’s faith to game design. This is something that Christians are really pumped up about these days. Check out, for instance, Tristan Donovan’s fascinating feature for Eurogamer.net, Gaming for God:

At the same time, Christian studios are starting to move beyond their traditional offerings of tedious scripture quizzes and Biblical kids games.

“Christian games divide into two groups,” says Emmerich. “The overt where it is obviously Christian and based on the Bible, and the covert games that look like regular games but where the underlying idea communicates some Christian aspect.”

Skaggs sits in the allegorical camp: “We lean on what C. S. Lewis said when he wrote The Space Trilogy. He wanted the books to appeal to people who would never go to church and encourage them to think about eternal things. I feel our role is not to be Christians making games for Christians, but to put ourselves, including our Christianity, into mainstream work.”

About the last part, he’s right. Christianity is a primary part of who we are as Christians, and it ought to inform everything we do. But Christian game developers don’t have to play out their faith in either a literal or allegorical narrative implanted within the game. Just make something brilliant that resonates with us because it comes from a place that is true. Outland could have done something like that (albiet from the context of another faith), by relying on a mechanic that stemmed from a greater truth and that played out before us. But I could do without all the explanations.

About Richard Clark

Richard H. Clark is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture. He has a Master of Arts in Theology and the Arts from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He lives in Louisville, Ky. He is also the managing editor of Gamechurch and a freelance writer for Unwinnable, Paste, and other outlets.
E-mail: clarkrichardh [at] gmail [dot] com.
Twitter: @deadyetliving

  • Ben Pitseleh

    Yes, I have been waiting for a good game with a Christian foundation to come around for..well, forever. Not a good Christian game (especially since they usually aren’t very good) but one that is a good game that just comes at it from our viewpoint of God, evil, and our basic understandings and doctrines.
    Sure, I can stomach some of the other stuff out there, but where is our stuff? I am sick of playing games and saying to myself, “This is a really good game, too bad I just have to ignore this mumbo jumbo they slip in.” Or what’s probably worse, the games that have “Christian” concepts in them, because they are not made by Christians and the concepts are not understood and are misrepresented. A recent example would be Castlevania: Lords of Shadows. Even for misguided, crusader like story and characters, they get it so wrong. The end boss (sorry for the spoiler) being Satan himself who has been guiding you and you fight him and defeat him. The story doesn’t make sense, and the logic doesn’t work in a Biblical based mind. But it is Satan so therefore is Biblical in people’s minds. It really pushes it beyond palatable.

  • http://www.somagames.com Chris Skaggs

    Hi Richard – found your blog when Google noted that you quoted me. Thanks man. :)

    There are a lot of reasons, IMHO, why Christian games haven’t yet risen to the level we hope them to be. Some of those are cultural like the knee-jerk response the broader gaming community has to anything even remotely Christian (see the comments on the Eurogamer article for an example), there is also the general feeling in the Christian culture that video games are OfTheDevil – it’s a less than supportive environment.

    But there are other, more tangible reasons as well. The feeling of most successful Christian businesspeople is that there is no appropriate way to mix a for-profit enterprise with even a subtly Christian theme -it’s off limits. That mostly leaves the strictly non-profit community to fund these expensive enterprises who A. Have small budgets and B. Are uninterested in a game that isn’t clearly educational or clearly evangelistic.

    So it’s a tough nut to crack.

    That said – there are signs that things are changing. The new look and focus of the Christian Game Developers Conference is now a lot wider, a lot more professional, and a lot more engaged with the broader gaming community. The overwhelming theme of this year’s GDC was the need for games with meaning and purpose and a marked thirst for deep messages – including the wrap-up session which was called “bigger than Jesus.” Despite what might seem like a blasphemous title it was a fantastic reflection on what role religion plays in society and was remarkably thoughtful, balanced ad open to exploring questions of faith in the game art form.

    The other huge change is the re-empowerment of indie shops through the mobile and social gaming space. That technological change opens the doors to all kinds of people who have a heart to make something ‘different’ and they can find their niche audience in the log-tail somewhere.

    For my part, I’m excited to see what the next several years bring. I expect, we’ll see a whole crop of shops and games where their faith is lived out one way or another. SOme will be lame – without question – but that’s true of all the secular shops/games that will also spring up. SOME, lord willing, will be awesome and bring fresh new talent to the space, hopefully bringing their own salt & light back to the trenches and maybe influencing the larger industry in a great way.

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    Chris, I think you’re right, and I look forward to the sorts of games that will resort from groups of like-minded developers getting together and making something that is not only “cool” but felt deeply. I’ll be following you guys in particular – just from looking over your site, it seems like a promising direction to take.


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