Questions about designing Christian IF

I’ve played several Christian Text Adventures (Jarod’s Journey, Bible Retold, Keys to the Kingdom, etc…). I’ve been wanting to design a Christian IF game for some time now, but have been put off due to most Christian games being sub-par (exceptions include the Bible Retold series and Unwraveling God).
I have a few questions about designing Christian IF games:

  1. Is it possible to design a Christian IF game that is enjoyable and beneficial for both Christians and non-christian?
  2. If so, how do I design such a Christian game?

Thanks in advance.

I thought Cana according to Michael did a great job. I think it is better to show a story and demonstrate principles without sermonizing or having allegories that are painfully obvious (like having a vain hypocrite die terribly while the pious guy lives and gets rich). Most lessons in the Bible are taught by example, and rarely are any of the characters completely good or completely evil (like Peter or Pilate).

Generally speaking, you won’t want to be preachy. Regardless of the specific religion, it’s way too easy for a religious game to be preachy. It’s like bad edutainment. Bad edutainment will present you with the facts at intervals, like you were flipping thorugh a book. Good edutainment will encourage you to seek out the answers it then provides, encouraging you to continue onwards - not because it ostensively wants to teach you something, but because it ostensively wants you to complete some tasks and have a good time and, incidently, learn a few things along the way.

Similar with religion. I would encourage you to think about what you like best in religion - is it a sense of belonging to something greater than yourself? A comforting sense that everything happens for a purpose? Is it the humane morality as preached by the new testament? Is it the solace that it can give you in the hardest moments?

I would personally encourage you to find out what you think is best and most interesting about religion. Then try to design it so that your players will be able to share in your thoughts, through the uniquely effective interaction that IF can provide. It doesn’t even have to be directly about religion - Life Of Pi mentions religion a lot, but it’s only at the very end that becomes blindingly clear that religion is what it’s all about, and little else. So you don’t have to use Christian trappings to make a Christian game. :slight_smile:

Anyway, these are just my two… three… five… er, this is just my quarter.

  1. Perhaps. While most folks know the story of the Christ for instance, folks vary widely in their interpretation and acceptance. Telling a story with “Christian” overtones takes finesse and careful crafting in my opinion.
  2. Create something more “neutral”, learn general IF game design, then apply “Christian” aspects. Personally, I think trying to work in a “niche” such as demonstrating “Christian” aspects without understanding what makes an IF really “click” in the first place is prone to failure. If folks don’t like your “secular” game style, they won’t care much for your “religious” one …


Good storytelling is good storytelling…

I’m an atheist, so not generally inclined to play any such games, but I love the old Ten Commandments movie. It’s just good storytelling.

So if you are a good writer, you shouldn’t have any trouble developing a story that embeds the Christian themes, but straddles the line of not being curriculum for Sunday school.

I ran across this article a little while ago. It’s not about IF, but gets at what others have been saying about how it’s problematic to reduce art to being merely a vehicle for a message.

Is it too soon to invoke a Paul Panks game as a punchline?

I recall Scott Adams’ latest, The Inheritance, being touted as a Christian text game. As the prime mover of the entire Panks school of game design, it might be interesting to see if he’s been able to, y’know, demonstrate any growth.

I suggest avoiding puzzles. Puzzle solving is not really what Christianity is about, in my opinion. A choice-based game might do better.

Subject: Questions about designing Christian IF

I am a practicing Jew, and I would play a Christian game, given certain values of “Christian game”, as long as it was interesting.

To that end here are some don’ts:

So what are some ideas that, if implemented, would make a Christian game more interesting to me?

  • Raising big questions without force-feeding me answers: It is enjoyable to ponder religious and philosophical questions. And it would be acceptable to have a protagonist who reaches answers to these questions that I disagree with as long as I felt that the author was not stacking the deck to force me to reach the same conclusion. Bonus points if the author does not sacrifice good writing for the sake of prominent authorial self-insertion. (If the author really feels the need to make their own views known, they can do this by some other means.)
  • Making a game that teaches about some aspect of Christianity or Christian culture without being ham-fisted about it: I once contemplated making a work based on the premise that the conclusions of the New Perspective on Paul were true and set in an alternative history in which the protagonist(s) are members of a branch of Christianity that stays true to Paul’s original views (as understood by the player). (I no longer plan on making this work, so if you would like to use the idea or something like it, go for it.) As another idea, I enjoyed the documentary series A History of Christianity, hosted by Diarmaid MacCulloch, which focused on Christian architecture; I would also enjoy playing a game that required traveling to various geographical locations important to Christianity. One does not need to be a Christian to appreciate the beauty found in many of its elements.
  • Giving insight into what it is like to be a Christian whose experience has not been frequently validated by the Christian clergy of their day: Personally, I find it easier to relate to outsiders, regardless of their religion. What would it be like to be one of the first women to be ordained a minister in a conservative Christian denomination? What would it be like to be an evangelical Christian woman who falls in love with another woman at her Bible study group? What would it be like to be a Palestinian American Christian who feels alienated from mainstream Christian churches on the basis of their ethnicity?

Mind you, the ideas I list above would not be necessary for making a good Christian game, but ideas like these would intrigue me and avoid some of the pitfalls I have seen in previous attempts at religious games.

Great question, though I’m not completely sure about what would count to you as “beneficial”.

To me a well made Christian game would benefit people by drawing them closer to God. So one way to approach it might be to think about what has done that for you personally, and whether that can be translated into something interactive.

One of the influences on my becoming a Christian was, strangely enough, a series of fantasy books (The Dragon King Saga). Being a lover of fantasy stories, this somehow reached past my defenses as I followed the main character and his developing relationship with God. I also enjoyed The Archives of Anthropos a few years later.

Both of these series had allegorical aspects, which helped to avoid feeling preachy, because the message was indirect. But they also presented God as a relatable person that (some of) the characters got to know better over time. The most impacting moments were when a character revised their picture of God, finding that he was more amazing, merciful, overwhelmingly kind or whatever else they hadn’t seen in him before.

Unfortunately a moment of revelation and personal crisis can easily lack authenticity (as in the Christian movies mentioned upthread). This might also be hard to translate into something interactive, since it is so subjective. But it could work if there is enough groundwork beforehand and it is the logical place for the story to go (e.g. a build up of events for which an inner crisis is the natural conclusion).

A life changing crisis isn’t obligatory to be a Christian story, though. People grow closer to God through less dramatic means, such as seeing his consistent character, small experiences of his love that accumulate together, experiencing his presence, learning to hear his “still small voice” and other things.

It can be helpful to think about the specific message you want to get across (even if it will be indirect). If I wrote a Christian story, I think I would want to undermine common misconceptions about God (e.g. God is not an impersonal force but someone you can know as a real person). Have a think about what “burns in your heart” about God, and what you are really passionate about – what kinds of plot events might carry that message? Beware of unintentional messages too, e.g. a story focusing on growth and change could be taken as, “Christianity is self improvement”.

One more thought: God can be surprising; what do you expect from someone with infinite wisdom? This could be difficult to model if God is a dynamic character in the story. I like the idea of a game where you can interact with God in some way, but not if he is too predictable.

Puzzles don’t necessarily mean puzzleboxes, and choice-based games don’t necessarily do away with puzzles. I think you’re conflating a few things too many there, and I even get the message (which may or may not have been intended) that choice-based as opposed to parser would do better, which is arguable. Depends on the game they want to make, doesn’t it? Not on the theme.

I liked Cana According To Micah. It didn’t imbue me with a sense of religion, but it was interesting as a historical piece and did make me interested in the players of that particular scene. I’m so disinterested in religion as a whole that that seems like the game did its job very well.

As another non-Christian (Jewish, fairly secular but not entirely non-practicing) I liked Cana According To Micah too but it did fall into the trap of assuming too much familiarity with the source material at one point:

Most westerners (or anyway Americans) probably know about Jesus turning water into wine. But I didn’t know that Mary played any role in that miracle, and I found the part where Micah has to talk to Mary to get Jesus to do anything underclued.

But in general it does show that you can have a Christian game with puzzles. Or a puzzle game that’s Christian. And as Peter pointed out, “choice-based” and “puzzleless” are orthogonal categories.

Bee is another fantastic story that, well, I don’t know if it would be characterized as Christian but Christianity is extremely important to it.

From my experience trying to make games that weren’t insensitive to certain concerns (basically, trying to reflect diversity as a straight cis white guy), I found it was helpful to treat those concerns as part of the worldbuilding. You know, in worldbuilding you think about the structure of your world and design it and come up with a lot of backgrounds for the characters etc. And then you write your story/make your game and just let all that stuff you thought of bubble up when it becomes relevant, because nobody likes getting whapped in the face with a three-paragraph infodump when the author can’t figure out any other way to shoehorn in all this stuff they thought so hard about.

…and you won’t be able to reach everyone. Some folks just will object to your premise and there’s nothing you can do about it. To thine own self be true.

A lot of choice-based works that are trying to do propaganda come out as an Ideology Quiz: there may be two or more choices, but there’s only one right answer. (“Billy is being mean to you! Do you a) punch Billy; b) pray for Billy’s everlasting soul?”) The whole game is then about you-the-player showing that you understand the author’s ideological stance by always picking the answer you know they want you to pick. Even when I agree with the ideology in the game, I generally find that kind of approach condescending and annoying.

On the good side: it’s not in the IF sphere as such, but That Dragon, Cancer is a pretty interesting recent release that deals really extensively with religious themes, specifically the parents’ struggle to make sense of their son’s illness. Despite some tricky patches, it largely works (in my opinion, anyway) because it’s telling the story of what these specific people experienced and how they tried to make sense of that experience. It’s less about telling the player what to think or believe, and definitely not quizzing you.

In context, I assume that:

  • by “beneficial to Christians” you mean “encourages Christians to follow the teachings of Christ”
  • by “beneficial to non-Christians” you mean “encourages non-Christians to become Christian”

…but these are two completely different goals, and you will have a very hard time satisfying both.

The key problem:

Audience #1 (Christians) may be a receptive audience to “follow the teachings of Christ”, but…
Audience #2 (non-Christians) should be considered a hostile audience to “become Christian”.

As Christianity is a proselytizing religion, it’s very unlikely that the non-Christians who encounter your game have not encountered the “convert!” message before. Since they’re still non-Christians, they’ve encountered it and rejected it - and they’ve likely done so thousands of times. This is an audience that will actively avoid your message, if that’s all your game has to offer.

Shifting away from religion for a moment: it’s hard to make a game that’s intended to produce social change. At the GameLoop unconference one year, one of the discussions was titled something like “Why do games for change always suck?” It was an exaggeration, but games for change do have that reputation, and there are two main reasons why.

  1. Games for change are (often) bad.
    When a game exists solely as the vehicle for a message, the gameplay will suffer for it.
  2. Games for change are (often) annoying.
    After all, who wants to be scolded by a video game?

The solution, in both cases (games for change, and the game you want to make), is to make a game that can stand on its own.

And the good news is, it can be done. From fiction, consider CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Madeline L’Engle’s Time Quintet, Orson Scott Card’s Homecoming Saga, or Christopher Stasheff’s A Wizard in Rhyme. These series all deal directly with Christian or Judeo-Christian themes, but their audiences transcend the boundaries of religion.

Do these series convert people? I can’t speak to that. But at least they don’t send people running in the opposite direction - which is seems like a necessary first step, in games as well as fiction.

On a more mechanical level, I think parser and puzzles can work perfectly well for a religious game. But I have zero interest in converting anyone or being converted, which does affect my perspective.

Interesting example. I wouldn’t consider BtD to be a religious game, but instead a game that happens to use religious concepts. Same with Bellclap, and Beat the Devil.

In fact, “Crystal and Stone, Beetle and Bone”, a game which has a made up religion, struck me as a profoundly religious and spiritual experience (I’ve a soft spot for that one, don’t ask me why). No christianity, devils, sins or preaching in sight.

Flathead, you may also be interested in The Shivah, I just remembered it.

It’s a murder-mystery set in a Jewish community, where the main character is a Rabbi.

It’s not overtly religious because it’s set out to be religious; it’s deeply religious because the characters and the setting are. If you need a role model, you could do a lot worse. In fact, I’m hard pressed to think of a better one…

@Karona: Thank you for the advice and all the ideas; they really helped me get an idea what I’d like to do with any Christian projects I may start working on.
@dfisher: Thank you for your advice. It’s nice to have a Christian’s take on a Christian form of art. (Also, we have something in common: I’m a fantasy literature fanatic. Never heard of the dragonking saga or the archives of Anthropos, though.)
@The rest of you: Thank you for all the advice; I’ll keep you posted on any projects I begin working on.

@Peter: I’ve never heard of the Shiva. May have to check that out.
I’ve actually never played “beat the devil”, or any other games in the 2011 competition.
(Also, I found out that there are two games in the IF archive entitled “beat the devil”; the 2011 game, and a game from like 1997 or something.)

Note that the 2011 game is Beet the Devil, with two e’s. You journey to Hell armed mainly with a collection of vegetables.

I considered the message of Beet to be “Be optimistic and determined, and you can do anything.” But for some people, it apparently came through as “Have faith, and you can do anything.” I’m willing to accept their interpretation as valid, though (from my perspective) it was rather unexpected.