Captain Bible

Of the Christian video games of the 1990s, Captain Bible in Dome of Darkness stands out as the decade’s most derided. Admittedly, the game’s unapologetic theology and style – not to mention DOSBox compatibility – make it a ripe target for satire. A closer analysis, however, identifies Captain Bible as a successful synthesis of the ludic (in Huizinga’s sense) and didactic principles necessitated by the video game form and its Evangelical heritage. And it does so in a cohesive and original aesthetic to boot.

This synthesis is striking because most Christian games lean heavily into either a ludic or didactic identity. Saints of Virtue is ludic. Bible Baseball is didactic. Combining the two usually creates an unstable emulsion. An example of this is Wisdom Tree’s Joshua & the Battle of Jericho, which merely interleaves the ludic and didactic by bolting Bible quizzes onto remixed puzzles from Crystal Mines.

Captain Bible, however, fuses ludic and didactic qualities into a confident whole. The ludic component takes the form of an action-adventure game in which the player navigates mazes complicated by layered systems of locks and keys. The didactic component resides in the way these lock-and-key systems re-contextualize the tradition of Christian catechesis.

The Evangelical Game

It is impossible to understand Captain Bible apart from its relation to fundamentalism. Broadly speaking, there are two such streams: theological and cultural. Captain Bible inherits from both.

Theological fundamentalism is adherence to those doctrines and hermeneutics that fence a credal Protestant faith from liberal innovation. This fundamentalism is associated less with denomination or culture per se than with “the fundamentals”, typically defined as the inerrancy of Scripture, historicity of miracles, and Christ’s substitutionary atonement. This stream – most often expressed in Evangelicalism in the United States – defines Captain Bible‘s theology.

The other fundamentalism is a cultural identity based on polemical evangelism, specific political views, and dispensational theology. This stream of fundamentalism was lampooned by Mencken and Sinclair Lewis’ Bible-thumping preachers from the Midwest and informs Captain Bible‘s style, which is sometimes gauche and always unworried by secular critique.

A third influence, catechism, is more ecumenical. Catechesis has existed as long as mankind has possessed knowledge worth transmitting, and even catechism in a Protestant sense – the question-and-response memorization and explication of doctrine – dates to the 16th century with Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. Instead of mimicking Trivial Pursuit like its contemporaries, Captain Bible re-contextualizes catechism’s interlocutory application of Scripture.

Evangelical theology, cultural fundamentalism, and historic catechesis shape Captain Bible‘s content, style, and form. But the game is never self-conscious about these sources or treats them with irony. This authenticity, in addition to being inherently appealing, produces an organic object with certain strengths.

Born From Bankruptcy

Captain Bible is not the only example of a one-hit wonder in the history of Christian gaming. But the story of its development is uniquely inauspicious.

Captain Bible arose from the ashes of Epyx, a notable game developer and publisher founded in the 1970s. Despite big hits like California Games, Epyx suffered a series of misfortunes culminating with the failure of the Handy, a Game Boy competitor later rebranded as the Atari Lynx. By 1989, Epyx had shriveled to a skeleton crew and filed for bankruptcy. Bridgestone Multimedia Group (publisher of Christian videotapes during the VHS boom) acquired Epyx for its nascent “Everbright Software” label, under which Epyx had released the Edutainment title Bible Builder in 1992.

Bible Builder had been the passion project of Peter Engelbrite, who had come up with the idea to enter the niche Christian gaming market as a last-ditch play to save Epyx from dissolution. Engelbrite was the only Epyx employee who stayed on after the Bridgestone acquisition and soon began development on a new game called Captain Bible in Dome of Darkness. The title implies a franchise, but it would be the first and only installment.

After Captain Bible, Bridgestone returned to publishing Christian videos. Peter Engelbrite took the self-employment route.


Captain Bible released in 1994 for MS-DOS, originally as a traditional “big box” with 5.25-inch floppy disks and a mail-in form for 3.5-inch media. Bridgestone later re-issued the game on CD-ROM – by far the more common edition on the used market today. The game also got a shareware release called the “Special Edition”, but the full version is widely distributed on the abandonware grey-market and works on any of the DOSBox family of IBM-PC emulators.

No information has surfaced regarding Captain Bible‘s production or sales, although Peter Engelbrite has given a few interviews about his other work. The development team was small. Peter programmed most of the game code and his wife, Eve, composed the MIDI score. The rest of the staff seem to be freelancers who worked contracts at a variety of studios through the 1990s.

Captain Bible received some coverage in Christian magazines and trade publications. Both Captain Bible and Bible Builder made it into a budget collection of DOS games for Christian bookstores and mail catalogs.

And that was that.

The Dome of Darkness

Captain Bible begins in media res in a formerly Rushdoonian city occupied by evil forces. The city’s council, lulled into disarmament during an interlude of peace, was blind-sided when a new weather control system turned out to be a Trojan Horse for an enemy weapon. That weapon is the eponymous “Dome of Darkness.” (Possibly a play on Colossians 1:13.) The dome has sealed the city off, allowing an army of creatures called Cybers to run amok.

With the city’s population subdued, the helpless councilmen retreat to fortified buildings across the city to await reinforcements. Under the influence of the dome, however, the councilmen begin to experience skepticism and hear voices contradicting the Bible. The dome corrupts their beliefs into various non-Christian worldviews such as New Age spirituality, occultism, relativism, cupidity, addiction, etc.

Reinforcements arrive. A militia called the Bible Corps punch a small opening in the dome and teleport Captain Bible inside. His objective is to reactivate the Unibot – the city’s derelict defensive weapon – and destroy the projection system powering the Dome of Darkness. To pilot the Unibot, Captain Bible must assemble a crew by recruiting the reclusive councilmen.

But the hunted councilmen are hiding inside buildings infested with Cybers. Engaging these creatures requires Truth in the form of Scripture verses, but the teleportation process has wiped the Captain’s Computer Bible. He must rebuild his Bible using Scripture Stations (resupply drops) sent in advance by the Bible Corps, defeat the Cybers, restore the council’s faith, and shut down the Dome.


There are seven buildings to explore, each a labyrinth concealing a councilman. The ultimate objective of each building is to engage the councilman in dialogue and construct a Biblical antithesis to the councilman’s worldview. Once antithesis is achieved, a gospel appeal will be effective and the regenerate councilman will become an ally.

These dialogues are essentially lock-and-key system requiring the manipulation of grammar and ideas. The player can acquire many “keys” by stocking the Computer Bible with verses, but selecting the proper verses in dialogue with the councilmen requires close reading, critical thinking, and an understanding of Evangelical theology.

The labyrinths are loaded with hundreds of smaller lock-and-key systems. As with the councilmen dialogues, Bible verses play the role of keys. The locks, however, come in several forms. Some are literal locked doors that open only when the player identifies the proof verse for a given statement. Other locks are relational, such as the Communication Rooms in which the player must exposit Bible passages to overcome an ally’s doubts. There are also the Cybers, a two-stage “lock” that follows a didactic requirement with a ludic one. More on them in a moment.

The player constantly acquires new verses and must apply old verses to new locks. This incremental method is plainly didactic, but mastering the grammar of these lock-and-key systems leads to ludic rewards as well. Most notable of these rewards is a set of powers (such as the Sword of the Spirit and the Shield of Faith) unlocked by providing Scripture proofs in prayer to God – a ludic take on the Evangelical aphorism of “praying God’s promises back to him.”

Prayers can only be offered at Prayer Rooms, at which time players can also restore their Faith. Yes, Captain Bible stylizes gaming’s health tropes as an economy of faith. Run out of Faith and it’s game over – probably a concession to the era’s hysteria over video game violence rather than crypto-synergistic theology.

The most common way to lose Faith is during combat with Cybers. Cybers block the player’s progress and present an untruth that must be answered with an antithetical verse from the Computer Bible. Forming a weak antithesis inflicts a Faith penalty. Forming a strong one opens the didactic lock and sets off a combat sequence.

Combat is rendered over-the-shoulder, similar to ADK’s Crossed Swords. There are seven main species of Cybers, not counting a few variants, and each has its own patterns of attack, defense, and vulnerability. The player can usually attack, defend, or retreat at will.

Trap Rooms are a notable exception. Retreat is impossible, so failure to form a strong antithesis always inflicts a Faith penalty. On higher difficulty levels (changing the game difficulty alters the strength of Cybers as well as the scale of the labyrinths) the penalty can be as high as fifty percent. But because of the open-ended map design, the player often enters Trap Rooms without the antithetical verse in his Computer Bible. It’s a frustrating design choice that leads to unpredictable and unavoidable deaths.

Some buildings have their own additional distinctive features, like disruptor fields that require careful timing to navigate, a pesky Ambush Cyber, elevators, or lethal fireball railways. The dilapidated Apartment Building is the most interesting. It’s not really a maze like the other buildings, since it has few rooms and each must be flown to using a special Superman-like powerup.

The final encounter with the Enemy begins once the player navigates all seven mazes and recruits all seven councilmen. Unlike the normal Cyber combat scenes, nothing in the endgame is left to arcade reflexes. The player must use a pre-selected set of Bible verses to form antitheses with Enemy untruths, encourage the flagging faith of the councilmen, and ultimately break a deceptive hold on Captain Bible himself.

It’s a dramatic climax that forces the player to apply what they’ve learned to a more challenging and nuanced lock-and-key puzzle.


On a technical level, Captain Bible‘s art is well-executed – less in line and proportion than in color, consistency, and expression. Its overall aesthetic, however, is sui generis, and not in the mannerist kitsch fashion of modern indie games.

Captain Bible delivers on a hermetic fantasy vision of a snow-globe city under the Dome. This unfamiliar world is coherent and immersive, partly thanks to an artistic eye that permits abstraction (note the backgrounds in the catwalk space between buildings) but also remains realistic enough to evoke the isolation and exhaustion of gloomy, interminable mazes.

Each building possesses a different tone, ranging from cold/huge/transcendent to earthy/cramped/intimate. Some buildings are more plausible, others less so, but all take advantage of the alienating power of video game space. A demotic, practical use for these spaces is unimaginable – they are enclosed nightmares, overshadowed by a blackness starkly distinct from the title sequence’s sparkling idyll.

These spaces are not humane. But they are fitting dungeons filled with dark, lonely stretches in which Cybers wait in patient ambush.

The Cybers are neither human nor machine. Each is an uncreated Boschian entity of living metal. They display personality in subtle ways: the Trap Cyber checks with command on a small monitor, the unstable Spider Cyber nearly comes unglued with every jump. In combat the Cybers telegraph vulnerability and aggression without resorting to glowing outlines or flashing highlights. Even their death sequences are weighted and visually rewarding: the Macho Cyber convulses before blowing into smaller parts, and the Mantis Cyber enters rigor mortis in a burst of flame.

The cartoonish human characters are less interesting. Captain Bible himself is stoic, his expression just plastic enough to mime confidence, pain, or contemplation. The councilmen are rendered in a more exaggerated allegorical fashion. This stylization is concomitant with their ideologies and sets up a dramatic change when they respond to a gospel appeal. Skin tightens, backs straighten, expressions clear – all metaphors for the Evangelical hope of the resurrected body.

But aside from the councilmen, Captain Bible refuses to take a heavy hand with allegory. There are no Noun of Adjective Phrases here, though the temptation must have been strong given Bunyan’s unflagging influence on the Protestant imagination. Instead, the scenario of the Dome of Darkness is presented with a (culturally) fundamentalist literality that reads concrete, here-and-now realities in the pages of Revelation.

Which is to say that Captain Bible tells the player yes, that is precisely a massive cyborg spider injecting drugs into a man. That absolutely is a leech-robot sucking power from a physically-existing postal box that will install Romans 3:23 onto your mobile device.That’s not to say the game is naturalistic. Details of where, when, and what are left unanswered. This is still a fanciful snow-globe, even if the inner tableaux is in deadly earnest. But by avoiding direct allegory and playing its cards with absolute conviction, Captain Bible sidesteps the adolescent CCM-music-video conceit of Saints of Virtue‘s framing device.

It should be humbling that such an aesthetic object could come from Peter Engelbrite – he of the friendly Santa beard and Tea Party politics, maker of homeschooling and Bible literacy software.So much of mainstream and indie gaming remixes the same conventions and drums up hype for a tale twice-told. How much richer would gaming be if the makers were more diverse in background and worldview? Yet unique and confident visions like Captain Bible and Saints of Virtue are derided.

If culture is a byproduct of the overflow from praise, as Rémi Brague suggests, it’s no coincidence that these creations of people of faith are so original and compelling, coming as they do from a deep affirmation of the good of their subject.

But it’s time to flesh out the details of Captain Bible‘s successful synthesis.

A Third Way

To reiterate, Christian games are generally either didactic or ludic.

Bible Builder was the Evangelical fast-follow onto the Edutainment craze of the 1990s. It was a straight take on the genre, a multimedia Flannelgraph designed to distract younger users from the fact that they’re learning about the Bible. Typically of the genre, Bible Builder delivers plenty of one half of the portmanteau (education) without much of the other (entertainment).

It’s a different trap than Wisdom Tree’s emulsion strategy, in which ten seconds of education follow ten minutes of entertainment. But both approaches prioritize the didactic at the expense of the pure ludic. Watch any kid play Joshua & the Battle of Jericho and they’ll soon be skipping through the Bible quizzes to get back to the fun.

The second stream of Christian gaming forgoes any serious didactic element and offers only a minimum of Scriptural content. This majority-ludic stream includes Saints of Virtue, Catechumen, Ominous Horizons, etc. These games really only differ from their secular counterparts in theme.

Captain Bible represents a rarely attained synthesis of the ludic and didactic. The repetition of applying Scripture verses is didactic, yes, but also ludic: learning the lock-and-key grammar empowers the player to navigate the mazes more quickly, avoid taking damage, and discover the most dramatic versions of branching dialogues.

And the basic gameplay loop of close-reading a statement and constructing an antithesis or proof is intrinsically more rewarding than multiple-choice questions because it demands creativity. The Victim encounters serve as a climactic examination-via-praxis, a ‘real life’ situation with more humane emotional range than the Cybers’ cold syllogisms.

It’s true that not everything in the game is a fusion of ludic and didactic. Combat and Jump Rooms fall squarely in the ludic category. But over the course of the game, the multiple layers of didactic-ludic systems subsume these purities into the synthesis, resulting in a game that refuses to lean too heavily into one property or the other.

This is not to say that Captain Bible is not “preachy”, as critics often note. It is unabashedly preachy, affirming as it does an Evangelical theology that perceives Scripture’s supernatural claims as concrete, binding reality. Whether this is creepy or a logical extension of authentic belief into video games depends largely on an understanding of historical context and the nature of religious faith – something wags like Ian Macleod apparently lack.

So, why no sequel? Why no imitators?

Regardless of how well Captain Bible sold – not well, probably, for any number of reasons we have little clarity into – there were other obstacles to replicating its achievements. For one, it’s not an easily categorized game. Edutainment titles usually cater to a younger audience with their look and feel. Captain Bible is an uneasy fit, with a more mature aesthetic than the goofy Flash Gordon moments (“Bible Power!”) suggest.

Defying categories makes for difficult marketing, especially in the mid-to-late 1990s when consumer demand created (and was subsequently delimited by) specific genres, largely the FPS and RPG. Publishers of Christian games recognized this, and afterward pushed for more purely ludic or didactic games.

Captain Bible remains an exemplar of a path not taken. It should serve as a reference point for developers operating in the intersection of video games and Christianity.

In Retrospect

In an economic-historic sense, Captain Bible is just marginalia in the history of the niche Christian PC gaming market. Requiescat in pace. Yet discerning taste comprehends the ability of certain objects to transcend the details of their development, release, reception, and reputation. Captain Bible does exactly that by achieving a synthesis of the ludic and the didactic. Video games as a medium demand the former as table stakes, yet the convictions of Evangelical Christianity demand the latter as a component of the Great Commission.

This is, perhaps, why Christian games fail as objects when they emphasize either property at the other’s expense. The ludic focus of Saints of Virtue evacuates the game of the catechesis demanded in Matthew 28:20, while the didactic focus of Bible Builder falls short of the potential of the video game to amuse and entertain. It is hard to argue that Saints of Virtue, admittedly a ludic–aesthetic success, is a particularly Evangelical game. It is similarly hard to argue that Bible Builder is much of a video game at all. (It would be up to Sierra’s The Lost Mind of Dr. Brain to redeem the Edutainment genre, but that’s another discussion.)

Captain Bible is an Evangelical Christian game in the fullest sense. It almost perfectly integrates its objective of Biblical catechesis into rewarding gameplay and unifies the whole with a confident, consistent aesthetic. Myst retains the title of Evangelicalism’s greatest contribution to video gaming, but Myst is a purely ludic product of Evangelical minds.

Though what the Millers and Brandkamp built was a triumph of aesthetics, theme, originality, and creation stemming precisely from Brague’s overflow of praise to God, they did not attempt to map Evangelicalism’s missional convictions directly into the video game form.

Engelbrite did – a decision that constrained Captain Bible‘s market appeal but led to a triumph of synthesis.

See also