(Originally published at HardcoreGaming101.com)
Any discussion of Christian video games must inevitably start with Wisdom Tree. Wisdom Tree was a group of former Color Dreams employees who developed and self-published a series of unlicensed religious games for the NES, SNES, Genesis, and Game Boy. After the dawn of 32-bit technology, Wisdom Tree shifted their focus to edutainment games for the PC – a space they continue to operate in to this day. As most Hardcore Gamers know (probably thanks to the Angry Video Game Nerd and Seanbaby if nothing else), their games weren’t really that great. Some, like Joshua and the Battle of Jericho, were pretty decent, but generally Wisdom Tree’s games reflected their limited budgets and lack of official development kits. What most gamers might not know, however, is that Wisdom Tree was the vanguard for a (small) Christian game industry.
Modern religious game output ranges from digital card battlers to RTS games and action RPGs. Today we’ll be exploring perhaps one of the most interesting, misrepresented, and generally unknown areas of that industry – the Christian First Person Shooter. Covering six games from five developers, this article will seek to document the details of a part of video game history that might be wholly forgotten otherwise. It is composed almost exclusively of original research using old interviews, archived websites, forum posts, and first-party information. From an author’s perspective, it is quite exciting to be able to compile what is essentially the only source on a given topic – even if the games involved aren’t exactly GOTY contenders. Hopefully this article will assist HCG101 in its mission to educate and intrigue.
A common theme here is that with one notable exception these games were made on shoestring budgets by at most a handful of people. These games are, in a sense, kusoge: bad games with hearts of gold, doomed to be inferior to their secular counterparts despite their developer’s hard work and best intentions. Perhaps Mack Ponech of XrucifiX (more on that later) said it best in an email to the author:
“For most Christian developers, much like indie developers, we all share a unified story of setting out to make a good game. Making a game however, is a ton of work and in some cases we underestimate the amount of work involved in it. We’ll spend years developing the game, mortgage our houses, work second jobs, to get it done. If the developer manages to get the work done they’re normally exhausted by the end of the process and release the game. At this point the ‘second half of the run’ comes into effect; market awareness. If people don’t know about your game or can’t easily buy your game then they won’t buy your game. Sales are low, so the developer cannot continue with operations and have to dedicate their time to paying off the debt that development created.”
But that’s enough introduction: on to the games!
Super 3D Noah’s Ark
When id Software was still just a dream called “Ideas of the Deep” and its founders were still employed at Softdisk, John Carmack developed a technique to do smooth 2D scrolling on PCs. It was a fantastic coding feat that brought PCs to a world of graphics tech that had been dominated by consoles such as Nintendo’s NES. To emphasize this point, Carmack and Romero put together a demo that recreated the first level of Super Mario Bros. They shopped it to Nintendo. Nintendo turned them down, claiming that they were not interested in entering the PC market.
However, the later success of Wolfenstein 3D and Spear of Destiny prompted Nintendo to offer a $100,000 contract to id Software if they would port Wolfenstein 3D to the Super Nintendo, albeit with much of the violence and Nazi imagery censored. Shortly thereafter, id Software’s business manager received a request from Wisdom Tree to license out the Wolf3D engine – including the Super Nintendo version – for a game involving Noah’s Ark. id was well aware that Nintendo did not allow religious content of any kind in their games, but they realized Wisdom Tree was in earnest when the Christian games developer revealed their plans to release the game without a license from Nintendo.
The cart would be a pass-through design that would require an “official” SNES donor cart in order to operate. The Super Nintendo would receive security data from the donor cart, and then Super 3D Noah’s Ark would piggyback that security handshake into memory and begin execution. id Software promptly sold the engines to Wisdom Tree, making Super 3D Noah’s Ark the only unlicensed Super Nintendo game to see a commercial release. The game also saw a release on MS-DOS using the original Wolf3D engine.
Of all the games investigated in this article, Super 3D Noah’s Ark is perhaps the one that needs the least actual review. If you’ve played Wolfenstein 3D, then you know what to expect, and even more so if you’ve played the Super Nintendo port. It looks good and plays pretty well, has 32 levels (2 hidden) and several secrets per map. It also retains the floor bosses and all that jazz.
What requires explanation is the way Wisdom Tree changed the graphics and premise. According to the Biblical account of Noah, the sins of man had become so grave that God resolved to wipe out the Earth with a flood and start anew. God instructed Noah (the only remaining righteous person on Earth) to build a huge Ark to house his family and a male and Female specimen of every animal in order to re-seed the earth with life after the flood subsided. Super 3D Noah’s Ark, against all odds, replaces B.J. Blazkowicz with Noah and subs out Nazis for angry goats and sheep. Instead of guns you have a slingshot that can fire various types of fruit. So you’re not actually shooting the animals; you’re feeding them so that they will fall asleep. Otherwise, they’ll kick you and throw coconuts at you until you die. (!!!) The bosses of each floor are tougher animals like giraffes and bears.
The whinnying cry of the sheep as they buckle under a hail of apples and oranges is surreal, to say the least. But for all the religious trappings it’s not an awful game, since it’s essentially a texture swap for id’s classic FPS. Wisdom Tree’s games were definitely marketed to kids, in this case as a clean substitute for a game that was perceived at the time to be a negative influence on children. So really, it’s not for meant for us – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t hilarious to try out anyway.
That said, the game’s historical significance and the general insanity of the retro Nintendo market has led to astronomical prices on eBay for the Super Nintendo version. The PC version can still be purchased from Wisdom Tree directly at their website, but honestly you might as well just pull down your favorite emulator and do it that way.
The War in Heaven
Wow, where to begin. The War in Heaven is by far the least well-known game on this list yet also has the distinction of being the only one designed by a person who is still active in the public eye. The person in question is Theodore Beale, better known now as Vox Day, and he is one half of the one-hit-wonder studio called Eternal Warriors. Beale enters into public record when he worked on some lyrics for the 1990s heavy techno group Psykosonik. A few years later, Beale co-founded a games company called Fenris Wolf, which developed two now-obscure FPS games for GT Interactive. At that point, Beale and the other creator of Fenris Wolf formed Eternal Warriors and secured a retail release for The War in Heaven through budget publisher ValuSoft. Beale went on to author some Christian fantasy books that follow a theme similar to The War in Heaven video game, and now writes as a columnist for WorldNetDaily.com. I’m not sure if he wants to remember The War in Heaven.
Assuming you are foolish enough to either buy or download The War in Heaven somewhere, you’ll have to own an older computer to run it. The game will not work on x64 systems since the installer is 16-bit. It’s possible to get it rolling on an x86 Windows XP computer, although the game suffered from many bugs, hangs, and glitches even after applying the official patches. Once you get it running, you’ll be treated to some pretty amateurish 3D graphics. The marketing materials advertise a “state-of-the-art non-Euclidean portal-based engine”, which is a bit of techno mumbo jumbo to the average person, but even if that’s true then Beale and company didn’t have anywhere near the skills/resources to make use of it, because this sure doesn’t look like Quake III. The screenshots probably speak for themselves.
The basic idea is that Lucifer has just attempted a coup d’etat, and now (wait for it) there’s a… war in heaven! The angels are picking sides, and you can choose to stay with God or to follow Lucifer and become a rebel. It’s an interesting approach to let the player follow a demonic or angelic campaign, and your weapons and enemies change according to your allegiance. The levels are all set in appropriately non-terrestrial realms such as the Outer Courts, Great Assembly, Pearly Gates, and so on. What is interesting is that The War in Heaven gets credit for basically establishing the basic template for the Christian FPS games that would follow – a spiritual setting thick with allegory, demons and Satan as opponents, and various holy weapons that shoot divine projectiles instead of bullets. There are horns that call down light from above, slings that fire holy water, swords, and so on. It’s pretty clever, and enemy forces are banished to their respective planes (heaven/hell) instead of “dying”. That doesn’t really change the fact that the presentation is on par with a high school student project, and the game has more bugs than a family picnic.
To make matters worse, the AI is completely brain dead – often they just sit there, oblivious – and player movement is incredibly slow and imprecise. There’s also nothing really to the game other than hacking up the enemies to clear the level and finding some keys and powerups. Without any graphics to marvel at or fun and challenging gameplay, what’s the point? The War in Heaven still bounces around eBay, Amazon, and Half for a pittance, and if you have an old enough rig then it might be worth… no, actually, it isn’t. Let YouTube be your guide and we’ll just leave it at that.
Saints of Virtue
Of all the games in this rundown, Saints of Virtue is probably the one with the most information available about its development and content. The developers – a trio of ex-industry professionals who named themselves Shine Studios – put out a handful of newsletters on their website that included tidbits about the making of the game. The game was also a minor hit among the proper audiences, even managing to avoid abandonware hell via a downloadable re-release in 2008. And while it is neither the best-selling Christian FPS game (nor the best looking), it can lay claim to some huge (compared to the competition) game worlds and fairly deep levels of symbolism and allegory. Let this set the record straight: though Saints of Virtue has been used as a punching bag by many an internet comedy site and YouTube “Let’s Play”, there is a quality game here.
As mentioned, Shine Studios was a three-man effort composed of Michael Ulrich, Dave Slayback, and Bud Gillian. Slayback worked for Sierra as a systems developer and programmer on Police Quest II and Quest for Glory IV, among other games. Ulrich had been employed at Sculptured Software as an artist and animator and was carried forward into Acclaim when Sculptured was bought out by that company. He is now on the art team at 2K Sports. Bud Gillan was a teacher, and that’s about all we know. Shine Studios had no office or company headquarters – Slayback, Ulrich, and Gillan lived on opposite sides of the country and used remote conferencing to collaborate.
We can assume Slayback and Ulrich’s combined experience were what landed Shine with a publishing agreement through Cactus Game Design – a company which still publishes Christian games of various descriptions. While it had a publisher, Shine was apparently lacking on capital. When they began development on Saints of Virtue in late 1997, the only polygonal engines for license were out of their price range (id Tech and Unreal), and they had no time to develop a new one from scratch. Instead they chose to go with a basic 3D engine that offered cheap licenses and royalty-free publishing agreements. The engine was ACKNEX-3 (now known as 3D Gamestudio, currently in the 8th iteration), and offered a tech level somewhere between Doom and the original Quake.
The development cycle wrapped in 12 months, and Saints of Virtue hit bookstores and online retailers in December of 1999 – running on an engine from 1997 that used tech from 1995. That said, Ulrich’s art direction saved Saints of Virtue from what could have been a disaster on par with The War in Heaven. Instead of ungainly low-poly models and garish textures, Saints of Virtue uses 2D sprites for all of the enemies and objects in the game (much like Doom), yet still retains 3D geometry for the game world itself. Unfortunately there are no control mapping features and the mouselook feels all wrong. You’ll be playing this with arrow keys, and God help you if you’re using a laptop without a numpad. As a result even walking and jumping – much less combat – can be a chore.
The storyline concerns a young Christian’s internal struggle and the game itself takes place in the “Kingdom of the Heart”, a sort of nightmare world thick with allegory. There are four levels, each representing some sort of worldview – The Amphitheater of Apathy, the Labyrinths of Legalism, the New Age Nirvana, etcetera. There are no bosses and few scripted events; most of the game involved battling enemies and solving various puzzles. The enemies are Masks of Humanity – various vices represented abstractly as floating heads: Guilt, Fear, Vanity, Arrogance, and so on. As in The War in Heaven, you’re armed with the Sword of the Spirit, except that here the sword shoots projectiles. So it’s your basic shooter, except that it’s so hard to aim and move at the same time that most fights are just toe-to-toe drag out fights between you and a roaring Mask.
The rest of the gameplay involves a lot of really cryptic puzzle solving involving inventory items and in-game traps. You might have to platform your way across moving tiles or work your way through a maze with rotating rooms, using rocks to mark your path. Each of the four levels requires you to collect X amount of some sort of item in order to open the portal to the next level, and you can generally collect these items in the main level’s multiple sublevels. This involves a lot of backtracking, e.g. the Rusty Key found in the Media Maze goes to a door on the second floor of the Mall of Distractions… Luckily the enemies stay dead so you don’t have to wade through them again. Also helpful is the developer tip guide, which contains everything you need to know to get through the game.
It would be worthwhile to note here that the game – and this is a trait that our games from here on out will share – has a fairly dark feel. Most of the landscapes are blasted wastelands and the enemies themselves have a sort of torture-horror vibe (shackles, cracking skin). There are no NPCs or cutscenes, just miles of surreal corridors and wide-open spaces and grunting, groaning Masks. The interstitial music are hair-metal tracks by a Christian group called New Jerusalem, but the actual game music is all moaning, creaking, minimalistic ambience that can get to you after a while. Much of the time the only sounds are the slap of your own boots on baked earth. The Kingdom of the Heart is a fairly depressing place.
The game is still for sale from the Shine’s website as a downloadable .EXE, with absolutely no DRM, for $9.99. One caveat: although you can get it to run on Windows 7 x64 and other modern Windows systems in Windowed mode, there are a few framerate-dependent glitches. If your framerate exceeds 60FPS, your jump height will be four or five times higher than it should be, and the second weapon you acquire will fire far too slowly. Use an FPS limiter to bypass this issue.
Shine Studios was working on another Christian game, albeit not a sequel to Saints of Virtue, when they folded. No other information is available on it, and it seems to have never gotten past the initial concept stage.
Catechumen & Ominous Horizons
N’Lightning Software Development holds the honor of being the most enduring developer of Christian FPS games by virtue of having published two of them. They are similar enough to be looked at together as a single unit. What’s nice about these is that they are more modern than the others in our list – they support high resolutions and have conventional mouselook controls and full keybind features.
Modern performance came at a price: both games run on the open-source Genesis3D engine, using the $10,000 closed-source license for commercial releases. All told, N’Lightning spent $830,000 on development of Catechumen and 1.6 million on Ominous Horizons, by far the highest budgets of any Christian games according to known data. Unlike Shine Studios, N’Lightning also had a full team of developers. The secret “Hall of Fame” level in Catechumen (unlocked by beating the game on Impossible) reveals the development team to have been about two dozen strong. In return for this investment, Catechumen sold somewhere more than 80,000 copies and Ominous Horizons was pushing past 50,000 at the last known report. Apparently those sales weren’t enough. N’Lightning’s website is now defunct and the company is disbanded.
Company founder Ralph Bagley said in an interview that the company’s first game, Catechumen, had been turned down by investors repeatedly until the Columbine shootings of 1999. In the aftermath of the massacre, violent video games were presented by some as contributing influences for Harris and Klebold’s rampage. In that climate, a religious shooter advertising a no-gore alternative to Quake and Half-Life seemed like a better investment, and N’Lightning found its funding. Catechumen and Ominous Horizons both took the market head-on, releasing in retail channels through Babbage and Software-Etc in addition to Christian catalogs and bookstores.
Catechumen tells the story of early first-century AD Christians in Rome. Your mentor (perhaps an apostle, although he is never explicitly named) is thrown into prison along with many of your Christian brethren. It seems that Satan and his demons are working behind the scenes of the Roman Empire; creatures from hell roam the catacombs and underworld of Rome and some have even possessed the Roman garrisons. Your mentor sends out a plea for help, and your journey begins. Again, your arsenal in Catechumen centers on swords and holy weapons. In addition to the default pea-shooter, there are rapid-fire swords, drill guns, lightning guns, grenade launchers, chain guns, and BFGs.
Your enemies are various demons and hellish underlings, in addition to the possessed Roman soldiers. The soldiers are actually quite dangerous, since it’s an instant game over if two of them grab on to you at the same time. “Killing” them with your holy weapons causes them to drop to one knee and begin to pray amidst shining light and Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. In general Catechumen centers on the combat – there are few key and button puzzles here and there, but nothing like the maddeningly brain-twisting ones from Saints of Virtue. And that’s not bad – the combat is fast paced and difficult; the demons are constantly ducking and dodging from your fire and you in turn are encouraged to keep moving and have good aim. Enemies have varied attacks and are usually devastating up-close. It gets somewhat repetitious, but Catechumen keeps throwing in new enemies and weapons often enough to stay fresh.
Ominous Horizons again casts you as a follower, this time as Johannes Gutenberg’s assistant. If you remember this from grade school, Gutenberg was the inventor of the first Western printing press and the learning revolution that his press initiated is considered the most important moment of the modern era. Well, the first thing he published was the Gutenberg Bible, and in Ominous Horizons the master copy for the Bible has been stolen by one of Satan’s Lieutenants, and Gutenberg’s faith in God is shattered. It’s up to you to travel the world to find the pieces of the printing master and prevent the fall of Western civilization before it has a chance to flourish. You aren’t armed with as many weapons this time – just an upgradeable Sword of the Spirit, a crossbow, and Moses’ Staff. Each weapon has multiple firing modes so the variety is still there – it’s just put into the ammunition instead of the weapons themselves.
Ominous Horizons has a different tone from Catechumen; there are many NPCs throughout the levels and the combat is a slower pace. The graphics are also (bizarrely) a major downgrade, partially due to the preference for outdoor scenes and nature instead of winding catacombs and sewers. What’s upgraded from Catechumen is that the locations are much more varied: you can travel from the Great Sphinx in Egypt to the Stonehenge to Mesa Verde in the United States. Each level has a few scripted events, and at each location you can find pieces of armor that change your abilities (super jump, faster firing, etc). The enemies vary to keep in theme with the level, so in general there’s more to see and do than in Catechumen.
Catechumen and Ominous Horizons take a cue from Saints of Virtue and sport eerie, borderline horrific environments. They use a constant moaning ambience and Genesis3D’s extensive colored lighting support give a sort of ‘hell on earth’ feel. Most of the enemies are demon-possessed or just straight up demonic, so it might be that the games aren’t as far removed from Quake as Bagley had hoped. Still, with no gore or blood to speak of they’re still pretty tame by any standard. Catechumen and Ominous Horizons have never been glitch-free but they can be made to run on modern Windows 7 x64 systems with a little prodding. Since the N’Lightning site is seemingly gone, the patches for both games are including here for the curious.
Eternal War: Shadows of Light
Eternal War is another micro-budget FPS from a group of just a few developers, more in line with Saints of Virtue than N’Lightning’s “big-budget” productions. This is probably pretty obvious given the studio’s name: Two Guys Software. The guys in question are brothers Mackenzie and Patrick Ponech. They began work on a “3D action game with RPG elements” called Revelation, using the Genesis3D engine favored by N’Lightning, but that project fell through. Instead of throwing in the towel, the brothers began afresh on a Christian FPS game, aiming for a “dark, ultra-violent” tone and a heavy emphasis on multiplayer.
The plot is similar to Saints of Virtue in that it takes place inside a person’s soul. You play as an angel named Mike (apparently a reference the Archangel Michael), and the soul in question is that of a tortured, suicidal teen named John Coronado. As in Saints of Virtue, the soul isn’t a very friendly place, as various demonic breeds have set up strongholds all over the place. Your job is to dispense all Satanic forces with extreme prejudice and save John’s eternal soul. The story is presented with simple Photoshopped BMP images at the start of the game and end – no cutscenes or interstitials of any kind, making the game feel something akin to a student project.
Similarly barely disguised are the churning machinations of the id Tech 1 core powering the game. Eternal War uses the Telejano branch of the Quake engine and is actually considered by the Quake community to be a commercial mod of that famous shooter. It’s hard to disagree, since Eternal War sports console commands, text notifications when you pick up ammo or weapons, powerup-triggered enemy closets, and post-level camera pans. On the plus side, this means the game supports full keybinding, a healthy array of options, and runs on modern systems without any noticeable issues. A forum conversation appears to indicate that Tomaz (of TomazQuake fame) did some uncredited work on the engine, and apparently some of the art assets in Eternal War are taken with permission from another Quake total conversion called Dawn of Darkness.
As mentioned earlier, Two Guys Software was going for edgy atmosphere and solid multiplayer support, two firsts for the subgenre. As in Quake, the enemies are loud, fast, and relentless, spawning from all sides and crashing in on the player with various melee and projectile attacks. Some teleport, some vanish, and others just chase you around, but much circle-strafing and sidestepping is encouraged regardless. Heavy metal blasts from the get-go, and Mike quips and taunts when he gets the kills. With regards to weapons, you start out with a crossbow but gain access to various angelic powers such as ‘Smite’ and ‘Trinity Blast’ as you go. It’s about what you’d expect. Ammo for better weapons is often hidden in secret areas, so keep shooting the walls. The multiplayer side isn’t testable at this point but appears to have been well received by all accounts – as well it should be, considering the Quake pedigree.
Eternal War only saw a physical release in only one or two local Christian bookstores and sold most of its copies through online retailers. In 2005, Two Guys Software became XRUCIFIX LLC and put out Eternal War: Shadows of Light as a free download, subsequently instructing retailers to destroy all remaining copies of Eternal War. As such, finding an actual copy of the game is essentially impossible, and it’s unknown how many copies even survive. But there’s always the free download, so trying the game out is just a matter of downloading the 65MB installer.
Since 2007, XRUCIFIX has apparently been working on a remake of Eternal War that drops the subtitle and is targeting a $15 downloadable PC and XBLA release.
It would be difficult to argue that any of these games were successes. N’Lightning probably made the most headway with Catechumen and Ominous Horizons, but it wasn’t enough to keep the development house viable. It isn’t unreasonable to guess that even most of the readers of a site like Hardcoregaming101 – definitely a bastion of all things arcane and forgotten in gaming, (plug plug) – probably haven’t heard of more than one of the games in the article, if that. So why did these games fail to make a big splash? Let’s take a look at some of the contributing factors.
Traditional distribution on a budget.
All of the games in our list were released primarily as physical SKUs pushed through to whatever retail channels would carry them – mostly Christian bookstores and a few gaming boutiques. The problem is that the games didn’t have the budget, the development teams, or the time needed to match the secular games bookending them on the store shelf. Three people does not a game company make if you’re going up against Valve (Half-Life) and Epic (Unreal), and 800 grand doesn’t go very far against five million dollar budgets. You definitely can’t do it in a year. These games were basically DOA because they just didn’t have the resources to hack it in an extremely competitive market.
Missed the Indie Renaissance.
Today there are numerous ways to distribute your game digitally and most potential customers have the broadband connections needed to take advantage of that. Most of these companies could have benefited by cutting out a publisher and middlemen from their profit equations and slashing the price of their games down to $15-$20 instead of $40+. Marketing by word-of-mouth online is also a more viable strategy today than a decade ago. Finally, there are far more development tools to choose from today and more widespread support. An indie developer can choose from several open-source development engines like Unity, Shiva, and Leadwerks.
Played it too safe.
When you get right down to it, these games have been very cookie-cutter. There are minimal scripted events, no bosses usually, and no cut scenes: just an array of weapons, an array of enemies, and some locks and doors. Saints of Virtue broke out with some unique puzzling but was hamstrung in other ways. From a design perspective, these developers might have considered looking for a gameplay hook to make their games unique since they didn’t really hold a candle to mainstream games in production value. A FPS involving angels might have Tribes-style vertical mobility, or the ability to switch back and forth between Hellish and Heavenly versions of a level as in Zelda.
Tried to cater to everyone.
Your typical FPS gamer has little interest in a game that has none of the hallmarks of the genre, especially no blood and gore effects. Just look around at some of the other internet coverage for these games, such as the SomethingAwful reviews – they mostly ridicule the games’ spiritual symbolism and religious allegory. It’s unclear how viable video games are as tool for evangelistic outreach, but heavy-handed spiritual warfare overtones probably aren’t the best approach. These games needed to either completely ignore evangelism and focus on making a game that would sell in exclusively Christian channels or do away with the obviously religious trappings that served as such a turn off to the secular market.
A remake of Eternal War is in the books, but with no Christian FPS games released for 9 years, it remains to be seen if any new developers will want to take a shot at the subgenre. Past attempts have been commercially unsuccessful, though interesting to fans of gaming lore. And until there are new entries to be added to this article, these titles continue linger as quirky reminders of just how far good intentions can get you in the gaming industry.