Saints of Virtue

2022 Update: The 1.0.0 version of SaintsX has been released. Check out the website and download the patch here.

It’s the quiet end of a working day, and I just Googled “Saints of Virtue".

Yes, that Saints of Virtue. The Christian first-person shooter from 1999 that is sometimes mocked, sometimes derided, but mostly forgotten. I haven’t played the game all the way through in years, yet here I am running a search and scrolling through the results. I’m looking for something new: a tweet, a post, a comment.

Proof that, against all odds, I’m not the only one hung up on Saints.

Nostalgia and Preoccupation

Most people can point to something from their childhood that persists beyond the reasonable limits of nostalgia.

For me, Saints is one of those dogged pursuers. It vies for mindshare with a variety of childhood influences: Myst, old Toonami promos, laser tag, and Symphony No. 9 “From the New World”. Just as a creaking tape deck recalls Dvořák or the scent of dirt under the summer sun reminds me of laser tag, Saints has its own triggers.

A desk lamp’s glow might take me back to hours spent playing the game on our old Windows ME computer. The same goes for the cool of early April, reminiscent of how I struggled through Saints and shivered in the wash of the attic fan that cooled the house in spring.

But the desk lamp, the crisp evening – those are the one-to-many relationships of nostalgia. They conjur other memories, like sketching Gundams next to an open window or watching a distant traffic light before I slept.

Saints is more than just one of these nostalgic images. I think of it too often, for too many reasons.

My old Wing Zero sketches and the traffic light are like bizarre relics that wash up on the beach after a storm. Saints is the wreckage in the shallows that the tide exposes daily. It rises from the receding surf and bids me to come and sit for a while among the wasted timber. So I sit, and wait, but no fellow travelers ever join me. Eventually I trudge back up to the dry sand…

…until the next tide.

My preoccupation with Saints is more than nostalgia, then, but why?

It’s more difficult to answer that question than it used to be. I’ve played hundreds of games since my first experience with Saints in 2000, and the layers of disillusionment have built like scars on top of scars. When I look at Saints now, I see simple geometry, low resolution, crude sprites.

It helps if I rewind the years and relive that feeling of awe…

A Madman’s Footprints

The package from CBD arrived in the late afternoon. I rescued Saints of Virtue from its cellophane and pored over the box, the jewel case, and the manual. The ride to pick Dad up from the office is a blur, as is the excruciating wait through dinner before he installed the game on the family computer.

First the opening cutscene, the company logos and the main menu (anthem by New Jerusalem). An interminable loading screen followed… And then we were in. Realm One: The Amphitheatre of Apathy.

My sister and I took turns until bedtime. I went to sleep a changed boy – a little carsick, but captivated by what I had seen.

Other kids cut their teeth on Doom, Duke Nukem 3D, and Quake. I’d never played a first-person shooter before that day. In fact, I’d barely played any games other my parents’ old Intellivision and a few edutainment titles. A diet of Math Blaster and Mavis Beacon had left me primed for amazement.

The downside is that Saints is so obscure that it’s impossible to share the experience with anyone.

And I use ‘obscure’ in its fullest sense, not in the way that, say, Myst is obscure. Sure, go to NeoGAF or Reddit and you’ll find many who have never heard of Myst. But broaden your scope to the internet as a whole and you’ll find that it’s the subject of wikis, forums, remakes, even a yearly con in Spokane. That’s not obscure.

Saints of Virtue is obscure. Google it yourself and you’ll agree.

The front page gives you the old SomethingAwful invective from 2003, the Amazon listing, the Wikipedia entry, a few auto-generated pages. Dig deeper and you’ll find some curios, like the guy who builds levels from the game in Sketchup or German enthusiasts who enjoy hacking the game engine that powers Saints.

These days, the search mostly just turns up my own articles and blog posts. Who knew an interest existed that was so niche even the internet didn’t care? The same internet that has a subreddit or message board dedicated to every topic under the sun! It’s like strolling down to the wreckage in the shallows, only to find my own footprints already tracing madman patterns all around.

But I think this article is my last set of tracks in the sand.

The shuttering of the (admittedly long-dormant) Saints of Virtue website seems an appropriate time to put my preoccupation to rest. Before I do – before another fifteen years pass and that preoccupation has faded into rote nostalgia – I want to try to justify my Googling.

To put it plainly: Saints of Virtue doesn’t get enough credit.

Three Subtones

I don’t expect anyone to believe that the redeeming value of Saints lies in raw mechanics. Long before 1999, companies like id Software and 3D Realms were crafting first-person shooters with controls, enemy AI, sound, and graphics that put Saints to shame. Saints even lacks accoutrements like binding options and command consoles that were already standard to the genre when it released.[1]

What Saints nailed was the tone.

It’s the tone that captivated me – not on the first night, but over the following weeks and months. What few reviews of Saints exist hint at this tone by calling the game “eerie” or “creepy”, but there’s more to it than mere scares. At least three subtones combine to sound this unique overall tone: minimalism, surrealism, and isolation.

Tone One: Minimalism

That minimalism can be effective in games is logical enough. Reducing the overall dynamic range of stimuli amplifies any exceptions to the rule. This principle is one reason why the rare moments of activity in the Myst series are so thrilling, even though when taken out of context the content of the activity itself is underwhelming. (When is a monkish man’s monologue exciting? After twenty hours wandering a deserted island!)

This excitement isn’t counterfeit. It’s just amplified by contrast. Saints employs this principle to great effect in its visual, sound, and mechanical design.


The visual composition of Saints is almost crude. Low-poly geometry, tiled textures, repeating palettes.

Take the first realm, the Amphitheatre of Apathy. We begin in the Amphitheatre (dark) and move into the Caves of Loneliness (dark, gray). From there, we noodle over to the Pits of Despair (dark, brown and gray). Back to the Caves (dark, etc.), where we wind through a pitch-black maze and fall down a pit near the center…

But instead of killing us, the fall dumps us into an expansive plain. A brilliant blue sky stretches over the cracked earth. We squint at the sunlight.

Later on, we might spend thirty minutes or more lost in the Mall of Distractions. It’s a difficult area, with multiple key-lock pairs secreted amid indistinguishable hallways. Every path leads to three more, each populated by clone trashcans, fountains, and boutique windows.

Suddenly we stumble into a quiet dead-end hallway with windows in the outer wall. Windows? Yes, windows, overlooking a muddy river and distant green hills. Never has such a pixelated vista been so arresting.

The theme continues in the Media Maze, where strobe tunnels and psychedelic walls pop with color after all the stone and brick that came before.

These moments – bursts of activity on an EKG that lingers dangerously close to flatlining – have more punch because of the surrounding context of restraint.


Audio design in Saints works on the same idea.

Hacking the game’s secured asset packages will yield exactly two hundred .WAV files – the game’s entire audio library. The longest file is just thirty-seven seconds. The majority run less than ten seconds. At the risk of stating the obvious: you’ll become well acquainted with these sounds. The music is built with short ambient loops and the sound effects are repetitive. (One sound per weapon, a limited range of sounds for enemies, etc.)

The side effect of this is that what punctuations exist become much more noticeable. You pay close attention when the droning ambience gives way suddenly to cuts from New Jerusalem. It’s an aural exclamation point when the old chorus of clicks, groans, and sci-fi foley is broken by a sudden crystalline glissando of chimes.

Is there anything technically special about these ‘special’ sounds? Not really. They’re the same eight-bit, low sample-rate .WAV files. It’s the minimalism of the surrounding context that helps them stand out in stark contrast.


Minimalism is a delicate balance – it can bore the player as easily as it can prime the player for surprises. Saints strays too far into boredom when it comes to mechanics (enemies, powerups, weapons), but some of the surprises are effective enough to merit a mention here.

We encounter just two Masks in the first realm: Vanity and Worldiness. The second realm introduces Fear and Justification, but their AI and patterns are mere variations. At last in the third realm Saints unleashes Self-Glorification, an enemy that releases a smaller enemy called the Golden Guru – small, agile, and lethal. The concept is basic enough, but the first enounter is surprisingly effective.

The first hours of gameplay restrict the player to the default Sword. Wielding just one weapon against hundreds of enemies ingrains the minutia of kill times, firing pace, and ammo burn rate. It also sets the stage for several eureka! moments later in the game: a rapid-fire modification for the Sword, an upgraded Sword called the Sword Blaster[2], and the devastating Sword Launcher.

The powerups follow the same pattern set by enemies and weapons. The vast majority of objects are the same three items – health, ammo, shields. After running over hundreds of purple shields, the simple sight of a blue shield is a sudden high note. That the powerup doubles the player’s health is almost a secondary concern.

The point is not to vilify bombastic variety. Some of the most enjoyable (and successful!) games assault the player with a huge range of experiences and stimuli. The point is that minimalism, the exact opposite of bombastic dynamism, can be interesting as well. The tepid middle ground lies between the two extremes, and Saints lands well clear of that territory.

The downside is that minimalism is harder to appreciate. It requires an open mind and a bigger time investment than just watching a Let’s Play on YouTube.

Tone Two: Surrealism

Visual surrealism abounds in Saints – a pendulum mounted in thin air, dancing speakers and drum kits, a monolithic bust that turns to follow you wherever you go. But these are shallow sight gags. Surrealism of the spatial kind is far more powerful, with true capability to disorient. It’s this kind of surrealism that forms the second subtone.

The aforementioned Lonely Plain is also a surrealistic space – razor flat, stretching out beneath an open sky. The high walls that circle it are unusual, but the way the Plain is accessed by falling down a pit in the middle of the Caves of Loneliness (already far underground) is truly surreal. Even stranger is that the path back up to the Caves is another pit. Falling down a second time somehow returns you to where you began.

Two wrongs still don’t make a right, but two downs make an…up? It’s a subtle spacial paradox, but it hints to the player that the world of Saints is not a wholly rational one.

Things get stranger in the second realm, the Labyrinths of Legalism. An early area is the Twisty Maze – another lattice of tunnels made from stone and earth. Or are they? The appearance of one-way walls tip logic on its ear and leave the player wrestling with a disparity between reality and the minimap.

The Twisty Maze feeds into the more outrageous Turnstile Maze. Here entire rooms rotate at breakneck speed, and some exits are red herrings that seamlessly teleport the player to earlier rooms. (It’s quite a shock when you realize you’ve been repeatedly walking through the same fake exit for five minutes!)

Two more surrealist gems in the Labyrinths – the Trap Room and the Abstract Maze. Neither makes any attempt at faking utility or practical use. The Trap Room is an underground vault with a host of Indiana Jones traps and illusions. The Abstract Maze, with its dizzying grid of two-tone ramps and walkways that lead nowhere, is just a maze on top of a second maze built into the floor, far below.

In both the Trap Room and the Abstract Maze, the exits are visible from the entry point. A blob of grey framed by four red lights, or a flat black rectangle in a flat-lit wall. Both are so close, yet they feel as impossibly distant as a dream does by mid-morning.

The third realm, the New Age Nirvana, serves up a mind-numbing Hedge Maze. Repeating grass textures offer no visual signposts and the minimap is disabled entirely. An initial exploration dumps the player back at the starting gate. Same for the second try, and the third, and the fourth… Eventually the player must either realize there is no exit or give up entirely. Just like that, the pattern of entrance-exit set by all the previous mazes is broken.

This isn’t poor design, either. These spaces are meant to disorient, not to reward learning. If the Hedge Maze breaks the rules, it does so in order to disorient the player a little more, to pushing the spatial unease a little harder.

The fourth realm, the Domain of the Heart, breaks the rules again for the final puzzle. Here the player is faced with an inscrutable riddle – a proverbial door with no keyhole – and the solution ends up being a new application of an old mechanic. It’s anticlimactic. It’s victory (almost) without firing a shot. It leaves a weird taste in your mouth.

But that was apparently the point.

Tone Three: Isolation

Minimalism and surrealism are fragile spells. They take time to weave and are easily shattered by distractions and interruptions. This is especially true of the slow-burn minimalism and surrealism found in Saints. There’s not a chance a player would succumb if the game was offering constant distractions in the form of multiplayer, crafting systems, lore books, or collectibles.

Saints offers none of these lures. Instead, it uses isolation as a prison inside which minimalism and surrealism have the time to fully mature and seep into the player. This isolation gives the other two subtones room to breathe, and therefore isolation becomes the key ingredient to the entire overall tone of the game.

But isolation is not a positive action a game takes. Rather, it is an absence of the things we’ve come to expect. It’s an absence of NPCs and the associated trappings of cutscenes, dialogue, and narrative. It’s an absence of freedom and open borders, the claustrophobia of a hedge hemming the world in on every side. It’s also loneliness.

And Saints is an exercise in loneliness.

Not a single ally aids you in the Domain of the Heart. Nothing balances the scales against the Masks, traps, pits, and snares. There’s not even signs of others having come before you, as with the mutilated space marines in Doom. The Domain of the Heart is your personal prison, and you must voyage through it alone.

Prayer altars offer the only refuge. These silent edifices, dotted sparingly about the worlds and often entombed in rock, provide a space for the player to pray for wisdom and recover strength. But even these oases are lonely, silent, and blank.

The isolation builds as you play. Often the only sound is your footsteps, loud on tile and muffled on carpet and scratchy on dirt. You pass through caves, through food courts and gallerias, through expo rooms and exhibits, through mazes and shrines and temples and dancefloors and wastes and junkyards. The only human form you’ll encounter through all this is your own reflection in a hand mirror.

Isolation is not a catalyst for only minimalism and surrealism, either. It is an accelerant for fear.

Or, perhaps, something more complex than fear. A conflict between two desires? One is the desire for release from isolation, even if that means combat with Masks. The other desire is for the safety that in a game with no allies can only be found in isolation. Do I stay in this room, terrifying because it is so empty, or do I venture to the next room where enemies surely lurk?

In other words, is it better to be hunted or to be alone?

Brilliance from Constraint

A minimalist aesthetic, a surrealist world, and an exhausting isolation. These three subtones combine to form a powerful impression. To what degree was this combination intentional? Was it a happy accident or the product of careful planning? Only Slayback, Ulrich, and Gillian know with certainty.

That said, there is good reason to believe this tone was by design. To understand why, we must first investigate three weaknesses and limitations inherent to the Saints development process. What follows is culled from the old “Saints Scoop” e-newsletters as well as the handful of interviews that Slayback conducted with Christian game sites.

First: the development team was distributed, not co-located. Shine Studios didn’t have a physical headquarters. It was Slayback, Ulrich, and Gillian collaborating from their houses on opposite sides of the United States – California, Florida, and Idaho.

This, in a pre-broadband era!

It’s hard enough to collaborate on complex software when armed with today’s conveniences. The developer in me can’t imagine how they did it circa–1997, but I can think of a few obstacles they must have faced. The most crippling would be source and asset control. Sending small files over dialup is tedious enough, and sending huge .ZIPs is intolerable. So keeping the game’s disk footprint to a minimum would have been of absolute importance.

The second limiting factor is the size of the development team itself. Ulrich handled art, and Slayback wrote the code. (Gillian was a theology consultant.) With only two people and a huge world to build, you start looking for ways to cut down to bare essentials. Publisher deadlines only intensify the need.

We know that Shine had to cut entire areas, such as an island and a hub world and a prison. It isn’t outrageous to assume that geometry wasn’t the only thing excised.

The third limitation is purely technical. Saints was built on the ACKNEX–3 (or A3) graphics engine and toolkit, an early iteration in a line of German-made, budget 3D engines that exists today. A3 was not state-of-the-art on release, much less by the time Shine put the finishing touches on Saints. Since I’ve already written on this subject, I’ll just quote myself instead of rehashing the same content:

When [Shine Studios] 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.

The game’s minimalism makes perfect sense in light of this information. A3’s strict texture memory budget forced the use of tiling and low-resolution texture maps. Same for sound – A3 didn’t support on-the-fly decompression, which means .WAV files, which means large sound effects and music files, which means a team distributed across the pre-broadband United States starts looking at ways to use short loops and low-bitrate sounds!

So we have three factors: a remote development team, only two guys cranking out code and assets, and an out-of-date game engine. Shine’s genius was to take these weaknesses and use the tone of the game to turn them into strengths.

Not enough resources to deliver complex geometry and impressive visuals? Minimalism. Internet too slow to transfer long, uncompressed files? Audio loops. Engine a strange hybrid of 2D sprites and 3D geometry? Take that dissonance and run with it by building out a host of surreal situations.

Pin it all together with a sedate pace and relentless isolation.

Now, could Slayback, Ulrich, and Gillian have stumbled across the tone of Saints by accident? Possibly. But fairly strong connections do seem to exist between the nature of these obstacles and the strengths of the game they ultimately produced.

It would be fascinating to talk to these guys and find out if the distinct Saints tone is serendipitous or artificial. Either way, they could share some fascinating object lessons in game design.

It’s just a shame they never got the chance to make the “spiritual sequel” they mentioned in one of their final newsletters.

Signing Off

All this isn’t to say that Saints is the greatest game of all time.

It has its flaws, and they’re the kind of flaws that are easy to ridicule – especially for those who already take issue with the Christian allegory. But the back of the box pitched a world of “thought provoking environments, strange structures”, and the site promised intriguing imagery. Say what you will about the game’s obvious shortcomings, but it made good on these points.

It fashions a consistent tone of abstract melancholy, of eternal imprisonment in the meandering corridors of a bizarre world.

And these guys knew what they had.

David Slayback had led development teams on multiple well-known projects at Sierra – adventure games, MMOs. Michael Ulrich had freelanced for everyone from EA to Konami, had cranking out art and graphics for every console and PC platform under the sun. Together, their experience and skill turned technical disadvantages into stylistic strength.

More than that, they had the confidence to let their game breathe. To slow down the pace so the unsettling tone they’d sounded could stick inside the player’s head.

The result is a game that is as unique as it is misunderstood.

I know, I could be wrong. It could be that, in the end, Saints of Virtue is just a shoddy FPS that deserves to be forgotten. After all – I’m the only one banging this drum and carrying this torch. Where are the others, hammering away at thousands of words on their blogs? What are the odds I’m the only one who perceives some underrated genius, that I was the only one impacted by the power of some eerie ‘tone’?

The thing is, I’m not entirely alone. There are others out there who played Saints of Virtue and appreciated it. I’ve seen the evidence – their footsteps in the wet sand. Sure, the tracks circle the edges of weird, out of the way places on the internet. But they’re there. In off-hand comments on unrelated topics, and in between the lines of forum posts that dwell mostly on the ‘creepiness’ of ‘that Christian shooter’ they barely remember from their childhood.

But even if I am alone, even if I am the Number One Fan out of a crowd of one, that’s okay.

I try my hand at creative efforts often enough, and I’ve thought before that if something I created could impact one person – just one person! – in the same way that Saints impacted me, I’d be happy. In the end, that’s the real reason I felt compelled to write this piece.

If I had worked on this game, I would be pleased to know that fifteen years later someone was still out there, thinking about it. Still preoccupied by it, and for reasons more valid than blind nostalgia.

So. There you go.

Having said my piece, having finally written down the reasons why Saints has stuck with me all these years… I think I’m done. Done playing it, done scrawling little short stories about it in childish longhand, done making fansites that never made it beyond Microsoft Publisher. Done hacking the game files, done reading the comments in the code. Done writing articles.

Done Googling.

See also