So it appears there's to be another Left Behind game. Despite the best efforts of an apparent misinformation campaign that set out to destroy the first of the Christian RTS series, they have risen like Lazarus and are back with... What, you've never heard of the Left Behind game? That might have something to do with the information campaign that observed how absolutely astonishingly awful the first one was. But you can't keep angry multi-millionaires down, and Left Behind: Tribulation Forces is announced for the masses this Christmas. Announced in one of the most incredible press releases I've ever seen. Read on.
I tend to think the notion of Rapture is quite an appealing one. All at once all the loony fundamentalist Christians in the world would disappear, forever. ("You'd never say that about Muslims!" It would be nice if all the loony fundamentalist Muslims went with them.) Anyway, it's this daft Rapture idea that forms the core of the multi-billion dollar Left Behind business, that began with a set of books.
Declaration of interests: I'm a Christian. Church-going, Jesus-loving, God-botherer. And yet somehow, at the same time, I've managed to keep a grip on my critical faculties. So when someone makes a "Christian" version of something, I don't immediately declare it a bonus chapter to the Bible and build it a shrine. I also promise I'm not part of a malevolent campaign paid to badmouth the Left Behind games, spreading lies and misinformation about them into the evil liberal media. (I was, however, paid by PC Gamer to write about the first game, and reported how utterly bloody terrible it is, and you can read the result here.) Why would I suggest such a strange thing? From today's press release for Tribulation Forces:
"Public Relations Director, Tammy La Barbera, says, 'The original game ‘Eternal Forces’ became one of the most highly publicized games of 2006, as politically motivated groups launched an all-out war against the game, by making false claims that the game included conversion to Christianity as a requirement or gave points for killing Muslims. The media frenzy resulted in feature stories on ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX NEWS, MSNBC, CNN, BBC, and numerous other worldwide networks and in print in the San Jose Chronicle, Newsweek, Wired and many others. After more than two years and a third-party investigation, it was determined that the Tides Center, a taxpayer supported non-profit, and others, launched and paid for a campaign to smear the game and Company, which may have resulted in a $200 million loss in shareholder value as the stock plummeted as a result of their misinformation campaign. Left Behind Games is a publicly traded company.'"
There are no links to any examples of this worldwide misinformation, and we've approached the Tides Center for a comment regarding the accusations. From our research many of the original accusations that were made at the time have since been removed, however a recurring theme in detractors' statements was that the game promoted violence against non-Christians. There's an example here on Game Politics. This is certainly untrue, and it was this theme that created the media frenzy. The reality is the game's propaganda is more insidious, but in no way does it ever suggest that non-believers should be killed. While we've no way of knowing who was behind the spreading of this information, it's certainly the case that there was a great deal of press reporting these false claims.
I've found what appears to be the only BBC article on the subject. The article reports the (sometimes inaccurate) accusations made against the game by various other Christian groups, and then gives a lengthy right of reply to Left Behind Games co-found Jeffrey S Frichner, putting this right, in which he makes some odd statements. One being:
"The game itself is just a great game. People of other faiths could play it and not know it's Christian. [The game evangelises] but it is doing it in a way which is very respectful, not Bible-thumping."
Well, aside from that it's anything but a great game - it's really quite impressively badly made - you have to wonder at a game that a player might not realise is Christian, but at the same time is attempting to evangelise. You'd imagine it wasn't doing a very good job at one of those tasks. However, it's utter nonsense to pretend for a second that there's some sort of ambiguity as to its messages. Between levels you're given screens full of text espousing fundamentalist viewpoints, implying evolution is a myth, or stating why the Bible is authentic, while it plays Christian pop at you. Well, take a look for yourself: evolution denounced, and archaeological evidence. ("Let this encouragement move you to dust off your Bible and dig into the evidence for yourself!" - Nope, no way to infer that this is Christian at all!)
So what is the reality of the games? Well, it's true that you can kill people. However, to do so loses you morality, and lose it all and you lose the game. The suggestion apparently made during its original release that you were slaughtering unbelievers were wholly untrue. There's definitely a moral consequence to harmful behaviour, and murder is condemned. However, regarding the claim that there's no converting - I can't see how this could possibly be argued. The core point of the game is to recruit believers to your army. You either win people over to your side, or you don't. You convince them to join you by playing music at them, by evangelising to them. Once they're with you, you need to have them pray regularly or they go back to their sinful ways. Just how exactly can the claim be made that this is not conversion? And brilliantly - by far my favourite thing about the game - if you have your troops spend too long in the vicinity of heathens playing their rock music, they lose their faiths too. Convert them and they'll shed their black gothic clothing and put on a nice pullover instead!
It's a deeply sexist game. Only men can be trained to be Builders and Disciples, while only women can become Nurses. Also very strange is the game's decision to refer to male converts as "Friends" and female converts as "Women Friends". It's an unsettling misogynistic streak, and is clearly very deliberate.
The inclusion of in-game advertising is another odd ingredient. These aren't the plugs for megachurches or Christian literature you might expect, but billboards for Gamestop and EB Games, and other corporations who sell the games the Left Behind people are so publically upset about. It's hard not to read this accepting of the secular buck as a hypocrisy.
Also, rather brilliantly, if you play in multiplayer you can control the Antichrist's forces and attack and kill the Christians, which does seem to ever-so-slightly go against the game's purported intent to provide a non-violent gaming experience for all the family.
It's important to recognise that Left Behind: Eternal Forces is a dreadful game separately from any of its religious themes. Strip out the Christian fundamentalism and you're left with an embarrassingly poor, extremely buggy RTS, in an engine that's comically awful. It's Metascore is 38 (even IGN US gave it below 6!), and the majority of these reviews say the same thing: ignore the Christian message, it's a bad game anyway. No conspiracy, no agenda, just the tradition of reviewing outlets reviewing games.
Anyway, that's the past, and Tribulation Forces (also the name of the second book in the all-conquering, millions selling series) is already available via Christian outlets. It will be released to the masses later this year, and feature a few changes.
"This new second chapter in the LEFT BEHIND PC Game series includes significant new features, improvements, maps and missions. The game includes 45 single player missions including tutorials and an all-new skirmish mode allowing players to play against the computer by themselves or with up to 7 friends online. There are 39 skirmish battle multiplayer maps and 3 different multiplayer modes of play."
We've not seen a copy of the new game, so we don't yet know how the skirmishes and multiplayer modes adapt to the morality, nor whether they'll have fixed the completely useless camera, or have incorporated an engine from the 21st century. Looking at the minuscule screenshots (and those at Just Adventure), we'd suggest they certainly haven't.