It begins suddenly: a flash, and they’re gone. Leaving behind just wisps of smoke and personal effects, the righteous are transported to heaven. The rest of us stay trapped on Earth, confused about our missing colleagues, friends, spouses and children, without whom we will enter a period of biblically foretold carnage called the Tribulation. So begins Left Behind: Eternal Forces, a game of interactive spiritual warfare, where the Rapture comes to your PC.
It was inevitable, really. Left Behind, the 12-book series of eschatological potboilers by evangelical minister Tim LaHaye and former journalist Jerry Jenkins, has made a huge commercial success out of selling the Rapture. That starting gun for the sectarian End Times scenario has formed a morbid fascination for many American evangelicals since William Eugene Blackstone first wedded the dispensationalist ethic to the spirit of bootstrap capitalism and moved a million copies of his book Jesus Is Coming as early as 1908. Sixty-three million copies of the Left Behind books have been sold, and the franchise has spawned audio books, a kids’ series, study guides, calendars, maps, greeting cards, an amazing Tribulation timeline and multimillion-dollar film adaptations infamously starring Kirk Cameron as hero Buck Williams. In 2001, Left Behind Games was founded in Murrieta, California, to help spread the Left Behind message through video games.
“Throughout history,” the Left Behind narrator intones after the light of souls escapes Earth, “people have chosen one of three paths. Those who love God. Those who don’t know enough about God. And those who choose to ignore God.” After being promised that God will come to take his people home, we learn that “for those Left Behind, the Apocalypse has just begun.”
Described by its manufacturers as “an evangelism tool for teens,” the game takes place in a chaotic post-Rapture New York City. Newly born-again Christians are waging a guerrilla struggle against the Antichrist, who has chosen a name befitting any good Antichrist trying to hide his evil intentions: Nicolae Carpathia. Ensconced in the New World Order headquarters at the site of the former United Nations, Nicolae Carpathia wants to erase religion and rule over his secular Global Community government with an army of “peacekeepers.” (Recognize any political subtexts here?) Left Behind is a real-time-strategy game (RTS), in which you must thwart Carpathia by evangelizing, housing your spiritual army, and creating a supply infrastructure for the eventual battles with the forces of evil.
Ergo the game’s epigraph, from Ephesians: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high [places].” When praise music and preaching aren’t enough, that sacred wrestling requires soldiers, snipers and tanks. Between levels, players are directly confronted with “matters of eternal importance”; questions about evolution and salvation are accompanied by Christian rock and hip-hop, all with the option to buy. Those who have already purchased the collector’s edition ($59.99) can follow along at the source with their very own metal-bound New Living Translation Bible.
The idea of systematically converting or killing nonbelievers in a video game has its detractors. Liberal groups, both secular and religious, recently mounted a campaign against Left Behind, objecting to the game as “faith-based killing, marketed to children.” Supporters note that players do lose “spirit points” for killing — although that spirit can be regained through prayer, which perhaps only reinforces the questionable religious ethic of prayer absolving all sins. The Rev. Tim Simpson, who heads the Christian Alliance for Progress in Jacksonville, Florida, has publicly said the many theological shortcomings of Left Behind are “antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
True enough, but so are most video games. In this case, the axiomatic hypocrisy of the religious right, usually first out of the gate to denounce violence in games but staunchly defending Left Behind, is surely matched by that of a group called Campaign to Defend the Constitution, a group asking that the video game be removed from store shelves. It may seem sinister (or ingenious, depending on your perspective) to embed millennial religious war into a goal-oriented interactive experience, but it’s just a game. No one is going to ponder eternal salvation from clicking an icon of hands clasped in prayer. For the same reason that Doom did not create any sociopaths, Left Behind will not flood the ranks of Christian warriors.
The game’s lack of a proselytizing punch would be especially apparent to anyone who’s tried to play the damned thing. Sadly, I must report that the real problem with Left Behind is that it’s a tiresome, glitchy bore. And believe me, I had high hopes. There have been plenty of bad Christian-themed video games, from the original side-scrolling Mario Brothers knockoff Bible Adventures on Nintendo to Catechumen, a failed attempt to make the first-person shooter conform to family values.
But this time, we’re promised the epic of Revelation: God’s grace combined with masochistic fury, with the four horsemen ravaging the earth (Revelation 9:15), seven-headed, 10-horned monsters emerging from the sky (12:3), and the Beast’s armies massing at Har-Megiddo against the returned Jesus (16:16) for a culminating clash of the spiritual titans — perfect material, in other words, for a killer video game.
Left Behind never gets anywhere near the prophesied showdown in the Jezreel Valley. It’s hard enough to get the game started: For some reason, Left Behind’s programmers built a crappy game that nevertheless demands a state-of-the-art PC, hardly the best way to reach the Christian masses.
Once running, Left Behind is buggy. The plodding missions through tightly circumscribed Manhattan are numbingly repetitive. The commands are clunky. The graphics are dated. There is some unintended humor: The Antichrist’s frontline propagandists include musicians (leveled up, they become recording artists, and then rock/pop stars), activists (the “proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing”) and secularists (special ability: swearing). Strangely, your supplies come from cafés. Yes, those kind of cafés, with the accents aigu, where presumably your Christian army stays victualed alongside the anticlerical, surrender-prone French running the joints.
All real-time-strategy games are about harvesting resources, and I was hoping for a little thrill in the harvesting of souls, but after a couple hours of learning how to train builders to erect cafés and dodge street musicians, I got bored and gave up. I never even saw a Horned Demon (Level 5 evil spirit; special ability: fireball), or any of the holy war that is supposed to be the whole point for supporters and critics alike. If you’re looking for good versus evil on your computer, it’s infinitely more satisfying to stick with standbys from those other two great mythologized Manichaean struggles, The Lord of the Rings (Battle for Middle Earth II) and Star Wars (Empire at War).
I should have guessed Left Behind would be disappointing when I read that you could play, but never win, as the Antichrist. Doesn’t that undermine the whole power of temptation? Then again, Left Behind’s creators don’t really believe in the Creator’s necessity of evil. For them, the Bible rigs the outcome and guarantees salvation. They won’t even be around for the spiritual warfare of Left Behind.
Or will they? The Rapture, of course, is extrabiblical, a thoroughly modern invention. John of Patmos’ rambling Revelation provides many apocalyptic details about how sickle-wielding angels harvesting people into a wine press shall create lakes of blood (the pre-Steinbeck meaning of “grapes of wrath”), but it pointedly does not give the righteous a lift to heaven beforehand. That didn’t stop John Nelson Darby from inventing the Rapture in the 19th century, because he thought it just wasn’t fair for true believers to sit through the terror they so gleefully promise everyone else. It’s the kind of theology that turned the word sanctimonious into irony, a smug spiritual shortcut taken literally by millions of Americans. Left Behind’s LaHaye, who leads evangelical admirers on tours to Megiddo and welcomes war in the Middle East as a sign that the seven seals are breaking, even goes so far as to calculate how many unbelievers’ blood must flow to fulfill the biblical prophecy. Responding to critics of his video game, LaHaye shot back that there was more to it: “Their real attack is on our theology.” Just as it should be. And the game’s evangelical critic, the Rev. Tim Simpson, should embrace LaHaye’s clarification; because far more troubling than the holy warriors Left Behind: Eternal Forces might create are the holy warriors who created it.