BIBLE ADVENTURES by Gabe Durham

Untitled

Bible Adventures
(Boss Fight Books #7)
By Gabe Durham
Boss Fight Books – March 2015
ISBN 9781940535074 – 99 Pages – eBook
Source: Publisher


NOTE: The following was originally written as “Adding Jesus Stuff” for publication on Atticus Reviews. Changes in their review editor and format delayed processing of this so that it became too late to post with them. I therefore am publishing it here as a start up to new reviews here at Reading 1000 Lives.

There doesn’t appear to be much Christian about the current President of the United States. Yet even he donned a Christian façade in efforts to court Evangelical voters. From gaining the vocal support of Dr. James Dobson – “I believe he really made a commitment, but he’s a baby Christian.” – to choosing a ‘born-again’ running mate, President 45 injected his campaign product with elements of politically conservative Christianity to capture a demographic that is keen for ‘Jesus stuff’ in their politics and often beyond.

As goes an exchange of dialogue from South Park’s 2003 season seven episode “Christian Rock Hard”:

Stan Marsh: You don’t even know anything about Christianity!

Eric Cartman: I know enough to exploit it.

This episode, where Cartman starts a band named ‘Faith + 1’, famously parodies Christian rock music, emphasizing the interchangeability of lyrics between that genre and secular love songs through substitution of proper names with ‘Jesus’. The parody of this episode isn’t limited to music media. Interjection of a Christian veneer into the retail process –whether for goods or services – is ubiquitous. This is because a flavor of Christianity exists that wants alternatives to secular options, whether just to support fellow Believers or to set themselves apart into a community free from the perceived immorality or shortcoming of the secular world’s institutions.

Whatever their reason, for those that want purely Christian options there exists a plethora of markets, often conveniently organized in directories: Christian schools, Christian romance novels, Christian dating services, Christian plumbers, Christian political candidates, Christian video games.

The latter is the subject of Bible Adventures, a book by Gabe Durham that chronicles the formation of Wisdom Tree, a developer of unlicensed video games with ‘Christian’ content for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) console in the early 1990s. The seventh book in the Boss Fight Books series – which takes a critical, historical, and personal look at personally significant video games – this particular volume is written by the senior series editor, who also founded the series through a successful Kickstarter campaign. Typically the series books have considered well known, highly regarded video games. The games from Wisdom Tree’s catalog are decidedly neither. Yet, the description of these absurd, lazily produced games, the tale of their unlikely production, and the impressions that their limited success conveys regarding American Christian culture make the Wisdom Tree games a fascinating subject for analysis in the series.

Wisdom Tree stemmed from Color Dreams, a small company of video game developers meeting limited success at producing unlicensed NES games. Nintendo held strict guidelines for official games that included bans on nudity, sexual innuendo, excessive violence, gore, and drug use of any kind. Nintendo’s control forced game developers to alter existing games for transfer to the NES console. For example, the Vodka Drunkenski of Punch Out! became Soda Popinski, and the statues of bare-breasted females in Castlevania IV gained clothes. To prevent unlicensed game production for thee console, Nintendo created 10NES, a lock-out chip that only permitted ‘official’ games that included a secret key to function within the NES. Color Dreams, however, found a way to thwart the lock-out. On the cheap they created a series of games that, at times, violated Nintendo standards. But these games also quickly found a reputation for poor quality, and sales went nowhere. Additionally, the company faced the specter of Nintendo’s legal action. Color Dreams’ solution to all this involved tapping into a potential demographic of buying that wasn’t yet being specifically targeted by anyone: the Christian community.

Wisdom Tree thus formed from Color Dreams, with the goal of producing video games with Christianity-related content whose sale could be targeted to churches and the religious. Meanwhile, Nintendo would abstain from any litigation against Wisdom Tree out of feared backlash from parents or religious groups.

Through interviews with the people involved in Wisdom Tree’s formation Durham relates this background and history that led to the development of their game catalog. He also uses the opening chapters of Bible Adventures to explore the mindset of Color Dreams employees during the germination of this plan, and their reactions as implementation proceeded. The Color Dreams game developers were mostly not Christians themselves. Many were atheist, and Durham relates how after a long day of work the team would frequently decompress with a trip to the strip club. Dan Burke, one developer at Color Dreams who was actually Christian at the time related his point of view of the decision to form Wisdom Tree. Durham describes the interview with Burke:

“It’s religion we began with, and religion we circled back to over and over in our two-and-a-half hour conversation, but it never felt like a tangent. Belief was essential to the story of Burke’s time at the company. It was his Christian faith that made Burke quit Color Dreams, and it was his time at Color Dreams that made Burke lose his faith altogether.”

At first objecting to the company speciously using vague Christian content in order to make more money, Burke’s objections continued even after his loss of faith. Only now, as an atheist, he objected to the placement of preachy, religious content into children’s entertainment.

This simultaneous coexistence of faith and doubt – and the moral conflicts regarding methods, products, and intent – continued as Wisdom Tree started. Like Cartman, most of the non-Believing developers knew they could exploit Christians for gain. However, like President 45, they knew that to effectively do so would require an advocate the Christian community would recognize as one of their own. And so they recruited of a sales team led by a young pastor named Michael Wilson, and Brenda Huff, the former employee of a Christian book publisher. In contrast to the game developers, the sales team viewed their product as part of a ministry. Often including prayers during their meetings, they targeted sales efforts to churches and Christian supply stores, trumpeting the value of Wisdom Tree products for young Christians and Biblical education.

The first Wisdom Tree game was Bible Adventures, a three-in-one game that provides the title for Durham’s book. A huge success for the company, this game found a place in Durham’s heart when he first discovered it in his church’s library. And my experience is similar. Back in the day I owned the game solely because I noticed it one day as my mom shopped our local Christian supply store among the many Jesus-related Chotchkies. My mother rarely would let me buy a Nintendo game out of the blue. But this one had educational value! Religious value! It helped you memorize Bible verses! It taught you about faith through Bible stories! Could I have it, just this once? It was good for the soul! For thousands of other children, this sales pitch worked.

With Bible Adventures, and then with later Wisdom Tree games, Durham spends chapters describing game content and his impression of game playability alongside the history of its source and development. Whether familiar with those games or not, these chapters are entertaining, as long as you have some memory of games of that era in general.

Wisdom Tree’s Bible Adventures debut is a three-games-in-one cartridge built around the stories of Noah’s Ark, David and Goliath, and Baby Moses. With similar controls and game play, all three of these games were modeled after the successful Super Mario Brothers 2. Play of both the Noah and the David stories was built around the goal of gathering things: Pairs of animals and loads of goods for Noah, and level after level of lost sheep for David. Collecting for those quaint days before Pokémon Go. Along the way various malevolent beasts would attack or throw things at you to impede completion of your checklist. In its final level, the David game provides you the added ability to sling rocks at Philistines on the way up to a mountain-top confrontation with the famous giant of Gath. In Baby Moses you play Miriam (or his mom?), carrying Baby Moses to safety, with little to do other than avoid Egyptians eager to grab the babe and toss him to a quick drowning in the river. Durham writes about connections between the absolute silliness of this game and the rushed, cheap work of the game developers:

“…Moses’s mom is a picky Levite and she wants to abandon her baby where she wants. She also wants to hold her baby how she wants: Basically she just Super Mario 2’s the baby over her head like it’s an engorged vegetable… and impressively holds the baby aloft like that indefinitely. Even while running at up to 10 mph. That is, unless she throws Baby Moses across the screen, which is that the B button in this Bible Game for Children is for – hurling your baby mightily across the desert and hoping for the best… The reason… [that you can]… throw your child is simple: All the characters in Bible Adventures have the same controls – elderly Noah, buff young David, and our Levite Woman – and the buttons for each Adventure do the same thing: run, jump, pick up, and throw. Wisdom Tree could have programmed each of the three games to have different controls based on the needs of each game, but it would have taken more work.”

The strange thing is that, for both Durham and myself, Bible Adventures is a rather fun game to play. Maybe it is because collecting things are fun. Or maybe it is something else. Durham closes his discussion of each Wisdom Tree game with analysis of why the game failed utterly in its day, or why it, like Bible Adventures, was a success – at least initially. Despite its popularity at the time, the game now frequently makes lists of infamy among those considered worst ever. Durham spends time speculating why this may be: how it may reflect changing tastes or bias against the Christian content and views against its original intended audience.

Released in 1991, Wisdom Tree’s Bible Adventures sold over ~350,000 copies. With such success, and feedback from players that they actually enjoyed the game, the company moved forward to put out even more games, each with a dash of added Jesus-stuff to target the willing audience. Some of these games were ‘originals’ like Bible Adventures. In other cases Wisdom Tree simply took previous titles from the Color Dreams archive and redesigned a few elements to now make them ‘Christian’. The first of this group was Joshua and the Battle of Jericho, a game modded from a ‘crawler’ game they had made titled Crystal Mines, where a robot mined through dirt for hidden treasures. About the ‘Christian-ized’ version, Durham writes:

Joshua is an uglier game [than Bible Adventures] but it was one I could play for longer, a maze crawler where you’re trying to collect all the little thingies to make a magic door appear. You shot music from your body, which first made enemies angry, then killed them. Truth was, it wasn’t much of a battle for Jericho. It played out more like the story of a little man, buried in dirt, trying to sing his way out.”

Durham completes the book with similar coverage of each Wisdom Tree title. The best random fact from this: The cartridge King of Kings: The Early Years, composed of three games built around minor stories around Jesus’ childhood, one of which involves the donkey transporting Mary, Joseph, and the baby Christ to Egypt. At one point you, controlling the donkey, must leap over a polar bear. Because somehow the flight to Egypt involved passage through the Arctic Circle!

Bible Adventures the book closes with summary and considerations to conclude its main theme of paradox: a company of atheists making Christian video games; lazily designed product that is relatively successful and fun to play despite poor quality; exploiting Christians for money while still sating their desire for content tailored with Christian themes, no matter how authentic.

“The fact that [Color Dreams founder] Lawton’s decision to make Bible games was based on money and not faith is more the rule than the exception in retail. Many of the biggest sellers of Christian stuff are actually the Christian-targeted arms of their flexi-theistic parent companies… The Cynical was of putting it is that these companies are squeezing dollars out of people who think that buying Christian merch is in some way supporting Christianity itself…”

However, as Durham quotes one Color Dreams employee responding to this criticism, this is “like expecting every company who delivered your kale to the market to be authentically ‘organic.”

Bible Adventures is therefore one-third history/biography, one-third video game analysis, and one-third reflection on the paradoxes that the Wisdom Tree story provides. Durham’s text is conversational, by no means academic. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some substance to the words. Durham makes clear that despite the coarseness of Wisdom Tree products, and their questionable ethics as peddlers of Christian content, their games provided a lot of fun and fond memories for many. Now if we could only say the same about President 45.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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