Genre: Real Time Strategy
Publisher: Left Behind Games
Developer: Left Behind Games
Release Date: November 7, 2006
They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but there certainly is such a thing as bad taste. In my opinion, anyone willing to purposefully exploit negative attention in order to make a quick buck exemplifies bad taste; tactless at best, contemptible at worst. Throw in a heavy dose of barely-concealed hate and things start looking truly ugly. The subject of today’s review is a gnarled cancer of code that propagates murderously violent intolerance while cowering behind a thin veneer of Evangelical love. By now I’m sure you’ve heard of this game, known as Left Behind: Eternal Forces, as it has been generating an intense amount of media interest due to its content. Like a vehicular accident you happen to pass by on the bus, you cannot help but stare at the bloody and mangled carcass of passengers even as it physically nauseates you. That’s actually a good analogy for this release: a gory car wreck.
Before I get too much further in, I’d like to mention that I am a practicing Agnostic. Many people believe that to be a contradiction in terms, but in this case it means that, although I do not postulate any one religious or philosophical dogma as “the one”, it also means I pay attention to all of them. As a result, I know my theology. Any half-decent pastor will be able to out-quote the Bible to me, but I have had more than my fair share of conversations with devout Christians who didn’t know anywhere near as much scriptural detail as I do. I’m not trying to boast, the only reason I’m bringing this up is that I don’t want to seem as though I’m some cold-hearted, ignorant heathen throwing the first stone. While I am a heathen, I am neither cold-hearted nor ignorant of the concepts that define this game.
As I have previously mentioned, there is a better than good chance you’ve heard about Eternal Forces on the news. The list of organizations speaking out against it include the Council on Islamic-American Relations, the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church, and an advocacy group known as Campaign to Defend the Constitution, which has been spearheading attempts to convince Wal-Mart to remove the game from its shelves, citing hate-propaganda as the reason why the family oriented retail giant should pull the product. This is an impressive arsenal of protest, but it’s interesting that so few of these news blurbs actually state what it actually is, beyond “a computer game”. Allow me to elaborate.
Eternal Forces is a 3D real time strategy title based on a series of books known as Left Behind. The general idea is pre-tribulation/post-apocalyptic: the rapture has happened, and millions of Christ’s faithful have vanished in the blink of an eye, taken to paradise beyond. All those left behind have seven years to get their act together or face infinite suffering when they fail their final report card on judgement day. As the player, you are commanding the Tribulation Forces, a small but growing (if you are successful) army of religious warriors striving to convert or eliminate anyone left that hasn’t declared an allegiance, as well as destroy the Global Community Peacekeepers, a new world order run by one Nicolae Carpathia.
During the course of play, you will convert neutral units by preaching at them on the street until they convert, you will acquire unused buildings in order to convert them into necessary posts to build your army, and you will construct a fighting force of extraordinary magnitude. Your ultimate goal is to save as many souls as possible in the seven years between the rapture and final judgement. The GCP are considered the forces of the anti-Christ, the physical arm of Satan’s armies whose goal is to ensure no souls make their way to the gates of paradise. Your weapons against this eventuality are Faith and a willingness to put bullets into anyone who doesn’t agree with that faith. Family entertainment at its best!
Most of the standard RTS mechanics are in place: you develop armies, you cultivate “hero” units, you develop new buildings in order to develop better technologies so that your troops are more efficient in the field, and you balance resources necessary to keep your forces working. In Eternal Forces, these resources aren’t harvested; they are automatically generated when you construct the appropriate building. For example, in order to keep your units fed, you need to build a café. As soon as you’ve done this, food begins to trickle in. Need more room for your spiritual converts to live in? Build apartments (Apparently everyone who isn’t a born-again Christian is homeless in this hypothetical reality). Money talks, so you’d better build a bank. Those guns aren’t free.
Speaking of money, I’d like to take this opportunity to talk about that old saying “money is the root of all evil”. (You admire my skilful segue?) More than just the wisdom of old housewives, this quote is in fact biblical: 1 Timothy 6:10 “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” Perhaps I’m just naive, but if it’s a standard Christian belief that money is the most oily method to enable corruption, and if all bets are off because there’s only seven years left on Earth, then why wouldn’t the Tribulation Forces do away with money entirely? Why embrace such an obvious tool of Satan? I don’t necessarily hold this against Eternal Forces; I just find it contradictory and ironic.
The single player storyline sees you controlling an expanding Church, the last bastion of faith against the tides of heathens. However, as I’ve mentioned several times now, the methods you use and the default enemies presented are shameful. Violence and death to all who won’t convert, and all the stereotypical “enemies” of the conservative right: musicians, “cult” leaders, Islamic faithful, and more. While we’re touching on stereotypes, this is as good a time as any to mention the atrocious sexism hard-wired into the code. You see, any women in the game are always tagged as “Friend Woman” (as opposed to just “friend” for male units) and they cannot be trained in any profession other than those that fall under medical or musical auspices. What a shame “housewife baby-machine” couldn’t be worked in somehow. It certainly seems as though that would have been the preference of Left Behind Games. If this unconcealed message of oppression isn’t offensive enough, how about the blatant preaching in between levels where various subjects like evolution and biblical accuracy are decried/espoused along with “buy it now” ads for contemporary Christian music artists? The one-two combination of advertising and proselytizing is particularly shameless, but as the continual theme of Eternal Forces is “make money off of people’s faith” then I suppose this is par for the course.
The violence in this game is pervasive, and emphatically denied by the creators. In fact, on the webpage for Eternal Forces, there is a disclaimer that states “Because our game is a ‘strategy' game, never does a player click a key or press a button to actuate a <b>first-person</b> violent act.” The emphasis is mine, added to illustrate the transparency of their attempt at smoke-and-mirrors. Just because the violence is top-down isometric and free of visible blood does not mean that there is no violence at all! You not only can and do proactively kill, the only consequences to this behaviour occur when you don’t pray after every murder. I experimented with this myself, taking seven of my newly re-born Christians out on the street to go kill one of those wretched musicians. Not only did I “press a button” to make my mob of faithful thugs go beat the guitar-player to death in broad daylight, the only penalty to this was the loss of just two spirit points, regained by tapping the ‘pray’ command once. Word to the spin-doctors at Left Behind Games: just because there’s no visible blood doesn’t mean your game isn’t violent. This is a low-grade example as well; it doesn’t factor in later missions involving guns and heavier military munitions used against those who don’t “tow the line”.
This leads me to my next point. To the best of my knowledge, the conflict in Eternal Forces exists only because there are non-Christians in the world. At no point is there an effort made to illustrate why there needs to be violent extermination of non-believers; the fact that they don’t worship at the feet of Jesus Christ is fault enough to warrant death. I would have an easier time throwing down with the bullets and the stabbing and the kicking and the bloodshed if the “bad guys” were actually bad; if there was some form of sub-text that showed the enemies doing evil acts I’d be all for taking them out. If I see someone in the street punching kittens, I’ll put a stop to it gladly. Shouting dirty limericks at hapless accountants? That’s worth at least a paddlin’. Even short-changing a hot dog vendor merits some form of low-grade retribution, but in Eternal Forces, the only “crime” one needs to commit to earn a death sentence is refusing to tithe. This hard-line “us or them” outlook on life is typical of ultra-conservative Christian values, but in my world view it’s just hate by another name. Perhaps I should just be thankful this isn’t yet another “kill all the Nazis” WW2 game?
Let’s divert our attention from the spiritual double-standards and flaws inherent in Eternal Forces and take a look at the mechanical errors, of which there are many. Like so many other examples of Christian Contemporary offerings to the secular market, so much effort has been put into “the message” that the vehicle has been overlooked. I’ll start with the graphics. Simply put, these are dated and unattractive. Even with all settings pushed to their highest, the textures are still blurry and lacking in detail, the models are blocky and basic, and the animations limited by said models. There are even instances where there are no textures present at all, and you can actually see right through the streets into the void beyond. The silver lining to this is smooth gameplay, but this is “first generation” 3D, and those of us who consider ourselves more than casual hobbyists will be quite disappointed by what’s on display.
Clearly, Eternal Forces is unfinished, out of the box at least. Scripts are unfinished, leading to broken maps that can’t be completed. Patching helps this, but also shows other areas that you might not have even noticed such as new features not originally included, like the ‘turbo’ game-speed setting and new voice-over packs. I may have never even noticed that what some of my units were saying were just place-holder dialogues, but after the patch and sudden alteration of speech it became much clearer. Woe to anyone who does have technical issues; Left Behind Games don’t have an open forum to post on asking for assistance. All they have is a blanket FAQ and a Tech Support contact address, which leaves you very much at their convenience for a reply.
Eternal Forces is based on a series of books, and as such one would expect above-average writing to be present at all times. Here too are hopes dashed, as there is poor grammar and syntax all over. The fact that this is supposed to be an extension of literature is why it stands out in my mind as such an egregious oversight.
A major bone of contention to most hardcore gamers has been that of spyware and advertising. While I cannot report on specific malware activity, I can tell you that Eternal Forces requires internet access even for single player games. The developers claim that there is no actual connection to the internet and that the connection is only needed because of the server-based structure of each map, but I find that claim significantly weakened by the excessive in-game advertising. Just about every building in the game has some form of billboard promotions on it, with EB Games being the worst offender of the lot. Clearly, they contributed a sizeable amount of money to Left Behind Games, as you cannot go more than a block without seeing at least one huge red, white, and black EB/Gamestop sign. There are also billboards and website ads paid for by the Ad Council like boostup.org (which I don’t necessarily have issues with past the fact that the US Military are sponsors), and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA.dot.gov).
If anything, I would say this advertising (sans-EB) is about the only truly moral aspect of this supposedly moral game, even if it is unsolicited and somewhat ocular-assaulting. I can get behind vehicular safety and the importance of education. I cannot get behind telling people that they should turn off their firewalls while playing Eternal Forces so that ‘net access is unhindered. Whether there actually is spyware or not is irrelevant when you factor in that Left Behind Games are openly telling users it’s acceptable to dismiss security precautions in this day and age. Even if there is no malware installed with Eternal Forces, you’ll certainly get some if you follow the advice of their tech support FAQ.
What is most infuriating about all of this is that, despite how terrible this game is on both a secular and spiritual front, it will succeed wildly due to the lethal combination of media-sponsored outrage and the build-in audience of Evangelical Christians who really don’t care that this is hate speech because it’s the kind of hate they love. The people who will buy this game in massively profitable quantities are the same kind of people who actually buy into the theory that their leaders casually buy crystal meth from gay prostitutes but don’t actually use the stuff. If they can convince themselves that there is grey area to Exodus 20:13 (“You shall not murder”, it’s the sixth commandment people!), then they’ll certainly buy into this mess too.
In effect, it doesn’t matter how clearly wrong and against the word of Christ this is, this audience will shell out their bucks, and Left Behind Games will laugh all the way to the bank. I implore you, dear reader; if you aren’t one of these pre-programmed “Shoppers for Christ™”, avoid this title like the plague. Not only are you sparing yourself the discomfort of ham-fisted preaching and shoddy game mechanics, you’ll also be doing your part to ensure that this obscene mess of eschatological flotsam and apocryphal jetsam never sees a sequel. Of course, it’s probably a forgone conclusion that one will happen regardless, but perhaps there will be less attention paid to Kerry Jenkins and Tim LaHayes as they work to profit off of propagating religious intolerance and division. If there truly is no such thing as bad publicity, then the best way to silence this hate is to cease giving them any publicity at all.
More articles about Left Behind: Eternal Forces