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GAME ON

Action and adventure, by the Book

Mike's journey begins in a dark corridor with dank stone walls, glowing torches, and unpleasant growling sounds echoing around the next corner. It's just as well he brought a crossbow; after a few steps, the digital demons and devil dogs come snarling and tearing at him.

Mike's nightmare battle sounds like hell, but it feels like Quake, the legendary kill-or-be-killed computer game released in 1996 by id Software. Quake is set in a grim, horrific netherworld inspired by the grisly stories of H. P. Lovecraft. But Mike isn't a character from Quake. His battlefield is the mind of a tormented teenage boy on the point of suicide. Only Mike can save him -- Mike, an archangel sent by God to save the boy's soul.

Yes, that God. Not some namby-pamby deity cobbled together from scraps of Tolkien and Harry Potter, but the traditional heaven-and-hell, sin-and-salvation God on display every Sunday at your local Christian church.

The game is called Eternal War: Shadows of Light. Cobbled together for a few thousand dollars by a Canadian firm called Two Guys Software, Eternal War is at the leading edge of a campaign to introduce Christian values and attitudes into the computer-game business.

So far, it's a low-key campaign. You'll search most game software stores in vain for materials with explicitly religious themes. And that's fine with the up-and-coming band of Christian game designers. They don't want to preach. They want to make good, exciting games that anyone might enjoy, games that proclaim their religious values without ramming them down the player's gullet.

"We build games not necessarily for Christians," says Two Guys CEO Mackenzie Ponech. "We build games for everybody that have a Christian core." Ponech is an avid gamer who says he's grown weary of the brutal amorality of many computer games. But Ponech doesn't have the slightest interest in cranking out the kind of tedious Bible-trivia amusements that have often passed for Christian game software. So he and his partners at Two Guys crafted a plot that combines violent action with religious themes such as mercy and justice.

According to Ponech, it's an appealing combination. "We've had Christian teenagers say, `Oh, man, we need something like this. There's nothing out here for us,"' Ponech says.

Not all Christian games are aimed at action-hungry adolescents. Chicago's Big Idea Productions is rolling out much lighter fare for small children. That should come as no surprise; Big Idea is the creator of VeggieTales, a series of videos for small kids featuring computer-animated vegetables and gentle but explicit biblical guidance about concepts such as honesty and kindness.

The funny and beautifully produced VeggieTales videos have sold in the millions to Christian and non-Christian families alike. But the company was forced into bankruptcy after going deep into debt to finance a feature-length movie.

Still, Big Idea has released a series of kiddie computer games that have the same infectious, silly humor as the videos. The latest, Minnesota Cuke and the Coconut Apes, cost somewhere between $250,000 and $400,000 to make, according to Dan Merrell, Big Idea's senior vice president of marketing and sales. That's vastly more than other Christian game developers have to work with, and about the same as the company spends to make one half-hour VeggieTales video. Yet the average video title sells 1.5 million copies. So far, no VeggieTales game has moved more than 250,000 units.

Merrell blames a lack of marketing caused by the bankruptcy. "We think there's a bigger audience than that," he says. "It's just in need of an awareness program." You can find the VeggieTales games in the children's software section of many mainstream stores.

Still, marketing budgets and retail shelf space aren't everything. Few gamers have heard of N'Lightning Software Development of Medford, Ore., or its two Christian adventure games, Catechumen and Ominous Horizons. Yet these 3-D adventure games have found a solid niche in the Christian market. N'Lightning CEO Ralph Bagley says the two games have sold a total of more than 100,000 copies -- a number that many heavily marketed mainstream games never achieve.

Unlike Two Guys Software, Bagley was able to scare up investors who put $2.4 million into the company. The result is a more polished, professional look that has even impressed critics at some mainstream computer gaming publications. N'Lightning's success also earned the company access to a potential gold mine. N'Lightning has won the right to coproduce the first computer game based on Left Behind, the best-selling series of Christian adventure novels based on the biblical Book of Revelation. If ever a computer game had a ready-made audience, this is the one.

But Bagley realizes loyal Left Behind readers won't buy their software if it stinks. "It's got to be a really awesome, cool game," he says. So N'Lightning has purchased the rights to use the same game engine found in the top-drawer action game Unreal II, to deliver world-class performance.

Bagley isn't the least bit concerned that Christian games represent a fraction of the market that's too small to measure. "I see it as being very, very similar to Christian music about 10 or 15 years ago," he says. Back then, explicitly Christian pop singers barely registered on the charts. Last year, they sold 50 million CDs. Music from the Christian rock band P.O.D. appears on the soundtrack to "The Matrix: Reloaded."

Bagley and his colleagues at Two Guys and Big Idea think Christian gaming can make the same leap to the big time. All they have to do is create Christian games so good that even Neo, the "Matrix" hero, would want to play them.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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