Spiritual Warriors (from Bible Adventures by Gabe Durham)
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Gabe Durham is the founder and editor of Boss Fight Books, the “33 1/3 of video games” in which each of their books offers a critical take on a single video game. Their seventh book is his own entry on the 1990 unlicensed NES game, Bible Adventures, the first in a series of bizarre and fascinating games targeted at Christian kids. The book covers each of Wisdom Tree’s Bible games, including King of Kings, Sunday Funday, Super 3D Noah’s Ark, and the subject of the following essay, Spiritual Warfare.
The literalization of spiritual warfare is one of the stickiest, war-hawkiest, and most blockbuster concepts to ever come out of the New Testament.
As Christianity’s more excitable denominations would have it: Every day, actual angels and demons duke it out on a celestial CGI battlefield over your littlest temptations. Snuck a twenty-spot out of Mom’s wallet? Some sporty demon landed a sucker punch. Resisted the call of the PornHub for the entirety of Memorial Day weekend? Must’ve been a big win for the good guys. A fringe benefit to this way of viewing the universe is that it takes the moral imperative off a body’s own free will: It’s not your fault when you’re bad. The corpses stacked in your meat locker merely imply that Satan’s really been on his game lately.
“Therefore put on the full armor of God,” says Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians, “so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground. […] Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
A zealously violent Jew who used to slaughter Christians just because he thought they were wrong about who God is, Paul naturally trafficked in battle metaphors even when all he had to say was: Have faith, be righteous, and — ha — be peaceful.
Wisdom Tree’s 1992 game Spiritual Warfare elegantly combines the heavens and the earth by putting you in control of a little guy in a big world much like our own — dirty, dangerous, bound for ruin — but whose connection to the spiritual world is more concrete. Angels arrive early and often to command you, to chastise you, and to power you up with newer better weapons so that you can do the Lord’s work — kickin’ ass.
Well. Sort of kickin’ ass.
Though it’s easy to forget it for the game’s 8-bit ambiguities, your main weapons are thrown fruits, and not just any fruits but the Fruits of the Spirit, which Paul, this time in his Letter to the Galatians, tells us are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” But since you can’t throw a gentleness at an unbeliever, these Fruits, like the Armor of God, are literalized into pears, apples, and grapes.
If Super Mario Bros. 2’s “pick things up and throw them” gameplay offered the basic template for Bible Adventures, the game that most clearly inspired Warfare is The Legend of Zelda. You’ve got the bright overworld, ripe for exploration but closed off in certain areas until you’ve powered up, and the mazelike interiors, some of which run deep and contain bosses. You move frame by frame, and the enemies repopulate if you get far enough away from them. You start small and weak, but are gifted your primary weapon in the very first room (up and to the left) and grow from there. Your mission is that of the collector/assembler, who must in this case obtain every piece of the Armor of God to fight Satan. Your keys, torches, rafts, and potions all do what you’d think. Your bombs (here called “Vials of the Wrath of God”) bust through walls and unbelievers alike. You’ve got stores peddling wares, some of which are essential. You’ve even got select little rooms that operate with a newfound platformer-like respect for gravity (a la Zelda’s dungeon ladder power-up rooms) before abandoning it once again.
Another thing Warfare shares with Zelda: It’s a lot of fun. Probably the most fun game in the Color Dreams/Wisdom Tree catalogue. A mystery of the NES age is that for how enjoyable and lucrative The Legend of Zelda was, imitators did not come out of the woodwork the way Mario clones did. It’s possible that a Zelda clone, with its vast sprawling maps, would take longer to code than your average run-n-jump platformer, but sprawling maps didn’t stop Enix from churning out a Dragon Quest annually for three years straight. When Zelda’s much-anticipated sequel arrived, The Adventure of Link failed to satisfy our craving as it was mostly a platformer. The greatest Zelda-inspired game for the NES console, SNK’s Crystalis, arrived too late for the world to take notice. Warfare, with its own big explorable world, scratched a powerful itch for kids who, like me, belonged to both the Christian bookstore and Nintendo Power set.
The map of Warfare is not a fantasy world of caves, dragons, and tunics, but a contemporary one of cars, trains, construction workers, and high-rise buildings — it’s just that there are demons and advice-offering angels behind every corner, and the Truth is known only by a privileged few. These few are tasked with venturing out into a fallen world, spreading the Truth, and (if necessary) killing those without ears to listen. It is, in other words, the real world as seen through the eyes of a fundamentalist.
Twice in high school, I went to a weeklong evangelism training conference in Costa Mesa, CA called Students Equipped to Minister to Peers (SEMP). If Lads to Leaders/Leaderettes was training in how to be a good Christian boy on Sunday mornings, SEMP was training in how to take those skills to the streets. And while its face was a lot more casual, SEMP’s roots were more deeply conservative than Lads to Leaders or any other institution I’d encountered before.
At many times of day, SEMP was just like the church camps and retreats I was attending at that time: We slept in college dorms, went to classes, listened to sermons, and sang for an hour each night.
It was the afternoons that made SEMP unique. Every day after lunch, we’d divide up into teams and then head out in vans to a nearby beach where we would evangelize to unsuspecting sunbathers. Equipped with evangelical tracts, carefully honed personal testimonies, and recently-learned stats proving the Bible’s veracity, we went umbrella to umbrella, towel to towel, in search of prospective converts.
I tried to be a good sport, a good spiritual warrior, but those afternoon outings were my personal Hell. I’ve always hated bugging people, so when out on those beach missions, I secretly hoped most interactions would be speedy and innocuous. Often when my SEMP team ran into another SEMP team on the beach, we’d all linger and chat awhile, eager for a distraction from our Great Commission.
When I invited a beachgoer to chat, the only thing worse than her responding with a clipped “no thanks” was her saying sure: She’d be glad to hear the story of a personal experience with Jesus Christ from a gawky teen trying not to stare at her nearly bare tits. The ultimate goal was to guide the sunbather through a prayer in which she accepts Christ into her heart, to give her info on a local church she could plug into, and to send her back out into the world a changed woman. As in Spiritual Warfare, she would at this point no longer be my concern — after being converted, she’d drop to her knees, say her prayer, and disappear.
One day, I met a middle-aged Taoist guy who told me (with what even then felt like scary prescience) that I was young and that my views would someday evolve. Another day, I met a kind and chatty lesbian and talked to her awhile, only to find out the next day that if you encounter One of the Gays, you are to abort mission immediately.
Going home in the van each evening, I was sick with guilt. Day after day, my personal conversion count remained zero. Meanwhile my friend Aaron absolutely crushed it. Not only did he pray the prayer with a bunch of people, he took a couple of those converts out into the ocean and baptized them on the spot. I knew it wasn’t just luck — I’d never be an Aaron. Each morning in training our leader would say, “Hands up: How many of you saved someone yesterday?” We’d tally our conversion numbers for the week, lower per capita for deadweights like me.
Still, I sang hard at night and had serious, important faith talks with my best friend, Brent. A few days into the conference, Brent’s first-ever girlfriend broke up with him, and in his grief Brent immediately skimmed through a popular Christian abstinence tome called I Kissed Dating Goodbye. He had me sign a sheet as a witness to his new commitment to never kiss another girl until it was at the altar, a commitment he kept for nearly three weeks. The next year, Brent confessed to me in confidence that he’d begun to doubt God’s existence altogether, and instead of keeping that confidence I immediately gathered a group of our friends to emergency-pray for his soul.
Fervor was the style at the time. Those weeks at SEMP, we flirted with an intense fundamentalism that was impossible to maintain in our normal lives. We were taught to believe that faith was the highest stakes game there was. That it was literally, as SEMP’s promotional video twice states, “a matter of life and death.”
When in Spiritual Warfare you kill heathens (or “Unsaved Souls” as the manual calls them”), it’s understood that your well-placed apple to the head has not murdered the heathen, it has set him free: The heathen suddenly drops to his knees, mouths a brief prayer, and disappears forever.
Our hero’s fruit-barrage technique works wonders when it comes to bringing dangerous heathens to their knees. But about one out of five times, that’s not all it does: Even before the mortal has disappeared from the map, the demon inside is unleashed and attacks you. He must be felled in the same manner as his vessel: more fruit.
This convention was eventually skewered in an episode of The Simpsons. While in the home of mega-Christians Rod and Todd Flanders, Bart fires up their game, Billy Graham’s Bible Blaster, a first-person shooter where you use a handgun to shoot Bibles at heathens, which instantly converts them to Christianity. “Got him!” Bart says after hitting a unbeliever. “No,” Rod says, “you just winged him and made him a Unitarian!”
In this way, Warfare shares a bit of DNA with a better game, EarthBound, in which the New Age Retro Hippie and Annoying Old Party Man are not killed by your attacks, they’re un-brainwashed: set free.
After you, as our spiritual warrior, kill/save two bikers who appear to have been terrorizing an old woman, she cryptically quotes Paul’s Letter to the Romans, “But if we hope for what we do not have, we wait for it patiently.” In another EarthBound parallel, you are to wait around in the frame for a little while. Eventually one of the cars rolls forward, revealing the stairs to a room where you may purchase a banana. (Much of your map-wandering amounts to gathering new fruits, hearts, and items to give you strength for a final confrontation.) When you’re ready, you’ll sneak into prison, avoiding all the perpetually rioting prisoners as best you can, and take a staircase down into Hell.
While Hell is the most moody and goth-looking part of the game, the music does not change at all. You are treated to the same singsong rendition of “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand” that you’ve been hearing on repeat the whole game.
Hell is not called Hell in Spiritual Warfare, it’s called Demon’s Lair, though the pools of lava, hoards of demons, and spooky pointy hoofprints make it clear that you’ve come to kill Satan on his home turf. Only they don’t call him Satan, either, but simply Final Boss and then “the final foe.”
Why did the Wisdom Tree pull these punches? Why not call a Satan a Satan?
For one thing, it’s often pretty hard to tell whether a particular word going to piss a Christian off. Hell is both a septic tank for sinners and a naughty swear word — the only thing differentiating one use from the other is context.
But it’s also true that if our hero was defeating the actual Satan, that could ruffle some feathers too. The ultimate defeat of Satan is Jesus’s job. Is Wisdom Tree trying to create a hero more powerful than Christ himself? Calling Satan the Final Boss offers theological wiggle room — he’s not Satan, Wisdom Tree could say, just one of his helpers.
After Jesus comes back from the dead, he gets the eleven remaining disciples to meet him on a mountain, and there tells them to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19–20)
This brief speech, known as the Great Commission, is so important to Christendom that it was grafted onto the Book of Mark long after Mark was written so that Mark, a prickly gospel that ends in fear and confusion, would have a happier ending more in line with Luke and Matthew. In the speech, Jesus sets Christianity apart from Judaism by telling Christians it’s their responsibility to convert nonbelievers. God’s chosen people used to be a tribe, a bloodline; now it’s whoever signs up.
Since then, Jesus’s message of inclusion has been twisted by governments to justify violent power grabs like the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the slaughter of the Native Americans, and the American invasion of Iraq. But Jesus had no interests in telling governments what to do — he asked his followers to play nice, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” and then hope Caesar goes away so you can do your thing in peace.
But the Great Commission has also been twisted by Christian tradition into a scare tactic: If you don’t follow Jesus, you spend an eternity writhing in Hell with no hope of vanquishing Final Boss. Never mind that Jesus himself never bothers to stress this terrifying reality, or that only a tenth of our notion of Hell itself actually comes from the Bible. Eight tenths comes from Dante’s Inferno, while the final tenth is split between Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey and the “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” scene in The Book of Mormon.
The Hell myth circulates so widely because fear works. It’s Christianity’s creepy trump card. If those lava pits are that hot, I’d better be a good boy. If those pitchforks are that sharp, I’d better show everyone how to avoid it.
The closest I ever came to saving someone from the fires of Hell was the time in high school I became fast friends with a girl named Megan. We kinda liked each other, and she opened up to me about the problems she had with her mom and an older ex-boyfriend. But since I only dated Christian girls, I parlayed our mutual attraction into inviting her to youth group with me. She became my project.
For a little while the project came along surprisingly well. Megan rode with me to youth group meetings, met my friends, and asked lots of heavy questions. But after awhile it became clear to her that she and I weren’t going to happen, and when her attention diverted elsewhere, she found better things to do on Wednesday nights. I felt like shit. In my head I’d been her one big chance at salvation, and I’d blown it: A better, bolder Christian would have known how to win her soul. When I saw Megan around school after that, I felt so much guilt that I had a hard time even saying hi.
I now believe that the reason to feel bad about Megan and all the beachgoers at SEMP was not that I hadn’t won them over for Christ, but that I’d seen them as potential converts instead of as people. Megan rightly ended her friendship with me for the same reason you might need to end a friendship with a woman who has begun selling Mary Kay — her group of friends has overnight been transformed into a network of potential customers. Her eyes are full of pink caddies.
Spiritual Warfare is the lone game that resists Ian Bogost’s otherwise fair critique that Wisdom Tree games “did not proceduralize religious faith.” Whereas Bible Adventures merely gamifies Bible stories, Spiritual Warfare suggests a more intimate understanding of Christian culture, integrating not just Biblical tropes but contemporary Christian ethics into gameplay.
In the city, you encounter something you’d never see in a licensed NES game — a building marked “BAR.” Not a café, not a soda shop, a real bar. Enemies flood out of the bar’s open doors as you approach, running past you as if for their lives.
Rule #1 of open-world adventure games: Go through every door. A creature might now and then charge you a few rupees to pay for the door you just bombed, but maybe something essential will happen — an item or clue that points the way forward.
Rule #1 of Christian culture and real world navigation: Don’t go through every door. Drinking’s bad, bars are lusty, and bar-gals are loose.
My high school Christian Club used to trot out these discussion cards featuring ethical riddles. One I remember was, “Are there circumstances under which you’d consider being a bartender?” and then some kids would say, “Well it could be a ministry opportunity, and I could cut people off before they got drunk-drunk, and I wouldn’t drink myself…” and others would say, “The correct answer is NO. To work there would be to endorse it, and I think if Jesus showed up and saw you selling alcohol to people in a bar, it’d make him pretty sad. Whether you were being ‘nice’ to the drunks or not.”
But Spiritual Warfare is a video game. So you go into this BAR to see what the chatty barkeeper might have to tell you, and are faced, instead, with an angel. Fuck. “You have no business in a bar,” he tells you. You notice that this bar contains nothing: No chairs, no tables, no patrons, no bar. Just the angel and the text of his admonition. “As punishment,” he continues, “I am taking back the Belt of Truth. You can reclaim it somewhere in the slum.”
Later in the game, you happen upon a tall building with windows that form the shape of a dollar sign: a casino. The old woman standing outside it warns, “You’d be very wise not to enter this building,” and this time you understand it’s a trap: Here, there be angels. And so you wisely move on, allowing this one part of the map to go unexplored, not out of any particular virtue, but for a good Christian’s best reason to avoid vices — fear of punishment.
 For instance, we were told that there were 300+ prophecies of the coming of Jesus in the Old Testament. According to the SEMP manual, the odds of this occurring coincidentally “would be as likely as filling up the state of Texas two feet deep with silver dollars and marking one coin, stirring the whole mass of coins thoroughly and blindfolding a man and telling him he can travel as far as he wishes, but he must pick up one silver dollar and say that this is the one.”