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Fire and brimstone, guns and ammo

The "Eternal Forces" video game isn't due out until October, but its violence has attracted considerable controversy already.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

As the camera pans over a smoldering representation of New York City, the booming voice says it all: "For those left behind, the apocalypse has just begun!"

That's the tail end of the promotional trailer for Left Behind: Eternal Forces, an upcoming computer game based on the best-selling book series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.

The "Left Behind" books, which center around Armageddon and the Second Coming of Jesus, have sold more than 70 million copies and are the basis of three movies, making the franchise overdue for a video game. The game, which will soon be marketed in churches and video game stores across the country, is due out in October.

In Eternal Forces, which is based on the first four books, the rapture has occurred and billions of people have disappeared from the planet. Players command the left-behind Tribulation Forces and battle the forces of the Antichrist, who happens to be employed as the head of a U.N.-like world government organization. The game's action takes place across 500 carefully re-created New York City blocks, stretching from Wall Street to Harlem.

The object of the game is to recruit the members of New York's remaining "neutral" population to the side of God during a seven-year reign of the Antichrist. Players have to win over the remaining agnostics and unbelievers of New York City or kill them -- either before or after they are pulled to the forces of evil.

In the parlance of computer games, Eternal Forces is a "real-time strategy" title, in which players have to marshal a limited number of resources as the clock ticks. In multiplayer mode, players can choose to command the Antichrist's armies.

Left Behind Games chief executive Troy Lyndon, a game industry veteran who was involved in early incarnations of Electronic Arts' Madden football franchise, is particularly fond of the game's "pray" button. Sending one's holy warriors into a bloody battle can hurt their morale; having them pray first can bolster their faith.

Still, the game has attracted controversy, from critics who argue that it will promote religious intolerance.

Miami attorney Jack Thompson, already famous to a generation of Xbox and PlayStation owners for pitching campaigns against game companies, argues that games are rotting the minds of young people. But, as a practicing Christian, he says, he has more reasons than usual to dislike the latest target of his ire. The Eternal Forces game "breaks my heart," he said.

"The game is about killing people for their lack of faith in Jesus," he said. "The Gospel is not about killing people in the name of the Lord, and Jesus made that very clear."

Thompson worries that the existence of this game will be taken as proof by radical Muslims that Western culture is mounting a modern-day crusade against non-Christian faiths. Thompson says he broke off a publishing relationship with Tyndale House -- the company that puts out the "Left Behind" books -- because it approved licensing the book franchise to the start-up company that is just now putting on the game's finishing touches.

But Lyndon claims that the game doesn't get into religious denominations.

"It doesn't say who you pray to," he said. "I don't think the word 'Christian' is anywhere in the game play." Likewise, the game has only a " 'Star Wars' level" of violence. "There's no blood or gore; people just fall over," he said.

Lyndon says he hopes to give parents and gamers an option for an action-packed title that also gets players thinking about eternal matters.

"If you have two games and one has a good theme and one has a bad theme, people are generally going to reach for the one with the good theme," he said.

The Grand Theft Auto games are well-designed but have a bad theme, in his view. Lyndon intends for the Left Behind games (follow-ups to Eternal Forces are already in the works) to contain a religious theme that is "not preachy or dogmatic."

An early version of Eternal Forces has already won respect in write-ups on gamer Web sites. Until now, religion-oriented video games have tended to be relatively weak efforts -- far from cutting-edge and more the sort of lame thing Ned Flanders's kids might play on "The Simpsons."

One of the best-selling Christian game titles, called Catechumen, sold 86,000 copies, just a fraction of what most games need to make a profit.

In addition to the usual ads in gamer magazines, Left Behind Games is taking an inventive approach to the market by sending a million free sample copies of the game to churches around the country. It's a marketing tactic reminiscent of last year's "Left Behind" movie, called "World at War," which screened at megachurches and avoided commercial theaters altogether.

Game fans who like the "Left Behind" books say they are looking forward to Eternal Forces. Heath Summerlin, a Christian gamer who lives in South Carolina, said he thinks the game "could reach a broad spectrum of people who wouldn't necessarily be exposed to the books or go to church."

Summerlin has read a few of the "Left Behind" books and is interested trying the game when it comes out. In all honesty, though, he said, he's still more interested in the popular online game World of Warcraft, where he belongs to a Christian-oriented group of players called "Redeemed." The club, which Summerlin calls "a ministry outreach within the game itself," has about 250 members, who gather their characters in an online prayer before going on missions each day.

Ralph Bagley, designer of Catechumen and a spokesman for the Christian Game Developers Foundation, said Eternal Forces could turn out to be the first game to break out of the Christian market and appeal to secular audiences, though he is concerned by some reports about it.

"You can't kill people in the name of God and put it in the game play and hope it won't offend people," he said.

On the other hand, Bagley said he understands the need for a gamemaker to put in plenty of action to appeal to the market.

"There are people out there who think that if it's a Christian game, it has to be about putting two animals on an ark," he said. "But how many people are going to play that?"