A Note from our Editor-in-Chief:
My tenure as editor-in-chief of GameChurch.com seems to have providentially coincided with something of a renaissance in game design. Indie Games began posing difficult ethical questions, exploring complicated social subjects, and even wrestling with difficult theological subjects. As this happened, indie games controlled a large enough portion of the market that AAA studios have taken note and made (some) strides to tell more meaningful stories and produce more socially conscious games.
At GameChurch.com we’ve sought to highlight the spiritual side of this renaissance. We believe that the creative potential and interactive nature of games makes them fertile ground for wrestling with questions of purpose, ethics, belief, and theology. Back in 2012, we started doing a yearly list of Ten Games Jesus Loves in place of a traditional end of the year top ten list. Its my favorite thing we do each year. Its tongue in cheek and yet in the process, we’ve curated a diverse list of meaningful, spiritual games.
In the interest of acknowledging meaningful movements in game design, I decided to leverage our talented writers group to curate lists of games that have something important to say about the world, humanity, and even God. This is the first of many (hopefully) such lists. If you have ever walked past the GameChurch booth at a convention, you probably heard someone say, “Jesus loves you.” Another word for this is “grace” or “unmerited favor .” There are different types: there are common graces like random acts of kindness and deeper forms. But if there is anything we hope motivates us at GameChurch, it is grace, so it just made sense to start here.
In the process of making this list, I recruited three of our writers to discuss the state of grace in the medium of videogames on our podcast, so to see how we came up with this list, listen to our Grace in Games podcast.
This is not a list of the top six most gracious games but rather a list of six games that seriously grapple with or illustrate some aspect of grace in a manner worthy of commendation. – Drew Dixon
1. That Dragon, Cancer (PC, Mac, Ouya)
Ryan Green and Josh Larsen set out to make a videogame that illustrates God’s grace—His unmerited favor. When they embarked on this project, Green’s son Joel, was in the middle of an prolonged battle with terminal brain cancer. When Joel died in the middle of development, the goal of the game changed. The result is a game that isn’t directly about the grace of God, but rather a game about longing for grace, fighting to believe that God isn’t blind to the suffering of five year old boys and their families.
There is a scene in That Dragon, Cancer in which players are given a window into the night of Joel’s death. This sequence takes place in a cathedral in which players are set before a piano or organ, the keys of which play real prayers prayed by Ryan and Amy Green and their friends on behalf of Joel on the night of his death. I knew Joel’s fate in the real world and yet I found myself pressing the keys of the piano in rapid succession, producing a cacophony of prayer in hope against hope that it might change Joel’s fate.
While these prayers weren’t answered, at least not in the way that we would like, their very presence is itself a grace, an invitation to mourn with those who mourn, but not without hope. – Drew Dixon
2. DayZ (PC)
To paraphrase Hobbes, life in DayZ is nasty, brutish, and short. In the game, supplies, firearms, and ammunition are sparse, and expeditions to gather them can last hours at a time. Players are free to kill and plunder one another in spite of the zombie menace, and they frequently do. Outside the game, dark post-apocalyptic fiction like The Walking Dead and The Road fills the nerd imagination with visions of brutal and cutthroat “anti-societies.” Everything about DayZ, both the mechanics within and the culture without, encourages murder.
Except sometimes, for whatever reason, you aren’t murdered. Both you and the other player are surprised when this happens. What is this odd transaction of trust that’s happened between two strangers who’ve just met on a remote farm thick with zombies? He could have shot you from behind and taken your beans. You could have done the same. Neither has occurred.
It’s these small moments of grace, awkward and quiet as they are, that make DayZ memorable. Every player is untrustworthy, yourself included. To be given trust where none has been earned, and at great personal cost, is nothing short of grace. DayZ is dark, certainly, but this makes the light that shines through all the more radiant.. – C.T. Casberg
3. Sunset (PC, Mac, Linux)
Sunset is an unusual game: you don’t kill anything, solve puzzles, engage in branching narratives, or rack up points or experience points. Instead, you clean an apartment. And whatever you do or explore, the story kind of rolls on regardless. This might sound like a recipe for boredom, but I found it to be the one of the better experiences of grace I’ve seen in a video game.
The premise of Sunset is that you’re an young African-American woman housecleaning a well-connected man’s apartment in a fictional Latin American republic teetering on the brink of a civil war. If you take the time to engage the narrative, the core tension of approaching armies with nowhere to run continually rises. The situation starts to look increasingly bleak. The main character is trapped—there is nothing she can do to save herself. And yet she survives, and a better day arrives.
This is the very definition of grace. The Calvinist understanding of God’s grace is not that it is a helping hand—God doesn’t drop a few good free tools and then say, “Alright, now you finish it off.” No, by this way of thinking, grace is life, the very foundation of being. Without God’s good gifts, we are nothing, and we cannot save ourselves. And whether that was the intention or not, that’s the story and experience of Sunset. – Kevin Schut
4. Overwatch (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
Overwatch does not care one whit how good you are at Call of Duty. It has no scoreboard to swell your ego or burden you with shame. There are no easily accessible win-loss or kill-death ratios. Buried in the menus are the statistics necessary to figure out such things, but the player must supply their own calculator. The standard metrics with which shooters over the last two decades have trained us like lab rats are either muted or entirely absent from matches in Overwatch. The game does not care about where you come from or where you’ve been. It loves you all the same.
Perhaps you don’t have the reflexes of a teenage cyborg who’s spent every afternoon of the last ten years playing Counter-Strike. Overwatch has got your back. Try Torbjorn or Winston, characters who don’t demand precision. Maybe you’re not great at firefights, but you can triage better than Florence Nightingale. Take Mercy for a spin. Are you Donald Trump? Mei be for you.
Overwatch gives the player grace by saving them from the conventional expectations of competitive shooters and equipping them with the means to serve the team in a number of alternative ways. As the game itself gives players a reprieve, the players in turn are encouraged to show one another grace as well. – C.T. Casberg
5. Dishonored: The Knife of Dunwall / Brigmore Witches (PC, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360)
Dishonored introduced many players to a gracious attitude towards enemies. Not only do you not have to kill every guard in your way, but you can even preserve the lives of the enemies you’re sent to assassinate (by resorting to character assassination instead). The Knife of Dunwall / Brigmore Witches expansion to Dishonored expanded on the “grace for enemies” theme by allowing you to play as Daud, a primary antagonist of the main game — who you not only get to empathize with, but you get to guide him in a path to redemption if you so choose. As Daud, you can seek peaceful resolutions to for the enemies around him; or at least ones that minimize bloodshed, thus changing his character arc and story at large. However, this grace-for-enemies approach also means that you’re also presented with the easier option of relying on violence: grace for enemies is always the more difficult option, and it requires much more player creativity. – M. Joshua Cauller
6. El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron (Playstation 3, Xbox 360)
One of the reasons we keep coming back to games is because of the possibility of taking control of their worlds. Games make us feel accomplished. And yet, I will never forget El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron for the moments it wrested control from me.
El Shaddai is loosely based on the apocryphal Book of Enoch and tells the story of a mysterious biblical character named Enoch. At first glance it’s a weird, artistic, Japanese brawler, a mix of Devil May Cry and Final Fight in an otherworldly setting. Your character is on a mission from God delivered to him by cell phone calls from “Lucifel”—the angel Lucifer before he rebelled against God. It’s bizarre and mysterious but it should be as the game poses a rather mysterious question to the player: can God be trusted? El Shaddai never answers this question in any satisfactory manner, instead it gives us glimpses of grace—moments where control is wrested from players as Enoch is saved from forces bigger than himself. While the manner and purpose behind these glimpses remains a mystery, Enoch’s faith perseveres.
For some Enoch’s relationship with God is unsettling, but I can’t help but see kindness in El Shaddai’s mysterious grace. It illustrates one of the most difficult but important realities of life—that I am not in control, that I need help. – Drew Dixon