Brian Jaques' Redwall, the children's fantasy series often compared to J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, is coming to your Mac or PC. Soma Games, a video game company started in 2008 by Christians, not only has the rights to Redwall, but will premiere a version of the game at the Christian Game Developers Conference Thursday.
The conference, CGDC 2013, will run July 11-13 at Concordia University in Portland, Ore. "We'll be beta testing "Abbey Craft" tomorrow and Friday," Soma Games CEO Chris Skaggs told The Christian Post in an interview Wednesday.
Skaggs described Redwall as "one of the best-selling books ever" with "upwards of 35 million copies sold." In 2009, the Daily Princetonian reported more than 20 million copies of the series sold worldwide in 28 different languages. "From the purely business angle, a lot of people think that it is the only unmined IP (unclaimed Intellectual Property) in the world," Skaggs said.
"We're just totally blessed and humbled by the whole thing," he added.
According to its website, Soma Games takes its name from the Greek word for "body," referring to the church, the Hindu mythological drink of the gods, and the mood altering drug in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. The company is run by Christians but they don't make Christian video games.
"To long-standing Redwall fans: Fear not! We are not making a 'Christian' video game. To Soma Games fans who know about our faith: Fear not! We are not making Diablo for Mice."
Skaggs explained that deep questions about what gaming means – "that gaming as a narrative structure requires that people have … a little distance from their characters" – as well as practical considerations – "play has to be something … that you enjoy for its own sake" – led Soma to abandon "didactic," educational games.
Many Christian games have been the sort that "grandma would buy for little Jimmy because she wants to see that he has a proper moral education, but little Jimmy never wants to play it." Instead, Soma designs games "that are fun and entertaining" but teach "our deepest lessons."
"The Christian worldview is built into them," Skaggs explained, "but on a foundational level."
Soma's "Arc Series," for example, loosely follows the tale of Noah's Ark in Genesis 6. "We wanted to tell that story in a way that people wouldn't even realize what they're seeing until maybe the very end," said the CEO. Taking a leaf out of C.S. Lewis, they started in space.
"The natural environment, we want to make those super pretty," he explained. "It looks more like you're underwater than like you're out in the blackness of space." The human technology, however, is "classic steam punk. It's rust and it's bronze – they're pretty in their own way but they're obviously not eternal."
People are minding their own business when a "huge cloud of gas and dust and ice" called "the rain" moves into the solar system. A secret organization, called NOAA, alone sees the threat, while others see it as an opportunity – "there's all these minerals and resources and we can make money here."
The grand story covers four games – for mobile, Mac, and PC. "G is gravity, F is force, E is energy," Skaggs said. "In each of the three games, that particular scientific force becomes a key component in how you play the game." So G deals with mapping "a gravity space," F is "a 3D pinball kind of game," and E resembles the game "missile command, where you have to defend the planet from falling rocks."
The series culminates in Arc, "a team-based sort of racing game, where you have to run this spaceship through an obstacle field and ferry cargo back and forth."
In games with a well-known story, like Redwall, designers walk a fine line. "If I get to play Matthias, for example, then I might accidentally make the wrong choice and … Redwall might fall to Cluny," Skaggs explained. "Or you have to force the player to make the decisions you want them to make and … that's no fun."
The solution? Play a secondary character. As a less important figure, "I may make the kind of choices in the game that lead to glory or honor, death or life – all those choices are still meaningful to me, even if they're not the choices that drive the major narrative."
"When you look at 'Heavy Rain,'" a mystery game about a missing child, "compared to say 'Mass Effect,' where you have to save the whole galaxy, the level of satisfaction that people get from either is the same – I won," Skaggs explained. "People want to get drawn up into stories that are bigger than themselves."
He contrasted Soma's style with some popular games like "The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim." "There's a lot of these open-world adventures, where you can decide" to be good or bad, "and they just sort of let you explore."
Skaggs lamented widespread separation of faith from the general culture. "There's this common wisdom … that you can either be a Christian doing Christian business or you can be a non-Christian doing non-Christian business and we can't mix the two," he said.
C.S. Lewis, however, proves them wrong. "Everyone understood that Lewis was a pure Christian, but then he had all this fantasy work and science fiction work that was totally accepted and totally enjoyed by the secular world too." Skaggs aims to follow in his footsteps.