Babycastles’ The You Testament arcade cabinet at Silent Barn. — Photo by Paul Cox
The meeting of creative minds that is Wyckoff Avenue’s Silent Barn has brought us everything from your new favorite bands to America’s worst cook. But wait, there’s more: a group of independent game developers known as Babycastles also dwell here, honoring gamer tradition by setting up shop in the basement. Long responsible for a monthly rotation of great DIY arcade cabinets beneath Silent Barn, Babycastles are now raising funds and enthusiasm for an indie arcade in Manhattan. To this end, the coders took over the venue for a night last week to share with us their favorite games about the Bible.
While not generally taking an interest in scriptural matters, indie gamemakers do look anywhere and everywhere for inspiration – far beyond the ever-constricting genre circles of the mainstream. Babycastles have presented no end of beautiful experiments, all cobbled together in arcade cabinets of found materials and electrical tape, and all showing off the digital rough edges that define the DIY dream. This energy will soon be presented to the world in a pop-up arcade next to Grand Central Station, if more Kickstarter supporters come through in time, but for now these creations remain in the dark basement and obscure FTP folders of their birth.
So if Babycastles are working on so much great stuff, why are we here at Silent Barn playing a collection of small-studio Bible games from the last eighteen years? Christian games, curator Ivan Safrin maintains, are as indie as it gets. Unsellable to any publisher and developed out of plain devotion, they’re the software equivalent of outsider art. Indie gamers savor them like art lovers appreciate Henry Darger: nothing is masterful or especially polished, but nothing quite follows the usual rules, either. Tonight is not an ironic outing, but an expression of admiration from one scene to another.
Take developer Wisdom Tree, a company outside of Tucson, Arizona, responsible for the three retro examples here tonight. Their Super 3D Noah’s Ark is legendary for being the only game sold for the Super Nintendo without official Nintendo sanction. The pseudo-3D "shooter," presented here in a Frank Gehry-esque plywood cabinet, looks instantly familiar. It is, in fact, a subversive re-skin of Wolfenstein 3D, with Noah as the player character, the castle decorated as the Ark, and Nazis swapped for goats and cows which must be "fed" with fruit-bullets. This game introduces a surprising rule of Christian game development: the games don’t have to teach specific Christian values. They simply need to be our games, existing outside the mainstream, making the Bible cool by any means necessary.
Two even older Wisdom Tree games round out the retro collection. Bible Buffet (playable online!) is a fairly un-fun combination of Candy Land and arcade puzzling that, aside from the occasional Sunday School pop quiz, seems more concerned with the five food groups than the Ten Commandments. But if food and health are moral concerns, then perhaps Candy Land really is just as sinister as Doom.
Nearby, Spiritual Warfare (also playable online) is the sneakiest experiment here: it starts out, to all appearances, as a straight Zelda clone (explore forest, enter cave, find Armor of God). This suddenly changes when the player leaves the first area and realizes that the fantasy environment is just a park in a real-world city. After this we must use our spiritual armaments to take on the mean streets of the corrupt 1990s.
Switching cabinets into the 3D-accelerated present, technology has allowed small Christian developers to move beyond these carbon copies into strange new realms. Cougar Interactive’s Zoo Race, as the most visually stimulating game here, is projected in the back for the enjoyment and bemusement of all. A nonsense frame story about an atheist librarian receiving Biblical visions is an excuse to race Noah’s animals against each other, with God Himself playing announcer. Paced by the homemade guitar-rock soundtrack, the sight of a pig in a top hat and a rhino in a yarmukle straddling rockets to race on the moon is enough to convince us that these developers are definitely doing something new.
Mat Dickie’s The You Testament is a more thoughtful game which doesn’t fare well in an arcade environment, only hinting at possible depth. It’s the story of a forgotten disciple of Jesus wandering the Holy Land and experiencing its significant events in between lengthy stints of meditation. The one-man development team created it to cap off ten years of tireless indie output, and worked in chunks of code from all of his earlier projects. This even includes a combat system recycled from a series of wrestling games, which allows the player to take a path of violence at any point with a single keystroke. The fighting is never necessary and usually a very bad idea, but the otherwise boring game holds meaning because the latent violence in our verb set makes our nonviolence a constant choice. How can we choose to love Jesus, Dickie asks, if we can’t also choose to punch Him in the face?
The arcade hosting these five games, pieced together from old computers, speakers, cabinetry and tube lighting, bustles with the curious. There are other designers, visitors from the likes of the NYU Game Center, filmmakers, and an adventurous reporter from the New York Times. The games beep, zoom, and power-chord along under a backing soundtrack of assorted Christian music, a personal playlist contributed for the evening by Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields. Is Merritt here? Is he a gamer? We’re pretty sure he’s an atheist anyway, but clearly he enjoys the musical output of the Christian underground as much as Babycastles enjoy the games. The music fills in another side of this below-the-radar world, another living part – along with gaming and along with DIY itself – of America’s subcultural landscape.