This post is gonna be a little tricky. I just finished playing a new release called “Heaven” by Genesis Works. It’s a puzzle type game in the style of Myst that lets the  player explore the Throne Room city described in Revelation.

Here’s why this is gonna be hard, Heaven sits firmly in the class of video games that I deliberately want to avoid with Soma Games and it steps into several of the traps that I think have plagued this niche from the get-go. That said, I think I can take a pretty good guess as to what drives the folks who made this game and I expect it’s good stuff – they take their faith seriously and were driven to bring something they are passionate about to the medium they are passionate about, I get that. So there is this balance I want to have of honestly reviewing a product that is now out in the public in an industry I aspire to contribute to without just taking pot-shots or tearing down people who I would probably enjoy hanging out with…not an easy line.

The Creatures

The Creature

Let me start by giving credit where it’s unreservedly due – the game is really, really beautiful. The 3d sets, the background mattes and cinematics; these folks put a lot of time and energy into rendering their vision of heaven in a lot of expansive sets and fantastic detail. At times, all the gold can get a little overwhelming visually but it seems true to the description in Revelation. There are also several creatures in the game that are absolutely awesome! These are the ‘four living creatures’  of Rev 4 and I wish we got to see more of them because they are all fantastic. The direction of the cinematics takes a pretty modern and artistic line with jumpy pans and on-the-fly focusing as an action sequence unfolds. That was a pleasant choice for the sake  of doing something unexpected. So all in all, I’m pretty impressed with the artistic elements of the game – well done Genesis Works.

On the gameplay level, Heaven is OK but not great. The puzzles get better as you go but at first they were impossible to understand and I was left just doing what Axis said to do. I’m not saying the puzzles were hard, I’m saying they lacked the features needed to make my actions meaningful. For example there is a puzzle where you need to line up a series of statues with colored discs over their heads. Unless I totally missed some major part of the story there was no rhyme or reason to where the discs went or why. So I was left just spinning them around until Axis said ‘that’s right’ which was less than rewarding. But they get better as you go and the creation puzzle was particularly interesting. It does feel pretty short given the price point  but I can get over that.

The storyline is an interesting part of this game. You are an astronaut on your way to Jupiter when your ship is struck by an asteroid and is about to blow up when Michael the Archangel intervenes and brings you to Heaven where your adventure starts. You quickly meet Axis, your guide, who turns out to be your grandmother who was crippled in life but healed by Christ and now does back handsprings. It’s not clear why you’re in heaven, perhaps simply because you died in your ship, but that point is ambiguous. But here’s the weird part – I gather almost that entire plot line from other websites. Very little of that is clearly communicated in the game which creates a serious lack of context. I think this game needed some significant extra work done on how the game progresses from plot point to plot point and that would be minimal effort with maximum benefit. Similarly, I have to assume that any outside game testers would have brought up similar confusion about the plot. Myst succeeded because the puzzles were more than just obstacles, they were the way we interacted with the worlds and unraveled the story. I’m afraid Heaven can seem more like a sightseeing tour at times since I don’t know why I’m doing most of the things I’m doing.

So if I stopped here I reckon Heaven would get something like 5 or 6 stars. Some things were really well done, others need work but overall it was better than I expected  and an especially good effort from a first-time studio.

Grandma Axis

Grandma Axis

Unfortunately, that’s not where this review or (I suspect) any other is likely to stop. The elephant in the room here is the supporting character Axis. Axis acts sort of like your guide in the game with hints and such, also there are things that need to be done in the puzzles like spinning turnstiles or pulling cords and it seems she is able to manipulate these objects while you are not. Technically and artistically, she is really well done with good animations, good modeling and great textures. Axis is a tall, shapely, gorgeous blonde in a short skirt and this is where the game went sideways for me.

Axis is clearly designed to be a sexually attractive figure. In terms of pixelated sexuality she is probably somewhere between Lara Croft and Bloodrayne. It’s not just that she’s a beautiful woman, which would be fine, it’s that she’s wearing clothes that everybody (and their wife or girlfriend) will recognize as trashy. In the context of the game it gets really uncomfortbale when you realize that she is in fact your grandmother, crossing and uncrossing her legs like Sharon Stone, and shaking her money maker as she leads you around – hello! – heaven.

I really hate belabor this point because I have to assume it was primarily a marketing decision aimed at getting the gaming demographic (presumed to be young men) to buy the game. But I suspect this one thing will be the only thing that generates comments from Christian and secular sources alike. When Left Behind came out the media focused on one particular aspect of the game. The headline would go something like this: “Left Behind: Convert non-believers to Christianity or Kill Them if they Refuse.” Now that characterization of the game isn’t entirely fair, but it’s not entirely unfair either. Somebody inside that shop should have anticipated what the world would see as a game about conversion at gunpoint. Somebody inside Genesis Works should have realized that their headline will read “Heaven: Get a Tour of The Throne Room and a Lap Dance While You’re There.” Axis and her stripper boots will be the only thing most people see here and the truth is I can’t blame them. There are too many slow pans across her chest to her belt buckle, tail swinging and upskirt camera shots to conclude that this is an out-of-context thing.  Genesis Works either made the decision to sexualize this character deliberately or they have a profound degree of naivety about how this game appears to the average gamer.

[For the record,  this too is a place to learn from Left Behind. Trying to say anything that sounds like “no,  you have it all wrong” will backfire. My suggestion to Genesis Works here is to own it and portray the decision as somehow deliberate. To say, “yes, we did it that way on purpose. Here’s why…” will go over way better than some SpinalTapesque  line like “What’s wrong with being beautiful”]

You know, I struggled about whether or not to write this. As fellow Christians I really want to encourage and support these guys. You know, ‘if you don’t have anything nice to say’ and all that. But one thing I’ve seen too muchhmm of over the last few years is a powerful pull by Christians to give a Christian game a pass on the evidence that somebody’s intentions are good. This hesitancy to be appropriately critical has led to the place where Christian games are expected to suck because we enable mediocrity instead of demanding excellence. I don;t want to be the guy who points out the elephant but I’ve already talked to several colleagues who have seen the game, share my evaluation to a greater or lesser degree, but don’t want to say anything for fear of hurting the feelings of the folks at Genesis Works. But ultimately that’s not good for them or for any of the rest of us trying to find this place with our faith meets our passion.

And just one more thought before I wrap this up and I sure hope Genesis Works reads this. I really wanted  to contact you  folks about this before I wrote it but I can’t find anything except a ‘sales@’ email address. I can’t find an address, a phone number, or even a support email. Not sure what’s going on here but for a company that just released a major product you’re almost invisible – that’s odd and frankly it gives the impression that you’re hiding…please don’t do that. There is a lot here to be really proud of and you should be talking up the really cool aspects of your game.

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16 Comments
  1. RD

    Hi chris I agree this needed to be revised with exploitation of Axis. This is after all heaven as many other’s have stated so its supposed to be pure perfect with none of our worlds garbage lol 😉 Cool how they actually took the time to put real scripture and charaters as mentioned in the bible, in the game. Well another point of view everyone seems to have over looked is the fact that its heaven its pure so if thats the case no one should look at it as being naughty with the axis charater other that the stupid camera angles, since everyone knows that in the beginning that man was naked till he failed and sinned by the temptation of satin. which was on earth. in heaven at least they didn’t show everyone nude since it would seem apropriate since its pure and people there wouldn’t look at it each other any different if they were if they to make the game accurate to the real heaven.

  2. AtlantaCC1 – you may be spot on in that the issues Axis presented may have only been brought to their attention late in the game…too late to change. But I tend to doubt it.
    In the very last scene of the game you see Axis in a totally different and totally appropriate gown. So at the very least, a model of Axis was created that would have avoided this question all together. That Axis is still lovely, still striking, still everything the developers indicate they need – she just isn’t trampy.

  3. AtlantaCC1

    Back maybe 18 months ago I wrote Genesis Works about their main character. I mentioned all the things brought up here about her appearance and the perceived intent and possibly inappropriateness for such a “heavenly” focus as this game takes. I mentioned that guys are going to notice her for exactly the wrong reasons.

    Their response was something along the lines of: “We’ve considered this aspect of the game with much deliberation and have chosen the vehicle of Axis with purpose.”

    So for good or bad, they made their choice. I also brought up that the female audience is going to possibly resent the character. No need to explain that. What percentage of the population looks like Axis? And what wife/fiance/girlfriend would want to compete with her?

    I’m sorry, but the whole focus on voluptuousness, (while the physical beauty is undeniable), is just too much akin to other world religious views that virgins in heaven are awaiting those who meet certain requirements. And if an Axis is not awaiting in Heaven for us personally (after all, she is Joshua’s grandmother), it might be thought that at least hopefully many of them might be there to grace the scenery. What a shame that message might be propagated here, and though not outright spoken, can be taken as implied.

    If even one male ends up hoping the real Heaven has an Axis for him and for that reason he’d “consider God” before he dies, then Genesis Works has tainted its offering to the gaming world. It didn’t need to be.

    A few graphics modifications on the character could have been done. But I’m sure when I wrote them about this issue they probably considered themselves too far along to change things, but they did have an opportunity to consider it, they provided me an answer, the game is released, and they have set their course.

  4. Living the Christian life and living in the world is so difficult, and I suppose the video game industry is no exception.

    I sure hope more Christian companies begin demanding excellence as you say.

  5. There’s an interesting side note here regarding the girl’s outfit. At the very end of the game we see her is a totally different, and far more modest dress. It’s an off-the-shoulder gown thing which is still attractive – it even shows off her shape to a degree – but it doesn’t remind me of Christina Agulera. 🙂

  6. Nice review!

    Even though I haven’t played the game, I would have to agree that I think the developers had the male, mainstream/secular gamers in mind when they were making this game. They were obviously trying to target this group of people moreso than Christians, which is all well and good, but it can also have negative effects.

    Axis is obviously getting the most controversy. I personally don’t see her outfit too bad, however, for a Christian game, this may not send the appropriate message.

  7. I’d seen a bit of this game and was curious about it, so thanks for the review!

    I’d also like to add that this review, and the attitude you guys at Soma portray in general, are exactly what I’ve been looking for. I’ve been looking at different approaches to combining Christian values and video games and you seem to have struck the best balance I’ve seen so far. Are you guys hiring? 😀

  8. Nice review. You obviously took a lot of care to make sure you very gently critiqued them. I think you should have taken a slightly stronger stance, though.

    It seems pretty obvious that they designed Axis for sex appeal, and then focused on that through camera angles. Shame on them.

    You did do right by trying to contact them first and try to get another side. Good job being thorough. 🙂 I think if they would have offered their side of it, you should include it but still be firm about how you feel.

    I hope that you take a firm stance when reviewing my games, too. We need accountability to make it to the point of excellence.

  9. Christian

    Good review.
    ‘Heaven’ looks interesting if a little didactic and in some ways a bit inappropriate. I like the splendour of heaven in the game trailer but that’s about it. As for the youthful heavenly grandma in the game, yes, that’s creepy. Sure, she may be wearing a reasonable amount of clothing, but the garments remain highly suggestive. Not having played the game, it seems the infamous camera angles are the main reason for it being labelled inappropriate. I didn’t even notice the stripper boots, I know jack all about fashion but the problem is the message it sends, especially within a Christian game.

  10. Good review on “Heaven”. I agree with your comments on the Christian game industry. Christian games may have faith in them but I’ve yet to see one with works. It seems like if we are making games to glorify God and his truth they should be better quality than they are.

  11. Scott

    Great review. I’ve learned a bunch, and have never even heard of it before to be honest.

    I agree with your comments wholeheartedly, and am glad you were willing to point them out. I’m not someone that is adamantly opposed to violence, drama, or anything else that goes into media, but usually they were design choices that could have been avoided or addressed differently. The perception really does make a difference.

    I’ve noticed many times that any time I’ve tried to share the REASON I’m a Christian, people get caught in a hitch where they have misconceptions made by hypocritical folks. Folks that say they act, think, do one philosophy… yet in actuality, they’re acting just as the world does. The same goes for any organization.

    Basically, when sending one message, don’t send another. Be true to what you say you’re true to.

  12. Coming from a non-gamer, I thought your review was on-point. Frankly, it’s too bad there isn’t more constructive criticism within Christian circles, regardless of industry.

    Judging the product of game studios that put out the likes of Grand Theft Auto and their type, really isn’t a judgment that we should be passing. But, we are clearly called to judge (and rebuke) the actions and behavior of other believers (if sin).

    It only takes one glance at the image of Axis to know what the intent was here. No way a group of likely male developers can brush off the imagery as naivete. Get real. As a game dabbler, I’ve played enough to recognize Axis as part of the same ilk of whoreish looking characters in the popular games today.

    Thanks Soma for being bold enough to intelligently and gently call a spade a spade.

    Ok, to finish on an upper. I am really encouraged that there is a legitimate space now in the gaming industry that is creating family friend, even Biblical games.

    Being the Dad of a 1 1/2 year old boy, I am confident that there will likely be some great games for us to enjoy together, that he won’t be embarassed to tell his friends about.

    So long as companies in the space continue to sharpen each other through candid feedback and a measure of accountability, it looks like Christian gaming may actually jump the gap and enjoy a solid market some day.

  13. Kristine

    Hey Chris,

    I agreed with your review, but I would get rid of all of the disclaimers and just give your review. Stop apologizing, but do start with the positive aspects of the game before your critique.

    One more thing, the trailer for the game made me want to go to heaven, which is another positive aspect. Most people have a crummy view of heaven, and living righteously is simply not worth the effort. We need to be reminded that heaven is a glorious and romantic place.

    Kristine

  14. Josh (Sourpunch)

    Great job on it. Loved the review (especially since I heard about that game before), glad you didn’t shy away from pointing out the negative about the game. Keep up the great work.

  15. Beth

    Grandma+cleavage= ew.

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