THE SOMA STORY

— CHAPTER 4 —

…in which the word is getting out.

It would be impossible to tell Soma’s story rightly without talking about John Bergquist, or JB as we always call him around here. I met JB at the same time I met Rande (see Part 2) and in the same men’s ministry context of Bootcamp Northwest.

Chris and JB photo

Like everyone who participated in Soma’s beginning, JB had no previous connection to gaming; in fact, he was an art school student working as a fish biologist consulting on ArcGIS maps…because that’s actually a thing. But his awkward CV failed to capture JB’s true super-power which was connecting. I’ve never met a person so intuitively gifted at building and deepening genuine relationships. But don’t imagine your typical ‘social skills’ expert or some wide-smiling salesperson, John is something different. For all his impact, his contribution is wickedly hard to summarize. On paper he ran marketing and communications. In practice he was our HR department and our chaplain. In spirit he was our conscience, our grace, and our encouragement, and in truth he was our glue. I don’t mind saying that we just gave up trying to give JB a genuine job title or job description because his work defied such boundaries – in fact it wasn’t his “work” at all that made him so valuable – it was his presence. I could spend this entire post writing about John’s crucial, fuzzy-bordered role in Soma’s story, and in my own life, but for the sake of brevity, suffice it to say JB was there from the the very beginning, was an irreplaceable ally, was a friend unlike any other in my experience…and for the moment that will have to do.

The years between about 2010 and 2017 were characterized by steady work, steady professional progress, and a regular look of surprise on our faces as doors unimagined opened for us over and over and over. Surely it was partly due to John’s remarkable talent to build relationships but it was far more a matter of favor and providence. We constantly found ourselves invited into remarkable places, speaking in venues far beyond our merit, and meeting people far above our pay grade, and It all started with Intel.

As we were finding our feet as game developers, Intel decided to make their own app store, AppUp, to compete with Apple’s new and rampaging success. Intel’s Hillsboro campus is just over the ridge from Newberg and due to another one of those “random interactions” we were recruited to be one of their launch partners. AppUp failed as a product but Soma Games has never had a better friend or stronger supporter than our friends at Intel. Aside from them being our largest contract client, they were constantly sending us hither and yon to conferences, meetups and galas. I spoke at Computex, GDC, IDF, CES and more. JB went to Spain, Seattle, Atlanta and the Oscars. We shared stages with celebrities and executives, won a bunch of awards, were treated like honored guests, and in all cases were celebrated for the work we were doing in games and technology. It was fun! Lots and lots of fun! Something to understand here is that while JB and I occasionally traveled solo we were usually acting as a team, and we were good at it. Our personalities and our skills were wonderfully complimentary but even more our spiritual gifts played off one another perfectly. He’d hear the Holy Spirit give him half a story and I’d hear the other half. I’d get one breadcrumb and he’d get the next. It was always like that and I gotta say it’s exhilarating! It’s like a treasure hunt with my two best friends, JB and Jesus. We’d be accepting earthly invitations for some business reason with full knowledge that it was really God inviting us on another adventure. But for all the limousines and after-parties we were very aware that God was using this for something more subtle and far more interesting.

We were being cast like seed to the fallow fields of game development.

One night after a long day of presentations and demonstrations, in the SF Marriott lobby full of late night revelers, JB and I were shaking hands and trading cards just like everybody else when a woman began to make her way toward us. She was a mid-level executive who we’d met but we weren’t friends with. Squeezing through the crowd of bodies, she came near and shouted over the clamor…

“I don’t feel safe. Can you get me to the elevator?”

I remember this moment so clearly even though it’s been over a decade. The look in her eye said so much with so little.

She didn’t feel safe but sensed that we were safe.
…She’d been drinking too much but trusted we wouldn’t take advantage.
… … She needed help and she sought us.

I also remember the sudden shift in the atmosphere. JB and I knew instantly that this was somehow important, at least more important than it seemed on the surface. It was again that inner voice that said “Pay attention. You are on mission right now.” Over a decade of ministry we’d learned that Holy Spirit can show up anytime and any place and we’d trained ourselves to be ready. The moment we saw her approaching we just knew something was happening and our spirits stood ready for anything. When she spoke we said “of course” and escorted her slowly through the crowd, away from the group of men she’d left, and cautiously watched, as we went. We made it to the elevators where she smiled, thanked us, and left in peace.

In one sense, it’s such a little thing. We were merely gentlemen. It was nice, but not exactly miraculous. And yet that moment remains crystal clear in my mind because it stands as an early example of some hundreds of right-time / right-place “divine encounters” where we had the honor of being the people God used to intersect the life of a son or daughter who didn’t know Him. Keep in mind the context as well: outside of CGDC, we walked in a world where we were often the only Christians these people knew.

The.
Only.
Christians.
They.
Knew.*

This situation became evident to us very early on and in occasionally humorous ways like the guy who apologized for offering us pork, or the woman who was surprised that we were both married. At first I was surprised at just how “post-Christian” things really were but that wore off soon enough. In that environment we tried our best to err on the side of not being preachy, judgy, or aloof. We were just ourselves. Of one hundred people who’d visit our booth ninety didn’t notice or care about our faith, they just wanted to play our games. But there were also the other ten. Some people were offended by our very existence, but honestly those folks were very rare. Others saw us as priests of one sort or another. You’d be shocked to know how many spontaneous confessions I’ve heard. But what caught my attention most were the sincerely curious. The stereotype isn’t fair, of course, but so many folks imagine all Christians to be the Westboro Baptist types. To meet believers in their own “space” without picket signs or asking for money was something they’d never seen. Curiosity typically led to questions which led to conversations and often to relationships. We always tried to be professional but also available. Ready to lend a hand, offer comfort, or a bit of advice, whenever we felt led. I’m not saying we were perfect witnesses, but we were regularly present in rooms where Christ was otherwise absent. In addition to the many “ordinary” stories, there are many “extraordinary” stories. In fact, the hard part about telling this part of the Soma story is that we have so many tales worth telling. I’d be writing for miles if I tried to tell them all. I can tell you stories of healing, deliverance, prophecy, provision, and more. They’re wonderful stories! Exciting stories! But a risk of ‘signs and wonders’ stories here and now would be the temptation to mistake the sign for the signer and the symbol for the signal. For as powerful and as numerous as those stories can be, they were not our everyday experience. Nor do I think they were the takeaway from this part of Soma’s story. Maybe more germane, however, is to find those stories that illustrate my point. So with that said, I’ll tell three quick tales here and leave the rest for another time and place.

The first comes from roughly 2015. We were in a steady cycle of attending events all over the country, often on Intel’s coattails, and meeting all sorts of fascinating people. In this case we’d been introduced to a big shot at MGM where we shook hands in some plexiglass penthouse and the evening proceeded. Later that evening, as many had moved on to some after-after-party, this gentleman approached us. 

“You’re the Christians, right?”

“Uh – yeah, I guess so.”

“You pray and stuff?”

“…yeah.”

“I don’t believe in any of that crap.”

“…”

“My kid is really sick.”

“…”

“Would you pray for him?”

Of course we prayed! Right there, right then. He invited us to bring the glory of God to his immediate unspeakable need and we were so honored that he’d allow us that moment of vulnerability. We spoke peace over him, restoration and life over his son and revelation for his doctors. When we were done he wiped away a secret tear, mumbled “Thanks – it couldn’t hurt I guess.” and walked away.

I never saw him again, and don’t know what happened to his son, but I do know that for at least a moment this unbeliever was willing to seek the kingdom and we were available to share what we had.

~ Selah ~

Or the time we were approached by a potential investor. He wanted to fund and publish three games over four years, and after a dozen very encouraging phone conversations we were about ready to draw up documents. But a last minute invitation brought me (again) to San Francisco** which gave me the opportunity to meet this man in person. My friend Ryan Green was in San Francisco as well, which meant he was available to ride shotgun.

Ryan and I sat down in a pizza pub and awaited this investor who showed up a few minutes after we’d offered a quick prayer for wisdom and providence. When he slid into the booth, with barely a hello, he instantly launched into one of the most rambling, wide-ranging, bizarre monologues I’ve ever heard in my life. If you took every conspiracy theory in existence, blended it with techno-occultism and Merovingian mysteries, you’d be half way there. This man spoke non-stop for most of an hour about black helicopters, Indonesian prophets, and fiat currencies – all of which he was personally involved in. At one point Ryan captured a rare pause to ask, “Do you know we’re Christians?”

“Oh yeah! Of course!”

“Do you know you’re literally describing the antichrist?”

“Really? How cool!…” and he was off with even more energy.

At this point I’d spent several hours in lucid, meaningful conversation with this gentleman and never heard anything remotely like this from him. Not this kind of content, and not this actual voice either which was at times alternately deeper and higher than I was used to. The two of us were stunned by his verbosity and – if I’m honest – fascinated. This story was like a twisted work of fiction that’d make Umberto Eco proud.

As he continued his disquisition I got this vivid image of an angel standing at the table, grabbing this man’s tongue, and yanking it out of his mouth in a way that forced him to speak and reveal what he would’ve preferred to keep secret. Most of an hour went by before finally, with no apparent reason, he stopped. He licked his lips and smacked his chops as if his mouth was suddenly very dry, and we saw sudden cogency enter his eyes – the angel was presumably satisfied with this performance.

The fellow looked at us for a long moment and seemed to think, “Uh oh…did I just say all the things?” Then he got up with an “Oh well” sort of shrug and we went our separate ways. This fellow is still around in the game space but we never spoke again. What I took away from that experience was a deep appreciation for the fact that while God clearly had a plan for Soma, so did the enemy, and we were that close to a deal that would have almost certainly destroyed us.

~ Selah ~

Or the time we went to Washington DC with a modded version of GTA*** that featured a bobble-headed Vladimir Putin in Grand Theft Democracy. We showed this and Grand Theft Theocracy to a room full of spies and state department officials who were interested in gaming as a vector for getting pro-democracy ideas in front of young gamers as a counter to the radical groups that are already using video games for recruiting and indoctrination.

To date this remains the biggest of my “How in the world did we get here?” stories but like so many others the real story isn’t about ‘the halls of power’ but rather the random meeting in Off The Record with a burned and burned-out DC veteran operative who hadn’t considered his childhood faith in decades. This guy was a tough read but I sensed it’d been a long time since he’d met anybody who didn’t want something from him. Rande was along on this trip and we came home convinced that all of it, all the shenanigans, and background screening, and security checks that were required to get us into that room, were really all about this man who wasn’t even supposed to be there but filled in at the last minute.

God wanted to reach out to the lost one of the ninety-nine and he wanted to do it through us. We didn’t come with fiery prophecy or a call to repent, just kindness without guile, friendship with strings, and our story told without an agenda. I don’t know what happened next to this gentleman but I know God was on his trail and our encounter will have likely been but one of several. I hope he finds his way back home.

~ Selah ~

So what does it all mean?

Back in 2005 when I was drafted into this I assumed that God’s call was to make games that touched people’s hearts. I imagined we would be like the C.S. Lewis of gaming, making the Xbox build of Narnia and charming teen atheists through winsome storytelling. Which is to say I imagined God wanted us to make products.

But then a good and wise friend at Wild at Heart pointed something out – all of our God stories revolved not around our products, but around people. Making video games certainly served to open doors and give us a certain credibility (not to mention something fun to do) but God’s hand in the Soma story has almost always been revealed in the human interactions we have along the way.

All of these “middle years” were about teaching us, training us, to be ready, in season and out, for the unexpected moment when the chill runs across our shoulders and we know the Spirit is moving.

You might come to the end of this chapter thinking that apart from some fun stories not much of consequence happened at Soma Games, but you would be mistaken. Concurrent to what I’ve noted here, and deserving of its own chapter, is our pivotal association with Redwall, which started in 2011. That will be the subject of our next chapter.

As I close this chapter it’s important to add a sad post-script.

In July of 2020, when all the world was dealing with The Rona pandemic, my friend and brother John Bergquist was killed in a car accident. I have much more to say on that matter but not here, and not yet. As I write this the loss is just over a year old and is yet far too fresh. It cannot be overstated how crucial JB was to everything Soma is and has become. His impact is incalculable. And yet I don’t yet have the heart to say the words that ought to be said.

 

…Balder the Beautiful is dead, is dead.

*Perhaps to clarify, we were often the only Christians these folks THOUGHT they knew. Another all too common experience are the people who seek a private moment only to confess, in a conspiratorial whisper, how they know Jesus too. I always want to say, “Great!…why are you whispering? And why is that a secret?”
…But that’s a topic for another time.
**In case it isn’t clear, San Francisco is sort of the “Hollywood of gaming” where a lot of studios are located and a lot of deals are done. Not to mention it’s the home of several major conferences like GDC and WDC. We were there all the time prior to The Rona. As of this writing, though, it’s hard to say what will happen next for the capital of gaming. (My bet is on Austin.)
***The irony made me laugh for weeks. See Part 1 of this story.