THE SOMA STORY

— CHAPTER 5 —

…in which our hero meets Martin the mouse messiah.

This post needs an up-front disclaimer and explanation.

In this chapter I’ll be talking about a book series that’s kind of a big deal, and our association with it. But I won’t be calling it by name and you can blame/credit The Google. Here’s the thing: The Soma Story is all about God and Jesus and the weird, wild ways we’ve walked through our faith over the years. These books, on the other hand, are not about God and the folks who own the IP understandably want to keep it that way. So in an effort to respect their wishes I don’t want to give the search bots a fat target that puts Jesus and the book title, or the author, on the same page. By extension, I’ll be discussing several things that are bound by NDAs and contracts, not to mention sensitive matters in which anonymity by third parties should be respected. That said, anybody with a heartbeat ought to be able to figure out what I’m talking about. Onward…

For the record, this chapter chronologically overlaps both chapters 4 and 6, but it focuses on the [RedActed] thread in our story.


Also for the record, part of this story, with a different focus, was started here: Project Mouseworks and continued in later posts.

So it begins…

Think what you will, but this journey began, for us anyway, with a dream. One day JB came into the office and asked me half-mindedly as he’s unloading his backpack, “Are we doing something with [RedActed]? Or am I just making something up?”

 

My eyes squinted just a little and my head did that question-mark-20-degrees-to-the-left thing. “Funny you should ask – really funny actually – ’cause I was just on the phone with a guy a couple of days back about that very thing. Why?”

 

“I had a really vivid dream last night and we were making a [RedActed] video game…”

 

That was February 7, 2011.

 

[RedActed Author] had passed away about 20 hours earlier and the news hadn’t hit the wire yet.

When we DID hear the news a few days later I can tell you the hair on my arms stood up and I had this weird feeling in my gut. The feeling is hard to describe but some part of me was saying I needed to pay attention. Also in that moment I just knew that [RedActed] was going to be a big part of our story as if it were a certainty. But apart from that sudden gut-feeling, the truth is that when Chris M. called about making a mobile game, I didn’t know the books and honestly hadn’t thought much more about the conversation. I answer lots of calls like his all the time and few of them ever progress beyond the lookie-loo stage. But when we learned of the author’s death and put the timeline together with JB’s dream, it was clear that “Aslan was on the move.”

Something I’ll hesitantly call “Prophetic Dreams” actually play an ongoing role in the Soma story. Biblically, dreams are one of God’s well-established com-channels. The book of Daniel features several dreams prominently – there’s Papa Joseph’s dream to split for Egypt, Peter’s dream/vision of the beast-blanket and it goes on and on. The trick, of course, is discerning what dreams are important and what they mean…which is not always easy. In this case, however, we got the message loud and clear.

[RedActed] is important. Stay close.”

Dramatic dream-story notwithstanding, and similar to my first trip to Boston (See Chapter 1), the next several years were more “meh” than miraculous. As you can imagine the author’s passing threw all kinds of things up in the air. I wasn’t part of the negotiations at that point so I can only speculate but it seemed as though there was a great deal of uncertainty on just how to proceed.  You can see, for instance, that the Project Mouseworks post didn’t go up for over two years, and even then we were wrong about how it would all shake out. Broadly speaking, there were several years where we were patiently chipping away at pre-production and research, introducing ourselves to the marvelous fan community, and seeing our position grow and evolve from one little sub-licensed mobile game to a multi-game, multi-platform direct license. There was a lot going on with the legal and business aspects of the property that were way above our paygrade, and in several ways we were just along for the ride, but over and over it seemed we were brought in and up one little step at a time.

In the meantime I came to understand that we really had a tiger by the tail…or rather a badger. 30+ million books is an enormous number that makes [RedActed] one of the bestselling series of all time. More importantly, it has a following that is deeply passionate about this world and how it’s impacted their lives. For instance, shortly after the Mouseworks post we got a letter from Afghanistan. It was hand-written in pencil by a soldier stationed in-country. This young warrior told us how pivotal [RedActed] had been in his story. He said it had ‘saved his life’ at a time of deep personal despair and ‘made him the man he was’ through its examples of courage, and poise, and self-sacrifice. His several pages were effusive and excited about a Christian company getting the rights because we’d ‘do its deeper themes justice’ instead of reducing them to background noise for some game gimmick. Then, after he had said his piece, he closed with a simple command: “Don’t f*** it up.”

We’ve received hundreds, if not thousands, of similar sentiments. I was quickly beginning to feel the gravity of just what had landed in our laps.

What about Arc?

A sidebar exists here that’s worth mentioning. When I first heard the download about Soma’s ‘mission’ it included the directive to tell a few specific stories. Namely Arc, GRoG, Dark Glass, and The Race. And as we prayed through all of this we wondered if [RedActed] was potentially a distraction from that mission.

In the end we saw all the providential ways Papa was arranging for the mouse thing and concluded this was His plan and, it seemed, a step along our way to the other goals. I’m not even willing to say it was a side-quest, much less a distraction.

In hindsight the project helped us grow and mature as a team on every possible level. I don’t know if that growth would have been possible outside of this project, so it seems very unlike a sidebar in Soma’s story, but rather an integral feature.

Given the size and value of the property, a really obvious question appears: how did a po-dunk game company in po-dunk, OR land one of the most coveted licenses in the world? We didn’t ask for this, we weren’t seeking IP, and I’d never even heard of the series. But here it was, appearing unbidden, heralded by a spooky dream. How did this happen?

 

In my biased opinion the answer to the question is Favor.

 

Favor is a difficult and fuzzy-edged concept to communicate. Words with similar meanings might be blessed, charmed, or lucky. The difference between those words comes down to a much deeper question: when something goes unexpectedly well how do you interpret the event? If you think it was merely random, then you probably call it luck. If you prefer to believe it was the cosmic result of your previous good deeds you might call it karma. Or, if you think a benevolent, wise, loving, father-God who feels crazy, ridiculous joy over you and who loves to give his beloved children gifts…then you might call it Favor. (There’s an analogous matter in how you interpret the bad things in life, but that’s for a different post.) Over the years I’ve heard this word applied to Soma many times, by many people. “Soma has a lot of Favor…” It’s not actually a compliment though, but rather an observation, because Favor isn’t something you earn or deserve, it’s just something you receive independent of skill, talent, hard work, or timing. When I hear someone say Soma has Favor it’s often riding on a previous observation: that Soma Games has endured when so many others haven’t, and Soma Games has this long streak of ‘good luck’ and ‘random opportunities’ that goes far beyond whatever would seem appropriate to our worldly accomplishments. Witnessing Favor can make people covetous or envious, but it can also make people beam with joy and thrill at the whisper of adventure. After all, if it happened for Soma, maybe it can happen for you. Bearing Favor, on the other hand, can make one prideful and entitled or it can make one profoundly thankful and deeply aware of the privilege that’s been given. (Father, may we walk that second road!) But I think in the end, recognizing, and being AWARE of, Favor is the first step in knowing how to walk in it.

 

Which brings me back to [RedActed].

As all the lawyerish stuff was working itself out, things started to get dangerous. (Discretion is required here. Let the reader understand.) Other parties and other interests got involved. Without the author’s voice there were now competing goals, competing ideas, and competing timelines. Not to say that any of them were inappropriate, they were just different and therein arose conflict. In time, an ugly dispute erupted between the folks above us and it escalated ominously over several months. There was a point where it looked as though it could all fall apart and possibly do us significant financial harm in the process. To be clear, we hadn’t done anything wrong, but these were charged conversations and we were caught up in a ‘guilt by association’ kind of thing. Documents were flying, contracts were dissected, and heated words were exchanged. The experience was both terrifying and heartbreaking. Since 2011 we’d done a lot of work, but more to the point we’d come to love the world and the fans. [RedActed] is brilliant! It’s filled with life and joy and while it’s not a Big-C Christian book in any sense, in another sense it’s one of the most small-c Christian books I’ve ever read. It’s full of wicked villains and virtuous heroes. It’s stuffed with the voice of wisdom and the call of truth. It is a wonderful picture of the power of goodness and the cost of evil. I came to feel that the abbey was like a vision of heaven and one that was a thousand times more vivid and attractive than any sermon in the world. Even more, the fan community was wondrous! Starting with our first post we had been welcomed, encouraged, and mentored by millions who only wanted to see their favorite books brought to life.* Those interactions were deeply life-giving. To see all of that threatened, not to mention our future, tore a slow hole in my chest. For all the life this deal had promised I found myself miserable, depressed, and nearing despair.

At that time an opportunity came to us through an unexpected email.

“Walk away. No harm, no foul, no risk! In fact, we’ll even give you this sweet consolation prize. All you need to do is walk away.” This little paragraph is not nearly sufficient to communicate the anxiety of the situation. Rande, JB, and I were working through months of upset-stomachs, sleepless nights, and endlessly wringing hands. These were big players, Goliaths so to speak, and we were po-dunk little Davids, though the metaphor is flawed. We weren’t actually “against” these people in any real way. We were merely in the way.

 

The next day, as if in answer to the offer, I had a dream.

 

In this dream I was driving my Jeep near my childhood home and all of the Soma Games crew was in the back seat somehow. We were almost home when two huge Concord jets suddenly collided directly above us. As I watched, one jet was lightly damaged but continued, belching smoke, on its way and out of view. The other jet, however, was revealed to be nothing but a shell of balsa wood and aluminum tape, pretending to be a supersonic jet but nothing more than a model laden with jet fuel. It was utterly destroyed in the collision and began raining debris and fire all over the road before us. Nevertheless, I drove as though nothing had changed and in a matter of moments we had passed through the chaos unperturbed and unharmed. As I pulled into my mother’s driveway I said, ‘That was weird…’ and then I woke up.

 

In moments like these I’ve come to think it’s necessary to think mythically. As John Eldredge says “You will not think clearly about your life until you think mythically. Until you see with the eyes of your heart.”

This doesn’t mean we boastfully imagine ourselves to be Herculean heroes or inflate our inconveniences into world-bending opposition. Rather it means we keep some important things in mind:

 

  1. Things are not what they seem.
  2. A war is underway.
  3. You have an important role to play.

 

Dream interpretation is a tricky thing, so I won’t attempt to go into it here but suffice to say that we took the dream to be a rescue for our hearts and an answer to our conundrum. It seemed to whisper, “It will be ok. Whatever this looks like, stay the course.” Even more, when we put this vision together with JB’s dream, not to mention all the other providential events along the way, we couldn’t get away from the conclusion that somehow, for some reason, we were being invited to see this through and trust the outcome to Heaven.

It’s worth saying that there are people who did not, and presumably still do not, agree with our decision to stick it out and hold to our license. An observer could easily say that we were not the right developer for the project and knowing how many millions LOVE [RedActed] then finding the “right developer” would arguably be what was in the best interest of the IP. If we loved those brave little mice as much as we claimed, then stepping aside to let a bigger, better studio work on it would be best for everyone.

Quite frankly – I get it. I really, really do.

 

Still, to misquote Frodo, “all of that would seem like wisdom except for the warning in my heart.” Seen with mythic eyes, and in the light of the Concord dream it seemed that walking away would actually be running away. Stepping aside would actually be stepping down. Most importantly, if we gave up all that we’d come to see as providence when the going got tough, we’d be rejecting the exact same Favor that we’d been celebrating merely to protect our hides. Taking a deep breath, we said “no thank you” to the offer and we waited for whatever came next.

 

We waited.

And we waited.

And we waited.

 

All the time we were wondering what was happening over on the other side of the world. Were the lawyers gearing up to squash the little bug that was Soma Games? Because that was a very real possibility. Whatever was happening inside PRH, (and someday I hope I’ll hear that story) here in Beautiful Downtown Newberg the silence was ominous and seemed to go on forever…until it didn’t.

Honestly, I don’t really remember the details of what happened next. What I do remember is that we didn’t get crushed. In fact, I’m happy to say that what followed was really pretty awesome. Over the next several months we worked out all of the contract kinks, two of the more feisty parties stepped away, and before long we were in London sharing a pint with people we would come to call friends. It’s not as though everything was settled overnight but something did noticeably change after that dream. Conversations that had at times been adversarial changed their tone to be more cautiously optimistic. A business relationship that easily could have come to litigation was instead rebuilt. We even had the honor of praying with several folks who I gather don’t get that very often.

 

As I write this it’s 2021. Ten full years after JB’s dream. The post is already long and I’ve had to leave out so many things, so many names and details, just to keep it manageable. While we technically started working on the project in 2011, the effort really began in earnest around 2016 when the contracts were finally stable and we had some significant backing. Since then, we’ve released several [RedActed] video games on multiple platforms. The initial and incomplete release of The Scout’s first episode dropped in 2018, followed by a flurry of activity in the following two years with Acts 2 and 3 on PC, as well as Lost Legends and Feasts & Friends on mobile. Even today, we still feel like we have a badger by the tail and the IP is still way over our heads, but I doubt that will ever change. Needless to say, we have grown tremendously in terms of skill, capacity, and experience – things we likely would not have accomplished without the doors [RedActed] has opened.

 

But so what? What if we make some money? What if we sell some games? I doubt that will ever be the point. From where I stand reflecting on the story so far, my experience with [RedActed] is about an incredible opportunity, and a profound honor, miraculously landing in my lap. It’s about God’s precious and unmerited Favor and the challenges inherent in that path.

 

Time will tell if our work will matter to the IP and the fans or if this story only really impacts us. I don’t know and couldn’t say. But what I will share, as a parting thought, is a hope. [RedActed] was an enormous open door…but in my heart, I confess I long for the opening of another. It’s a wooden door, a wardrobe door, intricately carved, and joining two worlds. It’s a door concealing winter coats, and mothballs, and a gaslight in the snowy woods. Again, time will tell, but if I may speak boldly, with favor, “I bid thee open.”

*There were, of course, exceptions. I’ve come to feel that the [RedActed] fanbase is split into two main camps. About 80% see the world as fundamentally joyous and fun and positive so they embrace and seek the song and food and fellowship of the books. But there is another 20% who strongly identify with the darker elements of the story, focusing on the battle, the violence, and the compelling villains. For these fans, Soma’s vision is perhaps too soft, too kind, and not violent enough. The darker elements are definitely there but I see them as the minor theme where life, and that life in abundance, is the major theme.