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.
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.
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 much 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 ‘[email protected]’ 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.