Having grown up and now raising my family in what locals sometimes refer to as “the buckle of the Bible belt” (with varying degrees of affection or unease), I jumped at the chance to review the mobile app The Aetherlight: Chronicles of the Resistance, developed by Scarlet City Studios. The game–released for Windows, OSX, Android, and iOS–is sold by the developers as “designed to serve [the] Christian community by creating an immersive and fun experience that not only motivates and engages pre-teens with Biblical thinking, but connects with their world as well.”
As a Christian and member of a local United Methodist Church, and raising my children in my and my wife’s chosen faith culture, I was eager to take a look at an app that might help my kids understand Biblical principles in a way that a millennia-old book made up in various parts of allegory, history, poetry, and all manner of disjointed narrative structures and styles may not be able to do. With that intention being the message that the game developer is selling and trying to drive home in their various marketing, I feel like it should be addressed right off the bat before delving into the mechanics of the game.
The Aetherlight borrows from and retells Biblical elements in a unique setting in the same way that Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Doctor Who, and any other piece of fiction that attempts to follow Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” borrows from and retells Biblical elements in a unique setting. Evil is oppressing good. A found-family of humble, unassuming adventurers band together to return the world to the sense of rightness/righteousness and atonement/at-one-ment, following the message of an enigmatic and self-sacrificing individual who seems a little out of this world/a person of two worlds. Based on my family’s gameplay experience thus far, The Aetherlight is no more nor on less Biblical than any of the other properties mentioned above.
Why is it that a group of game developers who set out to make an explicitly Christian mobile app come off as no more or less Christian than other stories that are–for lack of a better term–less “in your face” with their connection to Biblical elements? It could be that the “Hero’s Journey” is so ubiquitous in Western culture (I mean, Campbell outlined the “Hero’s Journey” because he saw the same elements repeated in so many Western stories in the first place) that its elements are inseparable from Biblical allegory. It may be that any attempt to re-imagine Biblical elements in a different setting will feel like it could be borrowing from any of the above properties, especially if one is more familiar with those properties than one is with Bible scripture. Do you play through this game and compare the characters to Abraham, Sarah, the apostle Luke, and Jesus, or do you compare them to Luke Skywalker, Ron Weasley, and Gandalf?
I believe that the game developers are acting in accordance with their stated intentions. However, marketing The Aetherlight as a Christian game does one of two things. It either pigeon-holes the game into a category of religious app that makes it less appealing to non-Christians, or it tries to force itself into a niche market that has buoyed the success of faith-based products, particularly films and books, in recent years. Maybe the developers are attempting to do both. I have no data to back up whether their decision is the correct one in terms of sales or exposure, but it feels unnecessary. Simply stating that this game is kidSAFE Certified may have made the app more appealing to a wider audience.
As for the game itself, what I found was a fun, if sometimes frustrating, gameplay experience. The game feels like a mash-up between Sid Meier’s Pirates! and Wizard 101 set in a quasi-steampunk dystopia. Players guide their selected character on quests in order to aid the Resistance, the small band of good guys referenced earlier. The quests themselves range from combat missions to crafting to go-fetch-this missions. The combat is fun and engaging. Players battle any number of mechanical foes (you don’t fight other living entities… that wouldn’t be very Christian, now would it?) either alone or with other players who can jump in and join battles alongside you. Combat success is determined by a spinning dial that you tap in order to stop and find out how you fare on your move. The specifics of the dial change are based on the player’s weapon of choice. The more damage a weapon does, the larger the section of the dial that has the opportunity for the player to completely miss on his or her attack turn. The higher the potential reward, the greater the potential risk.
Crafting is a real treat. In so many games crafting feel tacked on, but The Aetherlight was developed to utilize the crafting system right from the get-go and throughout the game. There is the satisfying tactile feel of selecting the component parts and tapping on the screen when it is time for your character to tap his or her hammer to complete the item being crafted. The inventory cog at the bottom of the screen is one of the better inventor systems I’ve seen in a game like this and fits the theme very well.
The fetch quests can be a bit frustrating. The quest text is very limited in some cases. Go find 11 round objects to serve as replacement dials for the busted radio in the Resistance’s hideout. If you ask the NPCs for help, they’ll tell you that “any old round thing will do.” Seriously? Even once you figure out that the cogs you pick up off the ground and are sometimes awarded after combat will work, there is nothing that updates your quest log accordingly. If you have five cogs in your inventory, your quest log does not reflect that you have five of the 11 needed “round things.” It still reads zero. Then, once you have 11 “round things,” do you try giving them to the guy who gave you the quest… you know, the one whose portrait is on the quest itself? Nope. You drag those cogs–which are round things but are not counted in your quest log–onto the radio and drop them there.
Don’t get me started on the “find so-and-so’s secret hideout” quest… No, they won’t give you any indication where you should start looking. If they did, the hideout wouldn’t be a secret anymore, would it?
All told, The Aetherlight is a mostly enjoyable game for pre-teens (I’d say ages ten years old and up) that will occasionally reinforce high-level premises they might have picked up in Sunday School, but will more likely associate with other stories they have read or movies that they have seen. There will be times when they will get frustrated by not understanding what is expected of them (which may be the Biblical elements that the designers have tried to incorporate–hey oh!), but with some help and looking up details and walkthroughs online, they should be able to get past.
The Aetherlight is available to purchase by episode. Episode One is available for a single player for $9.99, or up to 5 players for $19.99. Episode Two requires Episode One and is the same price ($9.99 or $19.99) depending on the number of players for which you are purchasing. Episode Three requires the previous two episodes and is available at a pre-order price of $7.99 for a single player and $15.99 for up to five players.
Disclaimer: A copy of The Aetherlight was provided for review purposes. All opinions are my own.