The setting: post-apocalypse Manhattan.
The heroes: the Tribulation Force.
Their mission: defeat Satan by bringing the world to Christ.
Inspired by a hugely popular book series, the new video game Left Behind: Eternal Forces deposits players into a futuristic world where born-again Christians must use prayer and song to convert infidels -- or tanks and snipers to blow them away. The game is being promoted to Christian teens as "the ultimate fight of good versus evil."
But with just eight days left in the Christmas shopping season, it's coming under heavy fire.
A coalition of liberal Christian groups has complained that the game is too violent, intolerant and divisive to be properly called Christian.
"It's essentially a training video for faith-based killing, marketed to children," said the Rev. Tim Simpson, a volunteer pastor with a Presbyterian church in Jacksonville, Fla.
There is no blood or gore in the game; when bodies fall, they simply disappear. And you rack up more points by converting your enemies to Christianity than by killing them. But it's hard to advance with a strictly pacifist approach, since you're constantly under attack by the antichrist's army -- which resembles the United Nations. (You atone for mowing down the bad guys by pushing a "prayer" key, which builds your strength for more fighting.)
"I can't think of anything more antithetical to the Gospel of Christ," said Simpson, who runs an organization called the Christian Alliance for Progress. "The message is that God intends for everyone who doesn't share your faith to be whacked."
Game creator Troy Lyndon dismisses such objections as alarmist. He says the point of the game is to spur teens to start thinking about "matters of eternal importance," such as the fate of their souls.
Players advance by picking up clues that are supposed to get them thinking about the prophecy of the Rapture, when "true" believers expect to ascend to heaven, leaving behind a ravaged Earth. The game is set after the Rapture, when those left behind are divided into two warring camps: "born-again" believers and the forces of Satan.
Lyndon acknowledges that most gamers won't tarry on the clues when there are battles to be fought and heathens to evangelize. But those who care to learn more can click on a website that invites them to accept Christ -- and, incidentally, renounce Darwin.
"We're out to make a difference," said Lyndon, chief executive of Left Behind Games Inc., based in Murrieta, Calif.
The game has been endorsed by the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family. In an online review, the ministry noted that warfare is integral to the game, just as it is to the "Left Behind" novels, which have sold 63 million copies. But the reviewer called concerns about the violence exaggerated, writing: "Eternal Forces is the kind of game that Mom and Dad can actually play with Junior -- and use to raise some interesting questions along the way."
The liberal Christian groups that oppose the game have gathered 28,000 signatures of protest through the website DefConAmerica.org. By comparison, the conservative American Family Assn. last year collected 500,000 pledges to boycott Target for using "holiday" instead of "Christmas" in its marketing.
It's unclear whether the protest against the game has had much effect. Andy Butcher, editor of Christian Retailing magazine, said Christian bookstores "have been a little slow" to stock it. But he attributes that not to unease about the content but to fear of competition from Wal-Mart, which sells Eternal Forces for less than $40. (Christian retailers can't match Wal-Mart's volume discounts, so they're selling it for $45 to $60, sometimes packaged with a Bible.)
For his part, Lyndon says the controversy "has been great for the product," though he won't disclose sales figures. Certainly, it has given the game worldwide media exposure; last week, Lyndon was interviewed on German television and British radio.
Between interviews, he's been supervising fixes to the game, such as muting one character's annoying tic of repeatedly shouting, "Praise the Lord!" He's also working on a sequel.
"I want to show that thinking about what may happen when you die can be as fun as being in an Indiana Jones film," Lyndon said. "It's an adventure."