Gabe Durham's book Bible Adventures is a delightful history of that timeless and uplifting console platformer, and other religiously-themed games developed and published by Wisdom Tree and its secular sibling studio, Color Dreams. A whole chapter of the book is devoted to Wisdom Tree's unique fruit-shooter Super 3D Noah's Ark, which surprisningly started out as a violent Hellraiser tie-in that would have been released by Color Dreams. Since that game is back in the public eye following its release on Steam, we asked Gabe if we could excerpt that chapter from his book, and he graciously agreed. (You can buy the whole thing from Boss Fight Books.)
Aging Hardware, Buggy Software
(chapter excerpt from the book Bible Adventures)
During the Wisdom Tree years, Color Dreams never formally went away. Like when a musical side project suddenly becomes more popular than the “main band,” Wisdom Tree now gobbled up nearly all the development team’s time and attention while Color Dreams languished.
With the exception of one secret pet project. While Lawton and his team were creating sweet Bible games about collecting animals under the Wisdom Tree label, they began a new Color Dreams game called Hellraiser, based on a 1987 horror movie of the same name.
The movie Hellraiser is about a woman who secretly keeps her undead brother-in-law in her attic, feeding him the blood of men she brings home so that the undead brother-in-law can fully return to life and they can run away together. The plot also involves a puzzle box that, when solved, unleashes a race of creatures called the Cenobytes from their sexy S&M Hell dimension so they can force humans to suffer/enjoy the Cenobytes’ dark erotic lifestyle. Or it would be erotic if the Cenobytes didn’t like it so rough that their partners always died. Lawton loved the movie, which had what he called “kabalistic implications,” and he licensed the game rights for $50,000.
"They did as little work as possible to turn it into a Bible game, in turn creating one of the most bizarre titles in video game history."
A Hellraiser game needed to be profane, sexy, and above all, bloody, so for Hellraiser’s engine Color Dreams acquired the rights to a violent game that that had already changed PC gaming forever: Wolfenstein 3D.
In an internet rumor that’s more fun than true, id Software released Wolfenstein’s source code to Color Dreams/Wisdom Tree for free as revenge against Nintendo for imposing its heavy content restrictions on the SNES version of Wolfenstein, scrubbing the game of blood, shootable dogs, and Hitler. What better way to get Nintendo back than to leak the code to a competitor?
In truth, Color Dreams paid id Software for the engine, and it was a good deal for id, too, who had already made most of the money they were going to make from sales of Wolfenstein, and were nearly ready to unleash their next shooter, Doom, on the world.
Hellraiser was the most graphically complex game Color Dreams had ever attempted, and it required a specially engineered “super cart.” With the help of a San Diego med student named Ron Risley, the team built a new coprocessor—a tiny computer—that added RAM and tripled the Nintendo’s processing speed. This allowed for complex graphics and enemy A.I. that had never before been possible on the NES.
Since the super cart couldn’t increase the NES’s 8-bit color palette, the team attempted to simulate 16-bit color by quickly alternating between two colors in the 8-bit palette. Unfortunately, the colors didn’t swap quickly enough for the effect to work.
There were bigger problems too.
Some at the company wondered if the release of Hellraiser would ruin Wisdom Tree’s Christian branding. “Eddy [Lin] thought it'd hurt our Christian reputation if Hellraiser was released,” Rob Deforest told me. “I don't think it would have made a difference, personally, but that's one reason Hellraiser took so long to develop.”
“The company was being managed by people who had never played a video game and never would,” Jon Valesh said, “and were not strongly attached to the Western culture which would produce a movie like Hellraiser. To expect them to produce a game that was gory enough, sick enough, and mean enough to fit the movie is to expect too much […] It started out very blue and very red, and then there was less red. Once the red is gone, what's the point of the blue?”
"At their best, these Wisdom Tree games are the Daniel Johnston of their medium—off their meds, but in a good way."
Most importantly, the super cart turned out to be extremely expensive. Each game’s price tag would need to exceed $100, and there was no way people would pay it, especially as technology continued to improve. “By the time the first test version [of Hellraiser] was ready, Doom had already come out,” Vance Kozik said, “and the look and feel of the Hellraiser game was soon to be antiquated.”
The team gave up on Hellraiser and let the clock run out on the $50,000 game rights. But surely there was some way they could still use the Wolfenstein 3D engine, right?
The solution: A new Wisdom Tree game called Super 3D Noah’s Ark (1994), this one for the SNES.
Instead of taking the Wolfenstein engine and putting it toward a new game, Wisdom Tree gave Wolfenstein the TABII ["Throw a Bible In It"] treatment. They did as little work as possible to turn it into a Bible game, in turn creating one of the most bizarre titles in video game history.
Instead of a WWII spy, you control Noah.
Instead of a gun, you’ve got a slingshot.
Instead of bullets, you shoot fruit. (Not the fruits of the spirit this time, but regular produce.)
Instead of a Nazi castle, you’re on the Ark.
Instead of Nazis, you shoot goats, ostriches, sheep, and oxen.
Instead of Hitler, you face Burt the Bear.
Instead of swastikas, the walls are covered with paintings of animals.
The maps, though? Identical to Wolfenstein.
The ammo/health placement? Identical.
The enemy AI? Identical.
When you shoot an animal, it falls asleep, presumably having eaten the fruit in between frames, now ready to settle down. The “two of each animal” rule, honored by Bible Adventures, has been thrown out. In this game’s reality, God was obsessed with goats and apparently had Noah fill the Ark with them.
As in other Wisdom Tree games, Noah does not directly contradict the Bible so much as it fills in the margins of a story about which we are told nearly nothing, since there is not a word in the Bible about how Noah and his tenants spend their time on the Ark. Genesis 7:16 says, “Then the Lord shut him in,” and 40 days later, in Genesis 8:6, Noah opens a window and sends out a raven. Who’s to say he didn’t go on a fruit-shooting rampage?
Still, Super 3D Noah’s Ark is different enough from both the Bible and Wolfenstein to be wholly incomprehensible, which may be why it didn’t sell very well in Christian bookstores upon its release. This was the first and last game Wisdom Tree would make for the SNES, and in fact was the only unlicensed game ever to be released for the system. Shooting animals just didn’t make as much sense as collecting them.
But how does it play? Because Wolfenstein itself is fun, Ark is fairly fun too. The gameplay is simple and the graphics are pixelated, but the well-designed Wolfenstein maps are sprawling and full of mystery.
It’s the hit detection that frustrates. It’s tough to tell how well your slingshot is working against the rabid ostriches, or how one slingshot differs in power and range from another. Likewise, men who used to shoot you have been replaced with animals who merely kick you, yet somehow those animals can kick from great distances.
The greatest games mimic life, but not in the graphically realistic way we always talk about. In fact, I’ve always had a hard time caring about a game’s realistic graphics because “the closest possible approximation of reality” is not a thing I ask of any art form, be it games, movies, or books.
What really matters is that a piece of art feels like life—that it be so responsive, so considered that there must be a human behind the decision. It’s why genius/monster Steve Jobs reportedly kept the original iPod’s engineers up all night until the headphone jack made the right click sound. It’s no wonder Wisdom Tree had such trouble getting it right.
And yet. While the best games gain their personality from completeness, from considered-ness, from purity of vision, the Wisdom Tree games feel personal because they’re such a glorious mess. Just as I’d rather watch The Room than Horrible Bosses 2, just like I’d rather read a short story by an eight-year-old than a short story by an eighteen-year-old, I’d rather spend time with Bible Adventures than with a coldly proficient shooter like Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier.
The ironies of the Wisdom Tree story are many, and are often deployed online for cheap laughs: A Christian company makes unlicensed games! Secret atheists make Christian games! These “peaceful” Christian games sure are violent! But these dualities in both the games’ story and the games themselves make Wisdom Tree’s body of work not just funny but human. Wisdom Tree’s unique combination of ambition, laziness, faith, faithlessness, tools, constraints, sincere desire to make good games, and opportunism produced a series of works of art that are equal parts accident and intention. At their best these games are the Daniel Johnston of their medium—off their meds in a good way. They’re also the product of an era in gaming, Christianity, distribution, and culture that had never existed before and will never exist again.
Taken together, the Wisdom Tree games are more singular, more distinct than the output of nearly any studio of their time. And occasionally they’re even kinda fun to play.