Millions of American Evangelicals believe that, any day now, the world will be engulfed in a series of horrific wars and natural disasters during which time a charismatic Antichrist will arise to try to establish worldwide hegemony. This will lead to the biggest war of all, to be fought in Israel, after which Jesus will return. But not to worry: Before things get really bad, “true” Christians will be gathered up to Heaven, leaving piles of clothes crumpled where they stood.
The aftermath of this mysterious and untidy abandonment of clothing is the starting point for Left Behind, the massively popular series of end-time-themed thrillers that have sold over 60 million copies. Just in time for the Christmas season, the series is now also a computer game, called Left Behind: Eternal Forces, out next month. Strangely, although very little of the action in the books takes place in New York, the game is set here, offering a lovingly detailed rendering of Manhattan as battleground in a holy war. “I’m hopeful, from a popularity point of view, it becomes as popular as Christian rock,” says Troy Lyndon, CEO and co-founder of Left Behind Games. Players of the video game control a religious militia battling U.N.-style “Global Community Peacekeepers.” To triumph in Eternal Forces, players need to make converts, so in addition to snipers, tanks, and infantrymen, the Tribulation Force includes Evangelists and worship leaders. (The Global Community, meanwhile, has “rock stars” and “cult leaders” to pull souls into darkness.)
The novels’ Antichrist is one Nicolae Carpathia, who’s the secretary-general of the United Nations when the Rapture comes (and, incidentally, is the bioengineered son of two gay men). Soon enough, he becomes Global Community Supreme Potentate, masking his diabolical intentions with promises of peace and disarmament. The heroes of the series—including a born-again rabbi—battle Carpathia’s attempts to impose an abortion-promoting one-world government. Much hinges on the conversion of the Jews, who must repent their “specific national sin” of “rejecting the messiahship of Jesus,” or spend eternity in hell.
As it happens, before they were Evangelical entrepreneurs, the people behind the game were New York Jews. Lyndon, 41, whose secular-gaming résumé includes helping design Madden Football, was born to a Jewish mother on the Upper West Side. While she raised him as a Catholic, he identifies as a Jew—albeit one who believes that Jesus Christ is the son of God (he also describes evolution as a “hoax”). Jeffrey Frichner, 48, the company’s president and co-founder, is from Rego Park and went to Hebrew school at Forest Hills Jewish Center; he found Jesus while serving in the Marines in the eighties. Senior vice-president David Klein, 49, one of the original employees at gaming powerhouse Electronic Arts, was born in Israel and raised in Canarsie. He’s now a Christian, though he says, “I haven’t converted. I’ve completed.”
There are hundreds of ordinary New Yorkers in the game, and you can click on any of them to read a short bio detailing their life and faith. In the course of play, they all have to take sides. As the game’s Website says, “their choice is to either join the AntiChrist—which is an imposturous one world government seeking peace for all of mankind, or they may join the Tribulation Force—which seeks to expose the truth and defend themselves against the forces of the AntiChrist.” Gamers can themselves join the forces of darkness. When I played the evil side while visiting Left Behind Games’ bland, office-park headquarters outside of San Diego recently, I started with two soldiers in my Satanic army, one of them a Muslim named Amir Mohammed Salem.
The game itself is set in the streets of Soho, Chinatown, and midtown. There’s a Payless, a Lucille Roberts, even a digitized version of the somewhat well-known Israeli restaurant Hoomoos Asli on Kenmare Street. The CBS building in midtown is recognizable, and in ruins.
In its investors’ press materials, Left Behind Games points to the success of Christian product like The Passion of the Christ. There is a built-in market—polls say about 40 percent of Americans believe in some form of biblical Armageddon—and a built-in distribution system. Until a few months ago, Mark Carver, the executive director of Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church, sat on Left Behind Games’ advisory board, and Lyndon intends to market Eternal Forces using the same megachurch-based networks that have made Warren a publishing phenomenon. His plans include sending a million demo discs to churches throughout the country.
If Eternal Forces does well, Lyndon plans to develop another game set in an end-time Israel where Jerusalem’s ancient temple is rebuilt. Currently, that plot of land is occupied by the Dome of the Rock, which is the third-holiest site in Islam, so any demolition would likely spark a big war. “Imagine how exciting it will be, in this day and age, to be able to bring to life, in 3-D, the new temple!” exclaims Lyndon. On the other hand, if it were to happen in real life, he’d be plucked out of the mayhem, leaving only a pile of clothes in front of his PC.