There's an app for that

Game developer Chris Skaggs creates a series of virtual worlds that alludes to eternal truths

By Michael Richeson

He didn’t have just an idea; he had a revelation. When the vision for a video game came to his mind, Chris Skaggs (G99) found himself with a plan for an entire series of worlds and themes.

“It was a real inspirational kind of thing,” Skaggs said. “The picture for Soma all came together at once. It’s matured and cooked over time, but all the bones were there. It felt like we were discovering something instead of making something up, like we were finding something.”

Skaggs, his business partner and a handful of employees launched Soma Games last year. They wrote their first line of code in February 2009 and released “G” in April. The game was a critical success, and won “Best iPhone Game” at the Christian Game Developers Conference in July. The iPhone game has sold more than 10,000 times through iTunes. While that isn’t enough to let Skaggs buy an island and retire, the game’s success has opened many doors in the industry. Because of “G’s” popularity, Soma Games was included in Intel’s recent opening of its own app store.

'At its deepest level, it's about the power of sin and the fall and what it costs us.'Soma Games is poised to do much more than create iPhone apps, although there are more of those in the works. Skaggs also wants to make graphic novels and games for the major gaming consoles like Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s Xbox.

“It costs at least $500,000 to make a game for a console,” Skaggs said. “The iPhone opened a door we hadn’t been looking for. You can get your foot in the door for a lot less money.”

“‘G” is the first of four chapters of the “Arc” storyline. It’s an allegory that is part Noah’s ark and part tower of Babel. The futuristic story is about humanity’s interaction with a galactic scourge called “The Rain.” Players navigate through the massive cloud of toxins and shoot at targets with rockets.

“At its deepest level, it’s about the power of sin and the fall and what it costs us,” Skaggs said. “How it sneaks up on you and pollutes everything around you.”

The sound quality is high, the storyline is deep and textured, but one of the most striking characteristics of the game is the hand-drawn artwork.

“God is beautiful, and his creation is beautiful more than it is functional,” Skaggs said. “If we want to reflect reality, it has to be pretty.”

Working with computers in a creative medium has long been a dream for Skaggs. When he left the Navy after a four-year enlistment, he enrolled at George Fox in 1998 as a history major. He grew up in southern California and had long planned on attending Reed College.

Screenshots from Chris Skagg's

The beauty and richness of the landscape in “G” comes from hand-rendered artwork throughout the game.

“My faith became real in the Navy,” he said. “By the time I got out, a clothing-optional college no longer interested me. George Fox was the first school to come up on a Web Crawler search. All the doors lined up all of a sudden, and I never looked back.”

Skaggs had every intention of moving back to California, but he met a girl and fell in love. She was from Newberg, and now he is, too.

After graduation, he opened up Code Monkeys, a Web development company based in Newberg. In 2005, he started Soma Games with his first storyline intact: “G,” “F,” “E” and “Arc”, which together tell the full biblical narrative from creation to Armageddon.  Although the games are designed around biblical subjects, and Skaggs is designing them from a Christian point of view, Soma is not a “Christian” video game company.

“I don’t want our Christianity to be a secret, but it’s not a selling point, either,” Skaggs said. “People aren’t going to play ‘G’ and get saved.”

What “G” does do, Skaggs hopes, is make gamers think about eternal truths without being force-fed a story that feels preachy. His model exemplar in this case is C.S. Lewis, a master storyteller who combined deep theology with fantasy. Instead of using books, Soma Games uses the most potent, pervasive medium in society: video games.

“The video game has become a cultural phenomenon,” Skaggs said. “Under 40, most people are playing games, more than even watching movies. They recognize Lara Croft more than Sherlock Holmes, but there’s really no Christian voice in video games at all. Lewis could get people to think about eternal things, and if we can get in their mind questions about eternity, reality, good and evil . . . what should heroism look like? We’re more like a gateway than anything else.”