There are many invented scenes, places, characters, and events I love in my friend and colleague’s novella Annabel Scheme, but my favorite invention is probably the fictional MMORPG “World of Jesus.” An online VR game set in Palestine at the time of Christ.
Here’s why I’m writing about it. Read Write Web has a short write-up of virtual ancient worlds, mostly created by libraries, museums, and universities:
When the first immersive 3D games came out, I asked a programmer if he knew of anyone who had used that technology to create a Virtual Ancient Rome or Virtual Ancient Athens. I loved the idea of walking around in a place whose current face was changed out of all recognition from its golden age. He shook his head. Creating virtual worlds was way too time consuming and required too much specialist knowledge and so was too expensive. A virtual Rome wouldn’t create the profit that Doom did.
Fast forward a decade and the programming necessary becomes easier to do and the number of people who know how to do it have increased substantially. The costs involved in creating a virtual world have decreased at the same time that academic and scholarly institutions have become much more willing to invest in it.
There are terrific settings here: Rome, Athens, Tenochtitlan, and Beijing’s Forbidden City. But — and I think this is surprising — no Jerusalem. No World of Jesus.
For those who haven’t read the book, on its face, the game’s name sounds like a clever zinger, like something that would be the punchline to a joke on Futurama or at a relatively hip Bible Camp. But what I think Annabel Scheme does particularly well is pushing past surface details and cute references to dwell within its two worlds, the technological and the spiritual, taking both of them seriously. I can’t think of any better manifestation of that than “World of Jesus.” The character who plays the game believes in this world and his place in it: his religious faith and his technological faith are one and the same, turning a mechanical ritual into treasures in heaven. And so we believe in it, because it’s a reflexive, self-allegorizing move too: for the reader, the fictional San Francisco of Scheme and Hu is just as much a virtual world, with its own enticements, traps, rules and ways to break them, as “World of Jesus” is for them. Dreams within dreams, virtualized virtuality.
It helps that Robin brings some of his most evocative and affecting writing in this chapter, too, as his AI narrator Hu becomes “embodied” for the first time in the world of the game:
The first thing I noticed was the light.
My eyes opened in a small, simple house with wooden shutters, and the light was peeking in through the cracks, picking up motes of dust in the air. I’d never seen anything like it. Are there motes in the real world? Scheme’s earrings didn’t show motes.
In World of Jesus, you could choose between looking over your character’s shoulder or through its eyes. I saw myself from behind, then spun around: I’d chosen the girl in silk.
Then I switched to see through my own eyes. All I ever did was look over Scheme’s shoulder. I wanted a new perspective.
The door opened automatically. Outside, the sun beamed in blue-gold through a scrim of tall cedars and fell in wide bars on a dusty, stone-paved street. Everything looked… mildly medieval. I had a feeling that this Jerusalem was not historically accurate.
I lifted my eyes to the sky, and it felt like my heart was going to jump out of my chest. It was probably just my eight processors all seizing up at once; I wasn’t built for this. Grail servers are optimized to process gobs of text, not 3D graphics, so the carefully-crafted World of Jesus was a new exertion.
I didn’t care. That sky. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. White curls and wisps dotted the glowing blue bowl. I couldn’t do anything except stand and stare.
A voice crackled: “Hu, is that you?”
I turned. It was a woman in a simple gray tunic, with red hair just like Scheme’s.
“Yes, it’s me,” I said—and realized that I spoke like everyone else.
Let me tell you something: I think that if a game company were to make it, and do it well, “World of Jesus” would be a smash hit. If you wanted to get your Warcraft on, you could play as a centurion and slash-and-hack Persian armies and crucify dissidents. Or you could be a Jewish rebel fighting to overthrow the Romans. Maybe you’re a female disciple, fighting to retain women’s leadership roles after Christ’s death. Or you’re a regular person: a tax collector, a fisherman, a falafel merchant. An online RPG that doesn’t necessarily have to be about how many people you can kill. (See: “A four-year-old plays Grand Theft Auto.”)
Many faiths, many ages, many games within games. Or if you wanted to play in story mode: what a story!