A rabbi as superhero - the wacky premise of a hit video game

To help the players along, the game provides a Yiddish dictionary for words like "shiksa."

video games 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
video games 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
NEW YORK - A rabbi of a small, declining congregation on the Lower East Side is close to losing faith in God when he is informed that a somewhat disreputable congregant has died and left his small estate to the synagogue. Is this a blessing or a curse? This narrative serves as the unlikely background plot of a recent video game, "The Shiva: A Rabbinical Adventure of Mourning and Mystery," the first to feature a rabbi as its superhero. The success of "The Shiva," which was released several months ago but has only recently gained attention, has been encouraging for creator Dave Gilbert, who will design a sequel to the game and possibly an entire series based on protagonist Rabbi Russell Stone. At the start of "The Shiva" the police think Stone is involved in the death, and it is up to him to prove them wrong. Players are invited to step into the rabbi's shoes and travel with him through Manhattan to uncover the truth. This is a point-and-click adventure game, and the player's "inventory" consists of clues, as this is a murder mystery. The puzzles involve combining clues and uncovering new ones to ultimately solve the mystery. To start, Stone attends the congregant's shiva, the traditional Jewish mourning ritual; and, like a Talmudic scholar, he begins to question the widow. To help the players along, the game provides a Yiddish dictionary for words like "shiksa." In this game, words replace weapons. What moves the rabbi forward in his quest is a Talmudic line of questioning rather than the more typical fighting that often propels video games. "Questioning is the rabbi's power," said Gilbert. Talmudic tradition is often one of questioning and analysis, and typically a rabbi answers questions with more questions. In one scene, the protagonist is attacked by a mugger with a knife. But violence won't help the rabbi win; the only way to keep him at bay is by asking him questions. Gilbert, who is Jewish and grew up in New York, came up with the idea for the game last summer after returning from a year of teaching English in Asia. For the first time in his life, said Gilbert, he was the only Jew around. "I was having lunch in Korea at a Mexican restaurant and someone said, 'They really Jewed us on the guacamole.' It was the first time I ever heard that. They'd never met a Jew and didn't know I was Jewish." At the time, Gilbert shrugged it off; but the experience stuck with him. "When I got back, it was the first thing that came to me; I wanted to write something Jewish," he said The game was first available to the public for free; but success, including winning a young programmer's competition, convinced Gilbert that he should go commercial. The game was released by Manifesto Games, a small independent company, and is sold on their Web site for $5. "The Shiva" stands in stark contrast to another game, this one Christian, released just before Christmas, which was flagged by Jewish groups for its anti-Semitic messages. The game "Left Behind: Eternal Forces," based on the Left Behind book series, promotes an exclusionary Christian theology that believes Jews and others must convert or die at the End of Days. Following its release, the game was harshly criticized by the Anti-Defamation League. "The Shiva" harks back to old-school video games that were popular in the 1980s and 1990s. The graphics look retro and emphasize character and dialogue over today's action-based games. "This kind if game [The Shiva] would never show up at a major chain," said Greg Costikyan, CEO of Manifesto Games. One of the problems with the video game industry is that publishers are becoming increasingly conservative, he said. "We are trying to foster originality by getting rid of the constraints." For a while Gilbert has wanted to market "cerebral" games to non-gamers as well, seeing greater potential in story-driven games. "I didn't think of the Jewish market, but it seems to have really bolstered [sales]." Synagogue-goer Marcelo Nacht is a good example. A member of Pelham Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue in Westchester, New York, Nacht came across a mention of the video in the current issue of Wired magazine and was intrigued by the "offbeat, weird premise." He played the demo and passed on the link to his rabbi, who has since circulated it to other rabbis. Gilbert said he was thrilled to hear that rabbis, who may not otherwise be "gamers," were playing his game. "I was worried about how people would react and whether non-Jews would understand, but it seems that across the board people like it."