C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, the second book in his Chronicles of Narnia series, might be the most effective Christian allegory in children's literature. Never condescending or artlessly transparent, it covers sacrifice and salvation, compassion and divine wrath, death spectacle and magical resurrection, all through the tale of four young siblings and a lion. Eager to prove it hadn't taken the "Christ" out of its Christmas blockbuster, Disney screened its cinematic adaptation for Focus on the Family in October and received the controversial group's blessing.
Disney didn't pre-test its tie-in video game with potentially polarizing religious interest groups, but these organizations should be happy to see it on the shelves. Whereas Christian music has made significant inroads during the past decade, especially in youth-friendly genres such as emo and metalcore, Bible-based video games haven't shaken their "lame" stigma. The Passion of the Christ might lose something in the translation from big screen to gaming platforms (players wait stoically while their character is tortured, then revel in a big-payoff ending), and the Left Behind franchise's first game Eternal Forces won't appear until 2006. For Christian-friendly content, Narnia will earn blessings. But if pious players based their seals of approval on merit, this title would lack spiritual support.
Narnia opens jarringly, converting a simple phrase from the book's second sentence ("they were sent away from London during the war because of the air raids") into a timed training sequence that precedes even the title screen. After saving the children from a flaming inferno, gamers must deal with cranky maid Mrs. Macready, whose miniscule part gets some serious padding. During several tedious scenarios, players must smash inanimate objects, hide from the housekeeper, listen to her grumble in an unavoidable cutscene, then repeat until they've cleared a path.
Before mean ol' Mrs. Mac forces all four siblings to take shelter in the otherworldly wardrobe, the two youngest children (Lucy and Edmund) make the trip by themselves. It should be a revelatory experience with players, like Lucy and Edmund, surveying a brilliantly rendered winter wonderland with an amateur explorer's awe. Instead, it's a missed opportunity, because pop-up advice bubbles explain every imaginable interaction with the environment, turning discovery into rote button-pushing.
This sequence also contains one of the game's crucial divergences from the book's plot, perhaps to preserve surprises for movie viewers. The game doesn't skimp on cinematic cutscenes, but it avoids crucial plot points, leaving the interminable equivalent of a 20-minute trailer entirely composed of transitional material. When one character betrays the others midway through the game, it will come as an inexplicable shock to gamers unfamiliar with the storyline, not only because a portentous early-book incident remains undramatized but also because that character fights bravely alongside his siblings immediately before his treacherous departure.
That combat scene itself might be a surprise to Narnia scholars, given that the book's only battle takes place during its penultimate chapter. Taking this liberty for the sake of a game (and presumably movie) adaptation makes sense, because it's impossible to postpone conflict in those media as effectively as on the printed page. Also, it's refreshing to see Lucy and Susan join in the frays, given that they're chauvinistically excluded -- by Father Christmas, no less -- in the book with the dismissive phrase "battles are ugly when women fight." (His pre-feminist politics aside, it's novel to see the symbol of Christmas consumerism coexisting with a stand-in for the manger-born messiah.)
What's dubious, though, are some of the fighting abilities bestowed upon the characters by the game (and hopefully not the movie). Goofy team-up attacks allow Edmund to roll Lucy at obstacles like a bowling ball, or Susan to swing Edmund like a battering ram. While these collaborative maneuvers take advantage of the multiple-protagonist format, they also introduce a slapstick humor into an otherwise noble, dignified tale. Narnia isn't sacred text, but these absurd acrobatics seem blasphemous.
Narnia is difficult, but not in an especially interesting way. Instead of presenting a series of consistently compelling obstacles, its idea of challenge is to create a complicated sequence, then force players to execute it in the exact same order four consecutive times. At one point, the siblings must disarm a gorgeously ugly ogre, with Lucy covering its eyes, Edmund and Peter hanging from each thickly muscled arm, and Susan finishing the task. It's an exhilarating exercise, shifting characters while under fire, but once is enough. The game requires several reprise performances, later adding an annoying archery task.
Graphically, with stellar recreations of the characters (reinforced by how movie footage morphs into game screens) and radiant glistening-ice backdrops, Narnia excels. The symphonic score, which swells in times of tension, lends cinematic gravity. But gameplay suffers due to numbing repetition, which the superfluous side quests can't alleviate. By the time Aslan, king of the heavenly jungle, arrives, Narnia is beyond redemption.
2 December 2005