By Eric Hal Schwartz
The cow rose gently into the air, looking robust and healthy until, with a brief spray of blood, its head separated from its body and both parts fell. Moments later a second cow flew up. This cow, sickly green and with a bandage on one leg, fell unmolested, not worthy for sacrifice to God.
Learning the rules of sacrificing digital cows popping up and down on the iPhone screen along with doves and bags of oil and flour may not be quite the same as how the ancient Israelites did things but there’s a lot of Torah in this brand new game, the first from G-dcast Entertainment, aptly named “Leviticus!“
Sitting in synagogue one Yom Kippur during the traditional reading of Leviticus 16, G-dcast executive director and producer Sarah Lefton was struck by a modern comparison the intricate and technical rules of sacrifice described.
“The more I looked at it the more it looked like a game to me,” she said. “It’s all about rules.”
Making the Torah interesting for school-age children has been the goal of San Francisco-based production company G-dcast since the non-profit first formed in 2008. Using fun, animated videos to talk about individual Torah portions, the producers seek to enlighten Jewish students even while entertaining them. Currently G-dcast’s library includes over 75 videos and has been viewed more than a million times online. That success is what spurred the creation of G-dcast Entertainment. Aided by grant money, the new branch of the company will focus on games and interactive entertainment.
“It’s something new for us,” said Barbara Barza, associate director at G-dcast. “We wanted the high quality that G-dcast always produces for videos in the game as well.”
There are a lot of exciting stories in the first two books of Torah, with creation and floods and colorful coats in Genesis and danger, plagues and miraculous freedom in Exodus.
After all of that, the many laws, legal disputes and minutia of sacrifice in Leviticus can seem rather dull in comparison. To Lefton and the team and G-dcast however, it looked like something far more fun.
“That’s what games are, elaborate rule sets that have rewards and punishments,” Lefton said.
It wasn’t until last June that work on the game began in earnest, and after working out the necessary technical specifications with Apple, it was officially released on Monday.
The gameplay style is simple and easy to learn but quick pattern recognition and reflexes are needed to do well. Animals or other prescribed sacrifices rise in the air and the player uses their finger as a knife to sacrifice the animal or break open the bags and jars. As the player progresses, he or she learns things like not to sacrifice sick animals, that two doves equals one cow, that flour and oil have to be sacrificed together and other key bits from the Torah’s rules and regulations.
“It lends itself well to the idea of sacrifice,” Lefton said.
Early on, the game makers had tried for a more elaborately animated game much like their videos, but between costs and the amount of extra effort and time necessary for that kind of game it was decided to instead make a simpler game graphically while retaining the core aspects of sacrifice and the rules related to the subject.
“Leviticus!” was made with young adults in mind rather than the younger audiences the videos are made to entertain and the plan is to market the new game to college-age students through Hillel and Moishe Houses. It’s designed less as something that takes full attention and more as a casual activity.
“It’s a good filler for downtime,” Barza said. “We hope they’ll then want to go watch the videos.”
The game was officially released on Monday and within a day had garnered nearly a thousand downloads and numerous responses, Barza said.
“There have been some really great comments,” Barza said, adding that there had even been some positive feedback from a kosher butcher’s family and a lot of complimentary remarks as to the games addictive nature.
Barza and Lefton said they plan to start making games and holiday themed apps for younger kids as they expand G-dcast Entertainment, including an upcoming interactive app based around the idea of the scapegoat in Torah to be released sometime this fall. For now, Leviticus! and its animated kosher sacrifice will be the flagship title to draw people in and teach them something even as they enjoy their sacrificial rites.
“Cartoony bloody games are fun,” Barza said.