The Church in the Darkness
What differentiates a reclusive religious sect from a dangerous cult? History has proven that drawing a line between the two can sometimes be tough, especially when paranoia grips the group. Both traditionally are led by charismatic figureheads who serve as prophets, social engineers, and arbiters of justice. Both typically make concerted efforts to separate their dogmatic ways of life from that of everyday society. So, if you walked into one of these encampments, could you tell the difference between the two? That’s the question Paranoid Productions founder Richard Rouse III (The Suffering), is asking with his new self-financed game set in the 1970s, The Church in the Darkness.
“The interesting thing about these progressive groups, or things that people call a cult, is that it's often hard to tell when you're in a cult that you're in a cult,” Rouse says. “It's also hard to look from the outside at a group of people who are behaving very differently or maybe have walled themselves in somewhere and determine, ‘Is that fine, or is that really dangerous?’ Telling this story in a game, we can explore both sides of that.”
Fed up with the persecution it faced for its beliefs in the States, Isaac and Rebecca Walker take their progressive religious sect down to the South American jungles to build an oasis free of oversight, named Freedom Town. When your nephew stops responding to outside communication, your sister asks you to fly down to the encampment to see if he’s okay.
This plot may sound familiar to those who saw the 2013 Ti West film The Sacrament, which explored a similar scenario. But we’ve never seen this type of setting seriously tackled in a video game, where we’re more accustomed to fighting black-and-white wars against caricatured manifestations of evil. Rouse chose this approach because he thinks the medium is capable of reaching beyond that scope.
“Some people will think ‘video game’ and then think ‘serious subject matter’ and they just don't see how those two things could go together at all if they haven't played something like Gone Home or Papers, Please,” Rouse says. “And then when you add in some religious themes – really just religious characters – they might think, ‘Well, of course it's going to be offensive because it's a video game.’ There's definitely a risk there, but I think if we don't take some chances on subject matter, then we're going to keep making all the science-fiction and fantasy games or whatever, which are totally fine to make. I just think there are other stories that could be told, too.”
The Church in the Darkness is an action/infiltration game, taking cues from both old-school games like the original Wolfenstein and modern, simulation-driven action games like Dishonored. Several tools are at your disposal to move through the camp undetected. You can steal clothing to blend in, disable the various alarms around camp, and even use household items like an alarm clock to create diversions. If you get caught, you can use chloroform to knock out your aggressors, or dispose of problematic sect followers by using other non-lethal techniques. Should all else fail (or you just feel like racking up a body count now and answering questions later), you can always resort to bloodshed.
While you inspect the campgrounds, the two sect founders – voiced by Ellen McLain (GLaDOS in Portal) and John Patrick Lowrie (The Sniper in Team Fortress 2) – address their followers over a PA system, continuing the process of indoctrination. This is where much of the procedurally driven story unfolds and splinters in various playthroughs.
“You are trying to decide as you are playing, ‘What is the nature of these people? What are their motivations? Are they good people who want to live in a socialist paradise in the jungle or are they a little more sinister than that?,’” Rouse says. “They are not always in agreement about how the camp should be run. Some scenarios will find conflict between them.”
The development team has crafted several narrative variables that can create more than 10 different outcomes, which may lead you to consider the camp members your allies, enemies, or something in between. The player also has agency in the story; should your nephew decide to stay when you definitely think it’s in his best interest to leave, you face a difficult choice.
One of Paranoid Productions’ big focuses for the Church in the Darkness is replayability, encouraging players to see the various narrative outcomes. To this end, it has designed a “unique” permadeth system that Rouse says isn’t too harsh for those who shy away from genres like roguelikes.
Look for The Church in the Darkness to open its doors on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC in early 2017.