Channeling the 1970s in The Church in the Darkness

Richard Rouse III is a game developer of considerable chops, best known for his work on games including State of Decay and Rainbow Six, as well as a lead designer on Surreal Software’s 2004 survival horror game The Suffering. He’s fond of rich settings and complex antagonists, two elements which undergird his upcoming independent project: The Church in the Darkness.

Set amidst sweltering South American jungle in the mid-1970s, The Church in the Darkness plays transparently off the Peoples Temple and the mass murder-suicide at Jonestown in 1978, though Rouse’s research took him to investigating other cults and communes for inspiration as well. It’s not the sort of subject matter to go into lightly, and the chance for trivializing horrible and deadly abuses like that at Jonestown through gamey mechanics would be enough to dissuade most reasonable developers — but Rouse appears cognizant of the risks, and measured in how he’s chosen to balance his game around them.

“I’ve been fascinated by groups that live differently and [separate themselves from] American society,” Rouse told me yesterday at the Game Developer’s Conference at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. The symmetry could not be more significant: the Moscone Center is named after a mayor Peoples Temple founder Jim Jones reportedly helped elect, in a city that would become his movement’s headquarters, prior to the mass emigration to Guyana in the late 70s. The Church in the Darkness‘s subject matter is not merely intellectual in a place like this — it’s part of San Francisco’s history.

“The 1970s were also an interesting time [politically], coming out of the ‘peace, love, and happiness, we’re going to change the world through positivity’ of the 1960s,” Rouse says. “The Vietnam War was still going on. Government-backed discrimination was still going on. [Those on the left] were becoming more radical.”

The Church in the Darkness‘s cult in question, the Collective Justice Mission, differs from the Peoples Temple in a few key ways. The Collective Justice Mission is far more religious, for one thing, their symbol a combination of the Christian cross and the Communist red star. Rouse is also keen to point out that the movement is equally led by husband-and-wife antagonists Isaac and Rebecca Walker, whose motives are not near as egomaniacal and patriarchal as many of the 20th century cult leaders Rouse studied, nor are their tactics as extreme. If captured, for instance, the player has a couple opportunities to escape and try again before the cultists execute them, and rather than address the uneasy business of harming children, discoverable documents reveal they’re all abroad at a summer camp in Cuba during the time of the player’s visit.

“It’s a simulation game. You have a gun, and you can shoot anything with it. And there are consequences for your actions. [But] a game where you can shoot children, that is not a game I want to write,” says Rouse. He’s far more interested in depicting Isaac and Rebecca Walker as sympathetic, or at least complicated. “There is a certain line that, once you cross, it’s hard to come back from… When it’s a Nazi, a Stormtrooper, you don’t need to think about who you’re shooting, you just shoot. I think it’s far more interesting to face an enemy who you understand.”

“I think it’s far more interesting to face an enemy who you understand.”

The Walkers are indeed magnetic figures, in large part because of the quality voice talent behind them: John Patrick Lowrie and Ellen McLain, best known for their roles in Valve’s Team Fortress 2 and Portal titles, respectively. Rouse sought the husband-and-wife duo out initially because they were local to his Seattle-based studio (“traveling on an indie budget is a challenge”) and agrees the characters Isaac and Rebecca were written specifically with them in mind — a common practice in the land of cinema, but not so often in games.

“I had worked with John on The Suffering, and I had lunch with him right as I was beginning the project,” Rouse recalls. “I also knew as I was designing the cult that I wanted to do something different, and I knew John was married to another great voice actor […] So what about a husband and wife jointly leading the group? Often with these cults the leader will have a wife or someone who supports or enables him, but here the dynamic is more equal. And I didn’t want to make a game where you just heard a dude the whole time. I hadn’t met Ellen before [so at lunch] I asked John if this was something she would be interested as well. He said: ‘Yes! Well, let me ask her first.'”

McLain — who is most fondly remembered as the malevolent AI GLaDOS in Portal and its sequel — did indeed express interest, and the two worked together with Rouse to develop both characters. In addition to performing the lead voice roles, Lowrie and McLain also perform several songs that play over the in-game speaker systems and credits. Different songs will play depending on the player’s actions over the course of the game.

Rouse stresses the multiple endings feature, in particular the feedback loop between player behavior and procedurally generated scenes they might come across. A player might encounter cultists torturing another of their members tied to a whipping post during one playthrough, but find a group peacefully praying in the next run. The goal, Rouse hints, is to shape the player’s perspective of just how sinister or benign the cult is. It might in turn affect how the player goes about completing their mission, which is to exfiltrate a young relative, Alex, who has fallen in with the movement — in some cases he might be persuaded to come with the player willingly; in others, it might not be so simple.

While playing the demo, I found I did indeed get a palpable sense of dread while navigating this sprawling jungle compound. The Church in the Darkness‘s fictionalized Jonestown is a dusty maze of fields and summer camp-esque wooden cabins set beside improvised graves, barbed wire, and firing squads. The gameplay compromises between a persistent HUD and a more naturalistic view by letting the player crouch and detect nearby guards’ range of vision, scanning the overhead scenery for safe pathways before proceeding. It is possible to attack and take out opponents, lethally as well as nonlethally, but you’re poorly armed, terribly exposed, and significantly outnumbered — so stealth is the encouraged method of approach. This in turn helps facilitate snooping around for documents which shed light on Alex’s situation and that of the commune as a whole.

That all being said, ultimately what I played of The Church in the Darkness was game first, setting second. You still have a health bar. You still miraculously heal wounds by swallowing painkillers or food. Apart from the Walkers, enemies you encounter are faceless, nameless cones of perception you must simply distract, steer around, and hide from. It’s easy to get caught up in the game’s essential puzzle elements and not dwell too heavily on the very real, very deadly events which inspired its setting. While the writing is deft and McLain and Lowrie’s performances are taut, I couldn’t yet tell you whether the game is able to execute on its ideas.

Does it really matter if it does, though? Spec Ops: The Line was lauded at the time of its release for its deconstruction of the war-themed shooter, and includes a horrifying depiction of war crimes — but those same scenes played out in a film would probably get panned as sensationalist. That’s not to say that film’s standards of representation should be the same as games’ — different constraints demand different approaches, and there are many developers who would argue against the notion games should even have stories — but when a game is specifically alluding to something like a mass murder-suicide that claimed over 900 lives including a US Congressman, it seems like that ought to be something done with care.

“I think every game designer who is serious about real-world subject matter struggles with… stuff that undermines the narrative.”

“I think every game designer who is serious about real-world subject matter struggles with that question,” Rouse says. “I’m trying to make the mechanics so that it encourages you to avoid conflict as much as possible… I want the player to go, ‘ok, how would I really react in this situation?’ We still have gamey elements like sight cones and inventory but I don’t feel that stuff undermines the narrative. If we made a game where you murdered everyone, I think that would undermine things.”

The Church in the Darkness has already garnered plenty of early press attention, so you can expect to hear more about it in the coming months. For Lowrie’s and McLain’s performances alone, and especially for the pair’s original folk songs set opposite composer Andre Maguire’s Jim Jarmusch-inspired post-rock score, I promise this will be one to check out. Beyond that — we can only hope for the best.

While no hard release date has been set, The Church in the Darkness is expected to land in the “second half” of 2017 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Steam. You can follow Richard Rouse III and the development team’s updates on the official website.