The 1970s were a time of great disillusionment in the United States. The ‘Great Inflation’ created an unprecedented period of economic stagnation, the counterculture movement of the 1960s remained in full swing, and the social norms of the post-war generation were being turned on their head.
It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that the 1970s were somewhat of a Golden Age of Cults. What better way to escape what seems like a fatally flawed social system than joining your local cult? In this free market of alternative lifestyles, Americans had so many of them to choose from.
Heaven’s Gate believed that aliens would escort them to the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’, inspired by late nights of Star Trek. The Children of God were, to put it simply, a never-ending swinger’s party (with some incest thrown in). The Branch Davidians were the poster child of apocalypse cults, and their particular brand of crazy would come to a bitter end with the infamous Waco Siege. The People’s Temple preached Communism under the pretense of religion, bundled together with egalitarian values. After all, Communism was illegal in America, but the second amendment guarantees religious freedom. The People’s Temple are most remembered for their South American commune: Jonestown.
Richard Rouse III, best known for his involvement in 2004’s cult horror shooter The Suffering, has been fascinated by ‘alternate societies’ for a very long time. It’s this macabre interest that’s behind his latest project, The Church in the Darkness. In it, you play the part of a concerned former cop that decides to infiltrate the (fictional) Freedom Town – a socialist commune heavily inspired by the zeitgeist of Jonestown. Your mission is to find your nephew Alex and get him home.
The two leaders of Freedom Town, Rebecca and Isaac, established Freedom Town to escape what they saw as America’s crumbling social order and religious persecution. These married masters of Freedom Town are played by John Patrick-Lowrie and Ellen McLain, better known for other roles like Team Fortress 2’s Sniper class and Portal’s antagonist GLaDOS respectively. Freedom Town, Rebecca and Isaac insist, is a paradise free from the constraints and sufferings of Capitalism. In reality, the commune is anything but paradise.
The Church in the Darkness is, at its core, a stealth-action game. You’ll explore Freedom Town to find the location – or fate – of Alex, while also learning more about the commune through collectable details strewn throughout the map. The most interesting thing about Freedom Town, though, is that it’ll be totally different each time you enter it. The layout of the town, your motives, and even the leaders’ ideology will change between playthroughs.
Procedural generation has gotten a bad rap over the past few years, so it’s refreshing to see it used in a more thorough fashion. Are you a savior from the tyrannical grip of a power couple’s deadly charisma? Or are you just somebody who wandered in with a firearm looking for trouble? Better yet, what kind of power dynamics will the (married) leaders of Freedom Town have? Are they a morally-bound team, or is there a greater dichotomy between them? Either way, Freedom Town don’t take kindly to strangers ‘round these parts: keeping to yourself is essential.
Salvation through death
A lot of your own decisions will determine that moral outcome as well. The ‘action’ in ‘stealth-action’ isn’t just for show; there’s more than one way to infiltrate a commune. Sneaking, shooting, sightseeing, whatever way you see fit is the fittest way indeed. The camera perspective allows you to have a great view of the world around you, benefitting whatever playstyle you desire. That said, starting firefights doesn’t feel as good as pulling off a sneaky sneak. That could be down to the iffy controls, but an early build is an early build.
Atmosphere is key to The Church in the Darkness’ presentation, and I fell in love with it. Rebecca and Isaac give frequent pep talks over the commune’s PA system, further echoing the Jonestown vibes. The slow, methodical soundtrack treads the line between relaxing and unnerving – including tracks from Lowrie and McLain. The top-down perspective, as well as benefitting the gameplay, makes you seem very small indeed. Another neat touch to the game’s presentation (that’s hopefully not just a symptom of the game’s early development stages) is the variety in model detail. While environments have some level of texturing, character are represented by barely smoothed low-poly models. These in-game people are seemingly ready to be molded, reshaped, into whatever the cult wants them to be. Nobody is immune to propaganda.
Of course, The Church in the Darkness is more than just its gameplay and aesthetics. There’s something almost sinister going on with the game’s design goals, an impressively bold attempt to put a mirror up to your own beliefs. How you make your way through Freedom Town is your own choice – but will also carry its own moral consequences. What does your playstyle say about you? Have you become sympathetic to the plights of the townspeople and their leaders, or have you decided that it’s better to be dead than red?
There’s no intent to pursue a political agenda inside The Church in the Darkness. Its mission is simply to make its players as uncomfortable as possible. Making decisions may be easy on the surface, but it’s hard to ignore the ramifications of rashly-made choices. Richard Rouse III has long championed the potential of open-ended storytelling in games. As Polygon’s Dave Tach wrote way back in 2016, when The Church in the Darkness first emerged from the development shadows:
Since the mid-’80s, [Rouse’s] been excited about the possibility of games where he could make choices and and [sic] see the ramifications. Rouse says he’s “literally stunned” that so many popular games in 2016 have fixed narratives. He doesn’t think that’s bad, in and of itself. But he’s always believed that games — unlike, say, novels or movies or TV shows — offer a unique opportunity to bend narratives based on player actions.
In that respect, The Church in the Darkness looks set to deliver. No release date yet exists for the game but it’ll arrive this year on Windows, Xbox One and PlayStation 4. You can check out the Alpha build yourself on the publisher’s itch.io page.