Why do people join a cult? Is it the human need to find meaning in our lives? Is it a desperation to escape a world that strangles your soul? Or is it just the seductive charisma of a born leader?
For The Church in the Darkness, it’s all of the above. Its depiction of Freedom Town, a Jonestown-like Socialist commune in the 1970s, shows us all of these raw emotional needs and makes no pretences of telling you who’s right or wrong. ‘Whether you think the group is bad or good,’ director Richard Rouse III stated in my interview with him, is ‘up for you decide, and act accordingly.’ There are a lot of games that have tried to incorporate the player’s morality into their gameplay, and The Church in the Darkness shares some new highs for this approach – but almost none of the lows.
In Church you play as Vic, an ex-cop who infiltrates Freedom Town to find their nephew Alex. He’s been taken in by the town’s ruling cult, and Vic has been charged to check in on him. In gameplay inspired by 1981’s Castle Wolfenstein and the Metal Gear games, Vic explores Freedom Town while avoiding the watchful gaze of its occupants – many of them armed. As the commune’s leaders, Rebecca and Isaac Walker proclaim over the town’s PA system, ‘to defeat the gun, you must pick up the gun.’
The top-down perspective, oddly enough, makes Church a more personal game. In the same way that 2013’s Papers, Please manages to make you care for a family that you never physically see, Church’s birds-eye-view makes Vic – and you – feel smaller and more vulnerable. As Vic sneaks about Freedom Town, only the fact that they respond to your controls discerns Vic emotionally from the rest of the commune. The people here that tend the fields, sings the psalms, and bury their dead are people like Vic. People like you.
I’m walking on sunshine
That’s not to say that Church doesn’t visually distinguish its characters, far from it. Two clear distinctions between townspeople exist; those who are armed and those who are not. Gun-toting folks are marked by their unique colours. Red for shotgun shooters, blue for peashooter packers, that sort of thing. The colours are distinct, without clashing with Church’s Apocalypse Now-inspired colour palette. There was (almost) never a moment of confusion in determining who was what, which is essential to a good stealth experience.
But it’s not all smooth sailing when it comes to gameplay. Playing with a mouse and keyboard took some getting used to, but gamepad controls could definitely have used some extra polish. Thumbstick sensitivity was all over the place, particularly when trying to aim your weapon. There’s also no option to remap gamepad controls, so those with picky fingers may have to stick with the more traditional PC control method. Nevertheless, the basic gameplay loop is (metal gear) solid and should please any fans of top-down sneaking.
The feeble and the fighting aren’t the only people to meet in Freedom Town, however. Along the way to your main objective – finding Alex – you’ll encounter friendly townpeople that can help you pin down Alex’s location. They also have their own problems with Freedom Town, and their reasons for joining. Each has an optional side-quest to complete, but they have no physical reward. The sense of closure (and maybe turning them around on the whole ‘cult’ thing) is reward enough, and these people have been through enough.
Again, Church makes no attempt to handhold you through these characters’ moral reasoning. KeeAnne, an African-American woman, became fed up with the US’ lust for violence. ‘If it ain’t the army killing Vietnamese’, she proclaims, ‘it’s the police killing us!’ Theresa is just looking for a better world for her kids, and Charles is one of many Vietnam War veterans who never received a hero’s welcome. Are they right in their distrust of their flawed homeland, or have the Walkers brainwashed them with promises of utopia? That’s ‘up for you to decide’, and you won’t be disappointed with the game’s strong writing. After a few playthroughs, though, these characters will grow all too stale.
Are the decisions you make truly determined by your morality, or are you coldly gaming the system to have the best possible outcome?
But these side characters aren’t slouches. They’re brought to life not just by their realistic moral compass and a good script, but also by Church’s superb voiceover cast. John Patrick Lowre and Ellen McLain give great performances as the Walkers, bringing out all the fights and fancies of a married couple keeping their perfect world together. Arif Kinchen and Rafeedah Keys both give incredible performances as well, breathing life into all six extra characters. Church’s soundtrack, composed by Andre Maguire, is yet another atmospheric score that I must have on vinyl. The wonderfully intimate folk songs sung by Lowre and McLain over Freedom Town’s PA are fantastic as well. Church’s sound design, as well as its immaculately crafted worldbuilding material, creates a spitting image of 1970s radicalism.
The game’s UI is brilliantly minimalist
Church’s story is essentially the same across all playthroughs, but its narrative changes thanks to the game’s procedurally generated scripts. The Walkers will have different personalities each time you play, and the cast of side characters will shuffle about as well. This all makes for 19 different endings on four different difficulty settings. Don’t worry, you can try for the same ending if you fail. It’s a real shame that the procedural generation wasn’t applied to the side characters as well; there’s some incredible missed opportunities here. Imagine, for example, if Charles wasn’t a no-nonsense ‘nam vet but a closet racist gun-toting bully? Or if Theresa joined Freedom Town just to have more control over her children? The smaller budget of an indie title makes this forgivable, but it’s still a shame.
Church’s endings don’t just branch at the end, either. Most of the time, Vic’s ‘death’ will see her locked up in a cage and given a stern talking to by either Isaac or Rebecca. In some playthroughs (read: most of your early ones), you’ll get talks from both. If you’ve killed too many people, however, the leaders will simply shoot you in the head. ‘The Lord says to pray for the unfortunate’, mutters Isaac as he points a pistol at you. ‘And so, I pray for you.’ Not minding murder could also earn you the ire of the side characters, making your objective much more difficult.
This brings a big problem with morality-based gameplay to the forefront; are the decisions you make truly determined by your morality, or are you coldly gaming the system to have the best possible outcome? Indeed, you begin each new game by choosing certain pieces of equipment that are unlocked as you discover them in the game. With increased difficulty levels removing UI training wheels like enemy sight indicators, and introducing one-shot-kill, the line between logic and emotion becomes blurred as you start mixing and matching equipment to match playstyles. Are you avoiding killing because you abhor the practice, or just for those ‘extra lives’?
Yet, Church’s subject matter makes it work. By becoming less sure if your actions are reasonable or not, you’re putting yourself in the same philosophical situation as the members of Freedom Town. Was their decision to leave the US for a small commune in the malaria-filled jungles of South America based on rationality, or fear? In the 1970s, the answer wasn’t quite that clear. For some players, the Walkers will be speaking the truth. For some, they’ll be crackpots. Why do people join cults? That’s ‘up for you to decide’.
What did Iris die for?
The Church in the Darkness is a thought-provoking experience that should absolutely be on everybody’s to-play list. While gameplay doesn’t always hit the mark, it takes a backseat to fantastic production quality for an indie title. Richard Rouse III may be known for The Suffering, but I certainly didn’t have any of that with my time in Church.
Reviewed on Windows // Review code supplied by publisher