The highs and lows of the 1970s gets little love from video games. That looks set to change, however, with it taking center stage in the upcoming cult (literally) thriller The Church in the Darkness. Its atmosphere and writing bring all of that decade’s very real cult fever into its amazingly detailed world – pulling no philosophical punches along the way. In my preview of the game from January, I called it an ‘impressively bold attempt to put a mirror up to your own beliefs.’ I had the pleasure of chatting with the game’s charismatic director Richard Rouse III about his passion project, and the artistic influences behind The Church in the Darkness.
WellPlayed: First and foremost: What is the theme of The Church in the Darkness?
Richard Rouse III: Well I wouldn’t want to give it away right off the bat, would I? Seriously though, I don’t think it’s my position to say. I’d rather players figure it out, or rather, figure out what the theme is for them, for the way we play it. Obviously we touch on subject matter of cult groups, abuse of religion, but also revolutionary optimism and a desire to change the world that those groups often have. But whether you think the group is bad or good, that’s up for you decide, and act accordingly. With the many endings you could get, players can decide what outcomes they think are the best. I’m not making the game to tell you how to feel about the subject matter.
WP: The game’s historical authenticity is a part I thoroughly enjoyed; the scenario itself was fictional, but the spirit of the 1970s was strongly conveyed. What sort of research was performed to make Church’s world so authentic?
RR III: In a lot of ways research is my favourite part of a project and sometimes I think I spent longer on research than I should have. But I did all kinds of researching, everything from watching documentaries on different groups, reading books written by cult survivors, studying the political climate and other revolutionary groups of the period, to going to first hand sources and talking to people who lived through that period and came into contact with those sorts of radical fringe organizations. There’s a lot of parts of the game that look as authentic as they do because we employed a lot of photo reference – we didn’t need to do much concept art because almost everything you’ll see in the game is based on a real object. And though it’s not a documentary, the characters will refer to real historical figures and leaders, or mention real political moments from that era. So hopefully people will feel that research was worth it.
WP: Cults have always fascinated me on a macabre level. There’s something about them that just seems…off. Why make a game featuring them?
RR III: I think people like to play games that let them go somewhere they couldn’t normally go, do things they couldn’t normally do. It’s that “something off” that makes us want to learn more about cults, and I think a game can let you into a cult so you can try to see what’s going on and maybe understand them a bit better. When we hear about cults in the news or whatever, there’s something so alien about them. “How could those people do that? Why would they join?” But when you do start down the rabbit hole of learning more about these groups, you see they often start out with the best intentions, sometimes reasons that you yourself might agree with. And then you think, in the right circumstances might I join a cult? Maybe without realizing you’ve done it? Because no one actually sets up to join a cult. It sneaks up on them. And that was what most attracted me to the subject.
WP: The Jonestown inspirations are obvious in Church, but are there any inspirations from specific other cults that might be less obvious?
RR III: I wouldn’t say the game is inspired by any one cult specifically, but it was more inspired by the era. The decade of the 1970s was a time of disenchantment and fear and that led to a lot of people trying different ways of life. Some communes that got started in the 1960s flourished in the 70s, whether something like Black Bear Ranch in far Northern California or The Farm, founded by hippies who moved en masse to Tennessee. And those groups lasted well past the 70s, and many are still going today, and often survive a change in leadership. But then you had more intense groups, which had a stronger central leadership or a more intense spiritual side, like Jonestown or the Rajneeshpuram or other groups that ended tragically one way or another. So we pulled from both the groups that worked and the ones that were doomed and made a group that was our own.
‘…we didn’t need to do much concept art because almost everything you’ll see in the game is based on a real object.’
WP: Church looks like it’ll be one of those games that manages to blend thought-provoking themes with engaging gameplay. It reminds me of games like Oddworld or Bioshock in that regard, but were there any games that were direct influences on gameplay?
RR III: Gameplay wise, the strongest influence is probably a surprising one – the original Castle Wolfenstein. This was a game originally for the Apple II that came out in the early 80s. Unlike the Wolfenstein shooters that would come later, in the original Castle Wolfenstein you were infiltrating a Nazi castle from a top down perspective. It was way ahead of its time in that it was very systems based, you could get disguises, you could stick up guards instead of shooting them, it had procedural generation, all these cool features. It was a game I loved as a kid and I hadn’t played anything like it in years. People often compare the game to the old Metal Gear games, back when that franchise was top down, and they were an inspiration too, but Castle Wolfenstein definitely came first for me. Of course there’s tons of other modern inspirations, say Hitman to Dishonored. Or we can also talk about modern indie games that integrate challenging narrative with unique gameplay, like Papers, Please or This War of Mine. These were titles that showed me that there can be audience for a game that does something challenging.
WP: Following up from that last question, what are some other artistic inspirations?
RR III: Beyond the research of real world groups and history, I tried to look to things that are as period-appropriate as possible, and that means films and were made in the 1970s, not just set in them. Apocalypse Now is a good example of one – set in the jungle and with a certain 70s-green colour palette too, we took a lot of visual inspiration from that. Certainly a lot of 1970s music inspired the original songs that are in the game. Our actor who plays cult leader Isaac, John Patrick Lowrie, pulled from his own experiences with the music of the 1970s to write those songs. He likes to say one of the songs he wrote that you might hear over the PA system is an “Up with People” song, a very obscure, weirdly optimistic group from the 1970s that almost no one remembers.
WP: The addition of John Patrick Lowrie and Ellen McLain to the voice cast is sure to get a fair few people interested. As a huge Team Fortress 2 fan, this was certainly true for me. How did this collaboration happen, and is there any other voice talent in Church that we might recognise?
RR III: John and I worked together years ago on The Suffering games, and when I was thinking of making a game with a charismatic cult leader, he was the first person I thought of for that part. In fact, he and I got together for lunch and I talked to him about the game before I talked to anyone else. But I knew early on I wanted to have two cult leaders, to keep things interesting as they address their followers over the town’s PA system. So Ellen – being a very talented actor herself not to mention John’s wife in real life – seemed like the perfect fit to play his cult leader wife in the game. And they came on early as more than just actors – we talked about the game and the characters before one word was written. So they were characters created specifically with them in mind. And through the rehearsal process, they really became story collaborators more than just actors.
RR III (cont.): But they’re not the only actors in the game. I mentioned John was in The Suffering games with me before, and when it comes to actors I really do like working with people I know, so I can craft the part to them. So for some of the other people you will meet around town, I went back to two actors I knew from The Suffering games. First was Rafeedah Keys, who had played the player character’s wife Carmen in both The Suffering games, and I was impressed how she was really able to transform her voice into the different characters she plays in Church. And then we had Arif Kinchen, who had played Miles in The Suffering – Ties that Bind. He’s been in lots of other games, perhaps most famously as Pierce Washington in the Saint’s Row games. So the cast is 3/4ths a reunion from The Suffering, and that feels pretty great.
WP: Having the camp’s leaders be different in each story sounds really cool. I can see debates happening about which story is the best one! How many stories can we expect to see, and how long will they be on average?
RR III: The game’s simultaneously one story with a lot of endings, but also multiple stories because of all the starting places – we start with different personalities for the cult leaders Isaac and Rebecca. They have similar political ideologies in any scenario, but in some versions they go too far in dark directions with their beliefs. And the two of them may or may not agree on what should be done. That’s where you get several of the variations, but of course I don’t want to give too much away.
How long it takes to go through really varies from player to player, what their play style is, how much experience they have with this type of game, etc. Once someone is good they can probably finish a playthrough in an hour, if they stay focused and get lucky. But I want everyone to play the game at least three or four times to get different endings, to see more parts of our open world, to see the different takes on the preachers. You won’t be able to meet all the characters or find all the narrative bits in one play through, and we actually unlock more gameplay and narrative content in later playthroughs, so it won’t feel like you’re repeating yourself.
‘[friendly characters’] reactions will of course change based on how you’ve been playing but also their opinions of Freedom Town and the preachers who run it.’
WP: The game’s most recent trailer shows off the variety of character stories players will explore in the many available stories. No doubt that the ethnic diversity, as well as being a perfectly natural direction, was a nod to the egalitarian nature of many cults – including the People’s Temple. But diversity in games has often been ‘criticised’ by those who more often than not have a hidden agenda. In addition, some historic cults remain active and continue to have overzealous members. Is there a worry amongst the team that they’ll attract the wrong kind of attention?
RR III: The game game’s story and cast are of course fictitious, but believability was a big goal – it always is for me. As you said, a lot of those sorts of spiritual and revolutionary outsider groups from that period – cults or not – attracted all kinds of people, from different parts of the country, different walks of life. Obviously not every group did that, but many did. In every game I’ve ever made, I’d try to create characters who felt like they represented what you would see in real life, and I think we’ve done that here.
WP: Collectable worldbuilding is a storytelling method that’s effective in both contextual and mechanical ways. The snippets of information about the camp and the people in it, as found by the player themselves, painted a vivid but brutal picture of Freedom Town’s authoritarian dystopia in the short time I had with the preview build. The writers really did do a great job here, but what else can we expect to find that’ll build the game’s atmosphere?
RR III: A big one we’ve been working on since the build you checked out are the friendly characters you meet and talk to. We’ve made some changes to make them a lot more interactive, allowing you to pose questions, and their reactions will of course change based on how you’ve been playing but also their opinions of Freedom Town and the preachers who run it. Making these characters more interactive added another element to the world building, so you have the PA dialog from the cult leaders, the notes and documents that you find, environmental elements, and also these characters. It means each time you play you won’t experience all the content, so you’re always finding something new. I really wanted to make a story players will want to play many times.
WP: Are there any plans for post-launch content? More stories, perhaps an expansion pack with an all-new camp? I can dream, after all.
RR III: We definitely want to support the game post launch, balancing based on how players play and what they find too hard or too easy, or helping them find narrative content people may be overlooking. And yes, I have ideas for how to add more content to the game as well. But that’ll come based on how the community reacts to what we’re giving them at launch. For sure, it’s intended to be a complete story from day one. And as for larger expansions, it’s not like we’ve got “ice world” and “lava world” DLCs coming – though a cult all about fire does sound great.
The Church in the Darkness is scheduled for release in 2019 for Xbox One, PS4 and PC.