The Church in the Darkness: Building a Believable Cult

Games Features The Church in the Darkness
The Church in the Darkness: Building a Believable Cult

Richard Rouse III is building a complicated following. The man who was behind games like The Suffering and some of the writing in the Homefront series is now applying his love of narrative genre-blending to a small game called The Church in the Darkness. It’s a roguelike and a permadeath thing but it is also undeniably outside of genre conventions for anything I could hope to tag it with. It’s the tale of a cult in the woods, and as Paste’s resident cult in the woods specialist, me and Rouse have been circling each other to make some kind of interview happen, because we’re both so deep in each other’s nightmare it is hard to tell where the individuals end. We’ve both spent the last few years diving into cult culture; what you bring out the other side doesn’t define you as a person, but it does reveal a lot about what lies beneath. So in a fairly extensive interview, I get to see what lies beneath Richard Rouse.

The Church in the Darkness is an isometric game based on the cults of the 1970s. You’re headed in to retrieve someone close to you, and along the way you can try to uncover every piece of documentation and slowly persuade people to reconsider what their purpose is in this place, or you can bounce around the jungle guns blazing like a version of The Predator who just hunts zealots. But every playthrough is different and every playthrough changes the story in a way that you might not fully grasp. Each change in play style and difficulty level actually unlocks more intriguing narrative depths, but as a procedurally generated story, some of that depends on you and your investment.

The in-game cult is run by a husband-wife leadership team, Rebecca and Isaac Walker, who are voiced by Ellen McLain (best known as GLaDOS in Portal) and John Patrick Lowrie (the Sniper from Team Fortress 2). You soak up the story through the town PA system, where the preachers share their dogma and beliefs. You find documents and letters scattered around camp which clue you into the true nature of Freedom Town. Every playthrough offers unique gameplay scenarios and story elements, with different character personalities and a shifting narrative told through investigation and action. How dangerous are the Walkers? Who are your allies and enemies? How far will you go to uncover the truth and save these people?

I played around in the demo and got angry. I also laughed. I’m on my third playthrough and I’m still just so anxious. At some point in 2018 you’ll be able to share in that anxiety with me.

Taking a break from the stress, I sat down to talk to Rouse about cults, making the complicated accessible, and whether or not we’re about to leave our lives behind.

Paste: What’s your biggest bug in the game right now?

Richard Rouse: The load/save system in a game full of randomization. And it’s tricky with a game where some people play try to avoid all detection and some people go in guns blazing. Some people read every document, and for them it is a longer game, but the other folks might be doing a speed run. And it is hard to make the game hold saves for everyone.

Paste: That’s how I played the game, bouncing between the play style of hiding in the shadows and being a slow killer, but then also darting all over the map and picking off dudes at random. It’s a narratively heavy story, so it feels weird to be given the option to ignore the lore entirely. Why did you design the game that way?

Rouse: I’m a fan of people playing the game they want to play. And it makes sense to me to make a game that has a lot of replayability. And an indie probably can’t beat a AAA game in war for content. So that’s why your first target in the game is going to spawn in completely different positions each time you load up the game. Replayable narratives have always had an influence on me, if they’re done in an interesting way.

Paste: What are those influences?

Rouse: Nothing like Dwarf Fortress but something replayable with multiple sides. It’s less other games and it is more the story elements—and story that the replays would allow you to see from different sides. And then there’s cults. Some are just groups of people who want to be left alone so they can just… you know, do what they’re going to do? They’re not going to hurt themselves and they’re not going to hurt anyone else and it is all going to be fine if you just leave them alone. Other groups are on this apocalyptic trajectory that you’re just not sure what’s going to happen. And telling them apart is what changes every time. It’s not a procedural narrative feature, it’s picking what matters from a tapestry of stories and finding which fits in which playthrough.

Paste: So yeah, let’s dive into the cult aspect. I guess what this variation in your game presupposes is that sometimes you are going to be the asshole. Everything would have gone just fine if it wasn’t for your stupid meddling and actually you’re the bad guy for setting these events in motion. It’s a very quantum theory sort of “observation changes the result” type thing. The more people I talk to about cults, the more we have the conversation about what elements of cults provide a positive aspect to people.

Rouse: Yeah, I think most groups we would call cults are providing something positive to people at least at some point in their life—you know, before anything catastrophic happens that negates all of that. We have a free society, but also people leave cults all the time and have to weigh the negatives of losing those good parts and that’s tricky. Or it can be pretty straight-forward. There’s a podcast right now about Heaven’s Gate—

Paste: Isn’t it insane that their GeoCities page is still up?

Rouse: Yup. But the people here had trouble connecting with people in other ways. And you can hear from some of the Heaven’s Gate interviews that these people would have found some other way to connect with people today. You can hear it in their voices: some of them would have just been very into fandom. Especially with the cult being Star Trek related. The original leader passed away from cancer and if she’d been around you have to believe they never would have gone on that trajectory. They’d just be some little group of people still hanging out on their own somewhere.

Paste: The Cigna health group just released a study that said 47% of Americans experience “severe loneliness” which they consider to be a Loneliness Epidemic.

Rouse: You mean social media hasn’t made everyone happy? [Laughter]

Paste: People keep asking me why someone would join a cult in 2018, but you look at the basis of a lot of these functional groups right now: They all live in the same place, you see actual people, you have family investment. There’s a lot of offline interaction that I… I see the draw?

Rouse: Or there’s less financial concern? We’re also less religious than we’ve ever been. And no matter what you think about the positives/negatives of religion, it does create a community that you see in real life where other people are there to support you and you are there to support them. There’s a lot of positive stuff there. Our fascination with cults is a combination of wanting to see someone worse off than you so you can point and laugh, but also there’s a part where you want to leave society and go live in the jungle and do something different because—look at society? This isn’t working out. And that’s what gave rise to a lot of the cults of the ‘70s. Disenchantment with government lead to people saying “Let’s try something else” and I think people are back to asking that same question again.

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Paste: So how did you build the lore of your cult and how do you craft a believable cult with positive elements that makes the player have to question what their involvement means? And I suppose, again, how do you do that well in a procedurally generated way?

Rouse: There’s always something positive from these groups. One of the big problems in reporting that doesn’t point that out is that reporters often come to this without an open mind. You need an open mind, to at least find that appealing thing. That disenchantment with society was a base level for my cult, but they’re also very welcoming. They’re pro LGBTQ, they’re very leftist, they’re against the Vietnam War and they’re against the US government. And yeah, a lot of that sounds good? But this socialist group also leans into a sort of DSA socialism—which is a divisive topic online. Was Jesus socialist? Turns out people can twist religion a lot of ways and find what they want. There are a lot of contradictions. I remember being in high school and telling my history teacher that Jesus was a socialist and that teacher being intrigued.

Paste: I had an atheist biology teacher who had to teach us creationism. He seethed that lesson through his teeth.

Rouse: We should probably see it as a flawed text written by flawed humans.

Paste: How much of this was you making peace with your religious upbringing?

Rouse: When you’re trying to write characters—I always write villains that you can sympathize with. I got more into religion through this project than I experienced as a kid. I had a devout Catholic mother and other family members that were part of the progressive arm of the Catholic church. There was no anti-gay talk and a lot of “Women should be priests!” talk. So this wasn’t exorcising demons. They’re espousing genuine Christian values. Whether they see those values through from start to finish is a different thing.

Paste: The capturing element of your game threw me, and I’m not sure how it plays out in the full game. Can you walk me through this mechanic a bit?

Rouse: Sure. It is possible that, instead of being killed by the member of the cult in the game, they can actually just render you unconscious. You can wake up in a cage that you can escape from and rejoin the game, but whether or not you’re given a second change is entirely dependent on how the cult feels about you. Have you been murdering people and leaving bodies in the road? Have you been knocking people out and hiding them? Have people been spotting you and setting off alarms? If you’ve been killing folks, you’re going to wind up being executed. That came out of liking a system that gave you extra lives in a permadeath game, but it also provides opportunities to meet the cult leaders in person, so that idea checks off a lot of boxes for us. It is another gameplay system that works hand in hand with the story.

Paste: That brings up an idea I had during my time with the demo. And I can tell you’ve thought about it because we already discussed the issue in this interview. When the game begins, your character enters the woods. There’s a set path. Along that path, you encounter your first cultist and have the choice to kill them or knock them out. Did you ever consider, as you brought up with the “journalists need to enter with an open mind” statement, having a different path of completely openness through the game? This is already a game that can be completed mostly non-lethally, but did you consider a path of complete non-violence? Or is that just too far away from the basics that you require to make this a game?

Rouse: It crossed my mind. It crossed my mind many times since. The problem is one of scope: you’re basically making another game at that point. I didn’t want to make a pure narrative / walking simulator type game here. I think there’s something sticky about having game mechanics and how that forces players to engage with a narrative and how that actually serves a story better. I played to my own knowledge of 20 years of working in games and that’s mostly built on blending mechanics and story. But sure: there’s absolutely a version of this game with a more advanced conversation system where you have to convince people to change their minds. And this is a small scope indie game. I’m maybe not ambitious enough—you can’t risk everything. I think we’ve already risked A LOT in what we’ve made here.

Paste: You’re right. I’m sorry for asking “Hey, why is this project you started building in your free time not on the same scope and scale as Mass Effect?”

Rouse: We could certainly talk about other AAA games like Far Cry that—have you played Far Cry 3 to the end? Because that character becomes self-critical about the people he’s killed. I love that game and I love the writer but I also don’t think that ending works at all. Because there was no option to talk to these people button. You had to kill them. I’d like to think we’re doing something much different from that.

Paste: I am very much in the minority on loving Far Cry 3 but some of that is for these obvious missteps. Far Cry: Spring Break is a game about imperialism and white privilege and wants to ice your bros but you’ve got to enslave a country first. It’s so broken on so many philosophical levels but I find that—at worst—intriguing?

Rouse: It’s hard to criticize the player like that. The ambition there was great.

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Paste: There’s our natural transition into asking if you’ve played the other big cult game right now. Or are you deliberately avoiding Far Cry 5 until your game comes out?

Rouse: I played… a bit. It is… a Far Cry game. For sure. I don’t think it aspired to be something else. If you’re going for nuance, you might be in the wrong place. The more cartoony it goes, the better it works.

Paste: The choice to drug up the cult members I thought was just unforgivably bad. I had my own review of it that was overtaken by all of that nonsense. Holly Green here at Paste wrote about what a weak trope drug use in games has become. It just takes away all the agency of these cult members, and the truly scary part of the game was supposed to be the choices that these people made, especially with a Christian cult in modern America.

Rouse: I don’t see them as even a Christian group. There are Bible references but they remade the Christian cross with the iron cross and these choices were made to offend fewer people.

Paste: Your cult isn’t just Catholics though.

Rouse: That’s true. But they’re still Christians and they still spout the Bible. And that felt more true to what these groups were doing in the ‘70s. But I have the advantage of not having to sell the millions of units that Ubisoft has to. It is hard for me to fault anyone for going broad.

Paste: What was it like working with Ellen McLain and John Patrick Lowrie?

Rouse: Lovely people. I worked with John on The Suffering games, and when I started on the idea I told him about the idea. He was in from day one. Then I was thinking about how cult leaders have been traditionally male, and how this cult leader would be broadcasting over the PA throughout the game, and I thought “I do not just want to hear this one male voice from start to finish in this game.” I hadn’t actually met Ellen before, even though they’re a real life couple. So they… obviously know each other well. And getting a real life couple to play this cult couple was fireworks. They did theater all over, and he was a touring musician, and he kept trying to get her into voice acting. Eventually, she made a demo which got her Portal as her first game. They’re great. And they developed these characters and sent me emails about what they were thinking or what they would/wouldn’t say in situations. This is not that. In movies, directors get to say I wrote this part with this actor and I couldn’t have found the part without them. That doesn’t happen that much in games.

Paste: You mentioned before how you approach villains by making them sympathetic. You wrote on Homefront as well, which is the opposite of your new game. It is about an invading force instead of invading a powerful force. How did writing an invading North Korean army help shape how you write about the spread of toxic Christian ideals?

Rouse: I was on Homefront for the middle year and a half of writing. I left because I didn’t totally agree with everything that was going on. The final product did not reflect my work, so it is not worth it to ask me about what I was going for there. But it is this very Red Dawn fantasy which, I don’t know if you’ve watched it recently, is equal parts cartoony and very brutal, realistic war movie.

Paste: It is mostly about a high school football team.

Rouse: Suicide missions and female combatants and sitting on a grenade until enemy troops drive by. I got to meet John Milius while working on Homefront. He knows a ton about war. He would talk about Geronimo as a great resistance fighter, which seeps into Red Dawn, which feels like a subversive film about occupation that was not the light-hearted romp that was probably pitched to the studio. And even in that movie, the guys from Cuba are even self-criticizing and asking what they were doing here. They used to be resistance fighters but now they’re the oppressors and where else do you see this kind of pro-America pro-war movie where even the bad guys keep saying “This is wrong.”

Paste: For Church in the Darkness, what are you hoping the discourse will be around it? What are you poking at and what is your best version of people engaging with those ideas?

Rouse: The stock answer is that I don’t know. I do hope they take away an individual thing, because it is not supposed to be a lecture. I hope it challenges your baggage, be that about religion or socialism or whatever you find here. We did not go for the easy Central Casting version of any of these things. I’m hoping people will come meet some of the characters in the game and listen to some of these people with reasonable motivations and say that maybe there’s something more to these groups than I once thought. Multiple playthroughs will show you how this group that is preaching the same dogma will sometimes be really kind and smart and other times will go too far with it. Stories are impossible to crack from the outside.

Brock Wilbur is a writer and comedian from Los Angeles who lives with his wife Vivian Kane and their cat, Cat. He is the co-author (with Nathan Rabin) of the forthcoming book Postal for the Boss Fight Books series.

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