Nowadays, elements of stealth-based gameplay can be found in many games. From Assassin’s Creed to Metal Gear Solid, from Far Cry to Dishonored, stealth mechanics have been implemented in various ways across the modern landscape. Paranoid Productions’ newest title, The Church in the Darkness, takes those mechanics to their roots, emulating titles like Castle Wolfenstein and the original Metal Gear. Paired with an intricate, ever-changing narrative, this indie game could satisfy your itch for infiltration gameplay.
To set up the scene, your character’s nephew, Alex, has joined a cult called the Collective Justice Mission. They’ve set up refuge in the South American jungle, calling their settlement Freedom Town. The protagonist, a former cop, has to infiltrate the little village and find Alex.
The game takes a bird’s eye view angle to the action, providing the player with situational awareness. The roofs of buildings disappear when you’re near, but faraway ones retain their mystery. You sneak around, searching for loot that can help you survive. The perspective was a design decision that was made early in the process by Creative Director Richard Rouse III, inspired by Castle Wolfenstein.
“Sometimes a first-person game can sometimes feel more claustrophobic than real life if you know what I mean,” he said in an interview. “Whereas this, you obviously have kind of a god's eye view, but it sort of represents what it would be reasonable that you would know at any given time.”
Other aspects of Castle Wolfenstein can be seen in The Church in the Darkness. Game mechanics like holding up enemies at gunpoint or donning disguises are core to the experience. Enemies can be taken down lethally or non-lethally, and their bodies can be searched for loot. Meanwhile, disguises shrink the enemies’ detection radius to make sneaking around easier.
Player agency and narrative
What makes The Church in the Darkness stand out is its narrative, which changes between play sessions. Your first time in Freedom Town, the cult may be extremely apocalyptic, paranoid about the U.S. coming to kill them. When you play through it another time, the very same cult could exhibit less anxiety. Furthermore, your decisions change the way the narrative can flow; for example, if you do start killing cult members, they may grow increasingly paranoid, if they weren’t already. This choice was a huge design decision for Rouse and his team. When I asked how his team juggled narrative and player agency, he saw both as equal parts of the experience.
“I see it as, ‘Narrative is important and we're giving you a lot of agency.’ For me, it's not an either or,” he said. “The narrative to me in games that is the most interesting is the one that is interactive and does interact with the systems or simulation or the world or whatever it is.”
In that sense, The Church in the Darkness presents players with situations that encourage them to make realistic choices, not gun everyone down. Certain cult members will want to talk to you, and there are dialog trees that determine how a conversation flows. However, you still maintain control of your character, and the world around you still moves. If a hostile guard walks by and sees you talking, the conversation will be abruptly cut short.
In all, Paranoid Productions puts non-lethal gameplay at the forefront of this experience. While you can get guns in the game, more often than not, you won’t find enough ammo to take down the entire cult. Furthermore, it’s not easily feasible, especially when you consider that your character is just an average human, not Rambo.
“Would your solution be, ‘Okay, I'm gonna go in there and I’m just going to kill everyone I see until I find my nephew?’” Rouse said while laughing. “Probably not. That would not be your plan because that's a sociopathic plan.
“So here, we're saying you can do that, but there's lots of ways to not do that, too. Like evading people, putting on those disguises. It's more what you might expect someone to do who's really doing this.”
When you beat The Church in the Darkness, you’ll get an ending based on your decisions. Paranoid Productions went to great lengths to make nearly 20 endings for the game, all based on little variations in your choices. Essentially, no character is critical enough to the plot that they can’t die. Even your nephew Alex can die, and that won’t lead to a game over.
“There's no character critical to finishing a game that you absolutely need,” Rouse said. “Your goal is to find Alex, but if he dies, now your goal is to get back out.”
Of course, when you die, you’ll have to start again from the beginning, which can be seen as an ending in and of itself. Beyond that, all the endings hinge on whether you save your nephew and how the cult views you. The fact that the narrative branches down many paths and even changes its starting point makes the game very replayable, which the team was going for. On average, a play session can last 90 minutes, although it depends on your skill and how the map treats you.
“I don't call it a roguelike because there's a very specific definition of that. But it has roguelike elements,” Rouse said. “So you might get an ending where your nephew was dead or something. Was that the ending you wanted? You might want to say, ‘No, I want to do better next time.’”
The experimental narrative design in The Church in the Darkness stands out. Despite the simple premise—rescuing your nephew—so much context can change. Rouse worries that some players may not understand the full scope of the modular narrative.
“That's a really hard thing to communicate to players who are used to games being made a certain way, where that's not the case,” he said. “My fear is that someone would play it once and say, ‘Well, that's it then! I guess that's how the cult leaders are every time.’”
If infiltration games are your jam, then don’t let The Church in the Darkness sneak past you. The game launches on Friday on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC and Mac via Steam.