Titles such as Mass Effect or The Witcher contain many choices that impact the outcome of the ending. In Mass Effect, Commander Shepard fights the Reapers. In The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Geralt searches for Ciri. Yet, while there are several different endings to these games, the journey is often quite similar throughout. The Reapers are always the bad guys, hellbent on destroying humanity. Ciri is always missing, no matter what. The Church in the Darkness takes a unique spin on this dilemma. Not only does this recently released game have a multitude of endings, but it also contains variables that change your journey. In other words, you begin each playthrough diving into the unknown.
Developed by Paranoid Productions and published by Fellow Traveller, The Church in the Darkness is a stealth game that has the protagonist, Vic, infiltrate a South American cult in effort to save their nephew. We talked with Creative Director Richard Rouse III and learned more about how the team tackled the narrative in The Church in the Darkness.
Rouse began his development of The Church in the Darkness with the idea that he would do something less traditional. Previous games he developed had a linear order of levels, and the story largely remained the same. While working on State of Decay with Microsoft, he was able to aid in the development of a more free narrative.
“That was a game that did have a big open world," said Rouse, "and really, the stories that became meaningful to people were the ones kind of they made themselves through how they played; like there was a mainline story as well, and that was a cool thing to have in there, but it wasn’t what people tended to focus on as much.”
Similarly with The Church in the Darkness, it is a game that allows players to have more agency and explore different narrative options.
It's a game that is deeply rooted in history, as well. Research was a major factor when developing The Church in the Darkness. Set in the 1970s, cults were a prevailing theme during this period in history.
"I probably spent too much time on research," said Rouse, "which is why the game took so long.”
Rouse says he has a deep fascination of cults; in fact, the second game he developed contained a caricatured version of what we come to expect is a cult. The Church in the Darkness takes a more realistic approach, making great use of proper research. Rouse spent time looking specifically at 1970s cults (think Jonestown) and others, too.
I’ve just found those real-world groups that decide to believe something different than everyone else does, and then be mocked for it, but then stick to their beliefs anyway fascinating, whether you agree with them or think they’re crazy or whatever, it’s just interesting that people would make such a bold choice to go pull out.Throughout development, the original vision for The Church in the Darkness remained the same. It was always about infiltrating a cult during this time period. It was supposed to have a replayable story because of its changing narrative, with procedural elements. Rouse wanted a game where a second playthrough would be no less fun than the first, which he mends by adding the permutations in its narrative.
The Intersection of Narrative and Gameplay
In The Church in the Darkness, the Christian-based cult, called the Collective Justice Mission, is based in South America. This group fears the United States government will take their freedom, and so they are armed and extremely wary to outsiders. Isaac and Rebecca Walker lead the cult, and you never know what version of them you'll get.
By versions, this means that every time you start up a new playthrough of The Church in the Darkness, the cult could be, as Rouse describes, apocalyptic, or less so. Placement of guards, crucial NPCs, and important documents change. Alex, your nephew, may like the cult, or he might not. You never know until you infiltrate it for yourself. Who knows? You might even join the cult.
“So, when you’re going in to infiltrate this group," said Rouse, "you’re to figure out ‘hey, how dangerous is this group’ because you’re looking for your nephew Alex and you want to see if he can stay there or not, and that’s sort of up to you. You may find him and he may want to leave and make him leave with you, or he may want to stay, and then you’d have to force him to leave with you. Or, he may be undecided, and you can make him come with you or not.”
Your approach to the game depends on what kind of group is in a specific playthrough. Even if the cult appears extremely dangerous, it's up to you. You could simply save Alex. Or, you might want to stop the cult leaders themselves. The philosophy, criticisms of the U.S. government, and so on remain the same throughout each run, however.
The actions you take to achieve your desired ending have rippling effects. Regardless, the cult is always armed, and hates outsiders. If you want to kill the guards, you can; conversely, you might want to spare them to avoid consequences down the line.
“They always have guns, so the core gameplay is always similar, avoiding or taking out these guards that are in Freedom Town. So that part stays similar, though certain elements will change in terms of like amount of them sometimes, but the bigger changes will come with how you interact with them.”Rouse says different characters throughout your playthrough will remark on how you've been playing so far. If you play nice, you might even have certain, less radical cult members aid you in finding Alex. You can interact with different NPCs via a dialogue tree, so you can get to know members of the cult other than Alex or the Walkers.
The narrative is definitely character driven, too. During the Church in the Darkness' development, two familiar voice actors had a strong presence throughout.The two cult leaders, Isaac and Rebecca, are voiced by a real-life couple. Isaac is voiced by John Patrick Lowrie, known as the Sniper from Team Fortress 2. Ellen McLain, the voice of Rebecca, is known for her role as GLaDOS from Portal.
Rouse brought these two early on in development, which he says is uncommon for a game. Some movie scripts are tailored towards actors; likewise, the narrative of The Church in the Darkness is largely dependent on the performance of McLain and Lowrie. They offered their own input on the story, and because they never acted together to such an extent, this game became a very special project for both parties.
“So, they actually brought a lot of input to the story and were early collaborators in developing their characters, which was pretty unique," said Rouse.
Ultimately, The Church in the Darkness is inherently political. Despite this, the endings you achieve in the game are up for interpretation. There isn't necessarily a "best" ending, although death of your character, Vic, is likely the worst-case scenario.
“I like to think of it as players will bring their own opinions of cult groups, and the 1970s and that sort of stuff to the game," said Rouse. "Clearly there is politics in it, in that it talks about political topics and it’s got real-world political figures in it and stuff, but how you interpret that is really up to the player.”
It's not an easy mission to infiltrate a cult and come back to tell the tale. You can experience the game for yourself now, with The Church in the Darkness available on PC, Xbox One, PS4, and Nintendo Switch.
For more information, check out our gameplay feature on The Church in the Darkness.