TA Interview with Richard Rouse III, Creator of The Church in The Darkness

By Mark Delaney, 8 months ago
Late in February, we covered the announcement of a new top-down action-infiltration game with dark narrative elements. That game is The Church in the Darkness and it tells the story of a man who, at the request of his worried sister, sneaks into a religious cult in South America to extract his nephew. Elements of the story can change with each playthrough, and the player has a lot of freedom in deciding how to move about Freedom Town. Ever-present, however, are the cult leaders, Isaac and Rebecca Walker, and they and their people will do whatever they consider necessary to protect their way of life. The Church in the Darkness sits at the intersection of non-conformist autonomy and violent fanaticism, all told with procedurally generated stealth-action gameplay. We recently got to talk with Richard Rouse III, the writer/director/designer of Church who may be best known for 2004's survival horror The Suffering. He spoke at length about the game's design, the psyche of cult members, and getting out of Freedom Town alive.

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Doing some research about the game, you seem to have had this idea in mind for a while. When did it first become your focus?

I wouldn't say I had the design for this game exactly in mind for a while, but I had all the pieces floating around for years. I knew I wanted to do something with a narrative that shifted every time you played - I was fascinated by mystery games from decades ago that randomized who the guilty parties are, and I wondered what else you could do with that narrative structure. I've been fascinated by cults for a while - how they become their own little societies, and why smart people join them. And I really enjoy top-down as a perspective for an immersive-sim, infiltration type game. At some point I realized all of these things could really fit together in a game that would feel different from anything else that's out there, and as I started work on it a few years ago I fell in love with how these parts could work together. Eventually it became the game I just had to make.

Why cults? Did you have to do a lot of research about the real-life stories that the game closely mirrors?

I've been fascinated by cults for a while - I think what really got me interested was learning how many of them start out with really noble intentions. That and how the people who join them are often really smart, really strong willed people. So why do these groups succeed, and why do they fail?

I love doing research for games, and I always like setting games in real-world places when possible. That's just my personal taste. Even making The Suffering games, which were supernatural horror, they were set in real-world locations that I did a lot of research on.

So for The Church in the Darkness I did a ton of research on fringe groups and religious sects, and it's interesting how you can find a lot of similarities between them, even with ones that are completely peaceful versus those that end up badly. These groups always have an us-vs-everyone-else mentality, where they're right and everyone else is wrong and if you leave us we will cut you off from everyone you love, or worse. Once you're in and the group has become a surrogate family, betraying the group becomes unthinkable. And that sort of thinking can keep people in these groups long past the point when they want to get out.

In doing the research, the key thing I found really interesting is how many of these groups have truly noble aspirations. They're for feeding the poor, or integration, or saving the planet, or whatever. They have core principles that no one with a humanitarian bent would disagree with. But then as the group grows in size and strength, the leaders start really feeling powerful, and that starts overshadowing those original goals. As they say, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and absolute power is what these leaders have. I think it takes a particularly amazing leader to not fall into that trap. And some have - we just don't hear about those groups as much as the ones where it all goes wrong.

The game isn't a documentary of any one group, so I wanted to do enough research about these organizations to make sure I wasn't drawing too much from any one real-world story. But at the same time, though the events in the game are fiction, there's enough inspirations from the real world that everything feels like it could have happened.

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Thematically, what is The Church in the Darkness trying to say about these cults? Is the game meant to say anything about the religious or sociopolitical motivations behind groups like the game's Collective Justice Mission?

What I found most interesting about these groups is how they may have similar dogma and core beliefs, but some fight for their beliefs in a positive way to the end, while some get twisted and become more apocalyptic in their thinking. I wanted to explore how a group that sounds very similar in its dogma can end up in such different places.

My goal with a game is always to put the player into an interesting situation, but then let the player come to their own conclusions about what's going on. So I don't feel like there's a super strong, super-specific meaning that I want everyone to exactly learn. I want each player to see the complexity of the Collective Justice Mission, to find what they may see as bad and what they may see as good, and come to their own conclusions about what they think about it.

Can you describe the gameplay in more detail for those who might be confused or wish to learn more? How much of the game is still being tweaked or reconsidered?

The game builds on classic top-down action infiltration gameplay - people often compare it to the older Metal Gear Solid games, but it's faster paced than that. As Vic, you're trying to infiltrate Freedom Town and check on Alex, your nephew. Though the player doesn't know the true motives of the Collective Justice Mission, the group is always going to be hostile to anyone infiltrating their town without permission. So you need to avoid detection or use non-lethal or lethal methods to take down the guards who will get in your way as you're trying to find Alex.

As you explore Freedom Town, you're going to search and find pickups and gear. That can be as simple as painkillers that restore some of your health or more involved objects that you can use to play stealthily, like an alarm clock you wind up and place as a noisy distraction. Or you can focus on taking out the elite guards and gain some heavier weaponry, if you're taking a more aggressive tack to playing the game. The player gets to take on challenges in the game however they want, but how they treat these people is going to have narrative and gameplay repercussions in the game. The game is also designed to be replayable, with guard positions and objectives moving each time you play, and with the game resetting after you fail enough times.

As with any game currently in production, there's lots that still might change about the gameplay as we refine it, add new tools for the player to use, introduce new guard behaviors, etc. But the core design is something we feel good about.

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With some parts of the game being procedurally generated, how long might a playthrough take?

We aren't really saying an exact play length, and I think given the open-ended, improvisational nature of the gameplay there will be a good amount of range to it. I also think speed runners will have an interesting challenge ahead of them. But because replaying the game to see the other sides of the narrative is important to us, we want to keep a single playthrough short enough that playing the game again is something players will want to do. So it's not going to be 15 hours for a single playthrough. But the game's going to be hard enough, that I doubt many people will get through the game to any kind of ending on their first few attempts. And then there will be a large number of endings players can get, and they'll need to decide which endings feel like "winning" and which don't.

It's said that sometimes the cult will be found to be peaceful. In those playthroughs is it possible that the player becomes the villain?

The goal here is to have a world where players always get to do what they want, and the world has enough of a simulation to let you do that. You can kill anyone in the game, or you can finish the game without killing anyone. And that's true in any of the story permutations. So depending on what the narrative scenario is in the game and what the player chooses to do, it's certainly possible to become someone many people would call a "bad guy." But how do you define that? The game never comes down on you and labels you the "villain" or anything like that. You get an ending that is a combination of the narrative you were dealt combined with the choices you made as a player, and then it's up to the player to decide if an ending is "good" or "bad." What's most important to us is that the player has to live with the consequences of their actions and how Freedom Town reacts to it.

You said the gameplay decisions players make directly affect the story. Are there dialogue options to consider as well, or does the game shift solely based on your actions rather than your words?

It's definitely more about player actions and the core mechanics. We wanted to make it so players got to express themselves and make their choices through the gameplay itself, not in isolated narrative choice points. You do have the ability to talk to some of the people in the camp, but not in long conversation trees or anything like that. The focus is definitely on moving through the space, exploration, and engaging in that core action-infiltration gameplay, all while soaking in the narrative while you play.

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Related to that, if player decisions help decide the story's eventual outcome, how influential are they? For example, if we assume and behave as if the Collective Justice Mission is violent, does that sway the game to make that so, or perhaps make the opposite true?

There's not quite as much trickery to it as that. When you start playing, the mission leaders Isaac and Rebecca have certain personalities that stay fixed throughout that playthrough. They react to the player's choices based on those personalities, but they stay fundamentally the same people as at the beginning of the game. And the people of the town also change based on the nature of their leaders.

That said, in any permutation, the town will always react to violence with violence. The Collective Justice Mission has moved to South America to get away from the "threats" they felt they faced in the US. They built Freedom Town with the intent of defending it from anyone who might try to get in, particularly people from the US. They're always a militant group, always well armed - the differences come with whether they see violence as inevitable or as necessary only to defend themselves. You as the player, of course, are coming into their town uninvited, so if they spot you they're going to fight back.

You wrote the parts of Isaac and Rebecca Walker, leaders of the cult, specifically for real-life married couple John Patrick Lowrie and Ellen McLain. What has that process been like? Will the main character be voiced as well, or is he or she a silent protagonist?

John and Ellen were literally the first people I talked to about this game. I had worked with John before on The Suffering games, where he played a ton of characters, and he was always someone I really, really wanted to work with again, and this was finally that chance. And though I hadn't worked with Ellen before, obviously I was a big fan of her work.

When I was thinking of this game, I knew I wanted two leaders to the group, and for them to be pretty different people. They're still a team, but maybe a team that wasn't as unified as they had once been. It felt natural for the leaders to be a married couple. And I thought it would be great to have John and Ellen do the two characters, both because they're great actors but also because they're married in real-life. I've seen them do theater work so I know they're amazing actors beyond just what players have seen in their games. I thought this setting and story would be a great way for players to see another side of them as actors.

And it's been a really great collaboration throughout. The parts were written for them from day one - which is something that happens all the time in films, but much less often in games. And I've really developed the characters along with their input. Usually with voice acting, I feel like once you have that first recording session, then you finally know your characters. Because Ellen & John have been involved from the very beginning, it's been great to know what these characters are going to sound like and who they are before we get into the recording booth.

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Games with an open-ended nature and lots of replayability like this one seem to be the titles that utilize the Game Preview program. Have you considered bringing The Church in the Darkness to that program ahead of its full release?

I think the Game Preview program is great for games that are suited to it, but I don't think every game is necessarily a good fit. For The Church in the Darkness, where narrative is such a central part of the game, I want to have that basically done before people start playing it. It's not just a sandbox game that you can play a lot and enjoy while features are still being added.

So for this game we're planning to do a more traditional release, and then supporting the game after that release - though we're not saying just how we're going to do that just yet. But we do have some interesting ideas.

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It seems fresh ideas like The Church in the Darkness are now more than ever being developed and welcomed into the medium. Do you think this game could have been made ten or even five years ago? If not, what do you think has changed to allow it to exist and possibly even thrive now?

I think it's technically possible the game could have been made before, but it would have been a lot harder for it to find an audience. For sure if you go back ten years, it would have been harder to imagine it ever coming out on commercial platforms. Steam was in its infancy and the self-publishing programs on the consoles didn't exist yet, so you would have had to pursue a more traditional retail route. It's hard to imagine a publisher wanting to take The Church in the Darkness and put it in a box in a store or something, particularly ten years ago. So it might still have been made, but the potential for finding an audience would have been much lower.

Interestingly I think it would have had a better chance to be made longer ago - though obviously in a more technically limited form. But back in the 1980s, when computer games were just starting to be made, a lot of games with serious subject matter were made - like the Infocom text adventures Trinity or A Mind Forever Voyaging or the strategy game Balance of Power. The industry was a lot more open to what games could be, because they were so new and unexplored. Now I think it's come full circle, where people are once again more open to some very different experiences in games.

When can we expect to see The Church in the Darkness in full?

We're working toward releasing the game in early 2017, but we also won't release the game before it's ready. If people want to follow along with our development, we have a mailing list to join or you can find us on Twitter @churchdarkness.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a lifelong gamer and current Assistant (to the) News Manager on TA. When not playing games, he can be found cheering for a bad football team, playing Batman action figures with his son, or going to concerts with his lover. Days where he does all of those things are his favorite.