If your nephew became an acolyte of a cult in 1970s South America, what would you do to get him out. That’s the story behind The Church in the Darkness, a new game coming from director Richard Rouse III, who led the development on The Suffering and worked on titles like State of Decay, Quantum Break, Sunset Overdrive, and Rainbow 6.
I met Rouse as the organizer of the Brain Dump developer talks at the MIGS game event in Montreal. Now he’s getting ready to launch a top-down action-infiltration game where you have to infiltrate Freedom Town, a cult in the South American jungle. You learn the psychology of why people join cults and entrust themselves to charismatic leaders with ulterior motives. I interviewed him about The Church in the Darkness, which explores how far you are willing to go in uncovering the truth and saving the cultists.
Rouse studied real world cults from the 1970s and made a realistic game filled with choices and consequences. He said the game is designed to be replayable, as the narrative changes dynamically and you can shift your gameplay strategies to match the circumstances.
I played the demo, and tried going around the numerous guards in search of my nephew. But I got caught and had to face the music in a cage with cult leader Isaac Walker. I was given leniency, escaped again, and got caught and killed a second time.
The game is coming out this year on Steam, the PlayStation 4, and the Xbox One.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: What’s the status of Church in the Darkness?
Richard Rouse III: We’ve been working on it for three years and a bit. We’re working hard to finish up this year. It’s definitely a micro-indie in terms of team size. It’s not any kind of triple-I game. We don’t have a studio per se. Everyone works at home. There are probably 15 people in the credits, but as far as people currently working on it there are only five or six. Most of us aren’t full time on it, although I am.
GamesBeat: Where did the impetus for all of this come from?
Rouse: You’ve probably heard the story a hundred times from different people. I’d been doing triple-A for many years. I found that there were certain games you could do in that space, and certain games that would get you in trouble in that space. I understand why that is, because when you’re trying to sell 8 million copies of something you don’t want to risk upsetting half the country. I just found that people wanted to avoid certain topics. That was part of the impetus, just being able to do a game without having to worry quite so much about that sort of reaction from people. And then just also having worked on the giant projects and enjoyed doing that.
The last job I had before this was at Microsoft as a designer in their publishing organization. State of Decay was probably the one I spent the most time on, and then also worked on things like Sunset Overdrive and Quantum Break. But when you’re in that publishing world you’re doing a very different job than when you’re on a team. You’re coaching and consulting and advising, but not doing the actual development yourself. I missed that.
GamesBeat: When did you leave Microsoft?
Rouse: It was almost four years ago now. I had thought about going indie before, but there were other reasons that the Microsoft job sounded too interesting. It got us back into the U.S. I’d been in Montreal before, at Ubisoft. I’m in Seattle now, or in Redmond to be exact. I’m still right next to the Microsoft campus.
GamesBeat: This particular story idea, doing something around a cult, where did that originate?
Rouse: A few places. I’d been fascinated by cults as these alternate societies that live by their own rules and view the world differently than everyone else does. Within them they can have a lot of members who all feel like they’re doing the right thing, but we all might look at them as outsiders and think they’re crazy. When you’re in the group it feels like it’s what you have to do and everyone else is crazy. I found that, the way they form their own little societies, really fascinating.
As I studied cults, finding out just that—you don’t think you’re in a cult. No one sets out to join a cult. You join a religious movement, or a new political endeavor, or a self-help group. Something you think that is going to help you in some way, or help other people, or that just feels like the right thing to do. Somewhere along the way you may realize things are getting weird, but now you’re in it. Everyone you know, all your friends, maybe your family are in it. Often you’ve given them your money. It becomes difficult to decide that you don’t want to do this anymore. Then people create self-justifying—well, it’s not as bad as they say. There are some beatings, but it’s needed for the good of the group, whatever it may be. I found that fascinating.
For a game, it was fascinating in a couple of ways. In a game, it’s cool to go to a place that’s like the real world but a little bit different. It’s a little enclosed ecosystem. It felt like a cult group that had moved itself to the jungle in South America is a perfect isolated place to build a game system.
Also, looking at it in terms of dynamic storytelling, which is something I’ve been fascinated with for years – ways players can make choices in games, or ways that game narratives can be different each time you play – the interesting thing about cults is it’s often hard to tell if they’re a really bad organization. Are bad things happen? Are they trying to bring about an apocalypse? Or are they just radicals, just progressive, just viewing the world in a different way that’s not going to hurt anybody? In a free society someone should be able to do what they want to.
When a cult tragedy comes up, people will say, “Why didn’t anybody stop this?” Well, it’s difficult to know if they’re actually going to do it. These groups can all seem very similar from the outside, the groups that are benign and the groups that are not. So, wouldn’t it be cool to play a game where you can see both sides of that? You’re going in and you don’t know if the cult group is bad or not. You have to figure that out while you play.
GamesBeat: Do players go into this assuming that it has to be bad?
Rouse: Yeah! Battling those sorts of expectations is always a tricky thing, particularly in games, where you have the option to start shooting people, or the option to do other violent things. Definitely, when we’ve shown it at trade shows – PAX, PlayStation Experience – it’s been interesting to gauge people’s reaction. Some people think, “Oh, they’re just farming here. I won’t attack the farmers. I’ll just shoot the people who are shooting at me.” This is a radical group, and regardless of whether they’re the less violent or the more violent version, they’re always hostile to trespassers. As the player you’re trying to infiltrate the group and find a family member in there, see if they’re okay, and then decide if you want to get them out or let them stay.
But different players will bring some of their own preconceptions. It’s a Christian socialist group in the game. They have very strongly held views that can set people off. Some people are very anti-socialism or pro-socialism or anti-Christian or pro-Christian. People come in with their own expectations and I think it’s the game’s job to show them, “Hey, there’s more nuance to this than you might think.”
The goal of the game is for it to be replayed, too, so you can see these different scenarios, the different ways the cult might operate. That changes from game to game. You don’t know if it’s the more dangerous or the less dangerous cult. You’re trying to figure that out. Hopefully someone might go in with their preconceptions and play a certain way, and then realize, “Oh, I don’t like the ending I got. Let me try again and see if I can get a different outcome.”
GamesBeat: Are you trying to hit particular numerical goal of some kind? Save a certain number of people? Or is it something different?
Rouse: It’s not a hard and fast goal. There’s no right ending or wrong ending. It’s more about, here’s what happened. Everything from the group living on for many years to much worse things happening in a much shorter amount of time. You get the facts of what happened, both to your family member–you have a nephew named Alex in the group, and you find out what happened to him after the game. You find out the groups reaction to you. You find out what happened to the cult next, the Collective Justice Mission. Then you say, “That happened this time, now what do I want to do?”
It doesn’t give you anything like, “Achievement Unlocked: Perfect Ending.” It’s trying to be a bit more complex than that.
GamesBeat: Is it a difficult for you that Far Cry 5 is coming out with a similar theme?
Rouse: Obviously I’ve been watching that game, and I’ve been fascinated by seeing them announce that. We announced probably a year before they did. I’m a fan of the Fry Cry games. I liked 2 and 3 a lot. Some of what they’re trying to do there looks really interesting. It looks like a game I want to play. But at the same time I know it’s a Far Cry game, and at the end of the day it’s about crazy rampages and insane set pieces and explosions. My game is a game with no explosions in it.
When I’ve talked to people about it—when you’re a developer, particularly a small guy, and something like that happens, you can get pretty bummed out about it. But talking to people, they’re like, “Your game is so different from that.” Obviously there’s the subject matter. They’re present day in Montana. We’re 1970s in South America. There’s some difference there. We have a much more religious group than they do. They seem to be more just crazy. Again, this is just my impression. But there are differences narratively, and the gameplay you’re going to be doing there is first-person shooter, have a good romp through Montana. You’ll be hunting bears and whatever you do there.
For my game it was really, “Can I take the systems of a game like that, or Dishonored, or Metal Gear, and make it feel more plausible?” Even though you’re still playing with game mechanics – there are still areas where you have to take liberties to make gameplay work – just always think of it as, “What would really happen in this scenario?” If you went into this isolated cult group to rescue your nephew, would the approach be, “Murder everyone you meet until you find him”? Probably not. That would make you a terrible person.
Instead, this game is more about evading detection. You can get into those scrapes if you want. It’s ultimately up to the player how they want to play it, lethally or non-lethally. We give full support for both directions and anywhere in between. But it’s more likely that players will go in, try to avoid detection, maybe get into a scrape, get out of it however they have to, and keep looking. It’s more about searching and staying under the radar than having a crazy shootout.
GamesBeat: Is it related in any way to Jonestown and Guyana, or is it entirely original?
Rouse: It was inspired by a bunch of different cult groups. I found the 1970s to be sort of the most fascinating time period for cults in a lot of ways, just because in that era you had people—we forget about the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation around the corner. People had a much more positive outlook in the ‘60s, changing the world through peace and love, and it hadn’t worked out. Vietnam wore on and people became really disillusioned, became more likely to join these groups and do something more radically different. I found that fascinating.
That’s the type of group that Jonestown was. They were a group that saw the political tumult and didn’t feel like there was a place for them there, that they had to leave. Obviously there were other things going on with Jones, his power in all of that. But there were other groups.
One I like to bring up is the Source Family, a lesser-known group that had a similar trajectory in some ways. They were southern Californians, all vegetarians, starting out in this health food restaurant and just got bigger and bigger. The guy who ran it turned himself into a guru. They ended up moving to Hawaii and it didn’t go well, but it didn’t end as violently. The leader went on this crazy hang-gliding trip and ended up dying, and then the group just dispersed. But before the end he had been proclaiming himself a god for a while, and then he said, “Wait, I’m not a god after all. Running an agricultural compound in Hawaii is much harder than I thought. Maybe we need to break up.” There’s a great documentary about that one that shows a group that went the other way, and as a result became much less known.
South America for me was just fascinating, and that’s the bulk of the similarity to Jonestown you can find. It’s always been interesting in its relationship to North America. If you were a Nazi who wanted to hide out after the war, you went there. There are many different governments, and there have been a few countries that are corrupt enough that you can avoid whatever laws you like for the right amount of money. It’s fascinating to me as a place where people in the United States who wanted to do something different would go to in order to escape, to go back to nature or whatever it is. It’s a great place to set a game.
GamesBeat: Can you explain more about the background of the cult?
Rouse: The cult leaders are played by two voice actors that people like. The characters are Isaac and Rebecca Walker, a couple in their 40s, who have built this group up and moved them all down there. Isaac is played by someone I’d worked with before on The Suffering, the horror games I did years ago, this guy called John Patrick Lowrie. He’s a Seattle actor. He’s been in all of Valve’s games. He’s a bunch of characters in DOTA, and he’s the sniper in Team Fortress 2. And then his real-life wife is Ellen McLain, who is GladOS in Portal and characters in DOTA and so on. She plays Rebecca, the other cult leader.
They’re really acting together in a game for the first time. They’ve done all of these games, but they’ve never really been—she’s off doing Portal stuff, and then there’s no male lead opposite GladOS. I’ve known John and wanted to work with him. He was one of the first people I told about the game when I was thinking about doing it, because I knew he’d be great for the part, even before I’d written it or fleshed it out at all.
They’re older folks than I am, so they were—John was a traveling hippie musician in the ‘70s. He was alive during the period. They’ve been great to collaborate with on the script and the characters, figuring things out. Would he say this? Would she say that? What did people think about this at the time? They’ve been a great source of further input for the game and building these characters out.
They’ve also done a bunch of original songs for the game. We have a soundtrack with nine songs from them. Five of them are originals and then four of them are classic spirituals. Ellen is a trained opera singer and John was a sort of folk musician, and then he’s sung in a lot of theater, musicals and things like that. He was also a songwriter in the ‘70s, when he toured as a folk musician.
I had thought about having someone else write songs, and then I heard something John had written and I talked to him – “Hey, would you want to try this?” The first thing he sent me was something called “The Song of Forgiveness.” We were fairly far into the project at this point, so he was aware of the characters and what was going on in the world. I had assumed I would have to give him notes on the songs, or work on the lyrics with him, but he just wrote something right off and I said, “That works great.” They’ve been great collaborators on that front.
GamesBeat: In some ways it’s a difficult topic. I wonder how you can say to the player that they’re going to have fun exploring this. It reminds me of when I first heard about Prison Architect. “I’m going to have fun with this?” How did you approach that challenge.
Rouse: People’s reaction the setting, the cult, the narrative stuff we’re doing—people seem to be okay with that. There’s some amount of, “Oh, that sounds creepy and weird, I want to see that.” You go see a horror film, you’re not thinking it’s going to be fun. You think it’s going to be freaky or whatever it is. There’s some amount of attraction like that getting people in.
It can be tricky, and I think indie games over the last decade have shown – including Prison Architect – that you can take that chance and go somewhere that doesn’t immediately seem like a romp and a good time. If you have a strong story in there, if you have strong game mechanics in there, players will come along wanting to see these different worlds, wanting to get a taste of it. There are certainly plenty of indie titles–Papers Please is a game I like a lot, and that’s not a lot of fun. It can be pretty crushing.
We’re trying to be a little more—again, we’re not defining what “good” is, but there are endings where players can feel like they made a difference in any permutation of the cult. They can overcome the problems there and solve things not just for their nephew, but for everybody there. Players can also play the game completely as a pacifist, too. They can kill no one, everywhere from avoiding detection to just using non-lethal methods to get through problems. We’re trying to give that space where the possibility of a happier ending in any scenario.
It’s not quite so bleak and depressing as something like Papers Please can be. That’s not to say that I don’t think people should make games like that. I think there’s a space for that. People find value in games like that. They’re compelling. Part of the advantage of being an indie is being able to do something that doesn’t necessarily immediately sounds like fun and see if we can make it engaging.
GamesBeat: Are there any other games that have tackled this kind of subject, besides Far Cry?
Rouse: People usually bring up—there are a few different definitions. You have a cult in the Cthulhu sense, and there are a bunch of games like that, everything from Dark Corners of the Earth to Resident Evil 4. You have indie games like The Shrouded Isle, that came out last year. That’s very much a Cthulhu, sacrificing people to the gods sort of game, which is cool, but obviously very different.
GamesBeat: More of a horror game.
Rouse: Right. Mostly horror, mostly period, fantasy sorts of things. Many of the factions in the Fallout games feel like cults, because they’re all worshipping an unexploded nuclear bomb and other weird stuff. I like to point out that BioShock 2 felt like it had some culty stuff going on in it, with Sophia Lamb, the villain in that piece. But it didn’t feel like a cult game. It still felt like a BioShock game, an extension of that.
Even in a game I did—I started out doing indie games, 20 years ago, although we didn’t call them indie back then. The second game I made was called Damage Incorporated, a first-person shooter with a military thing where you could command a squad. We were working on it before the original Rainbow Six came out, and then Rainbow Six came out while we were working. There’s Ubisoft again, although it wasn’t Ubisoft yet. [laughs] But Damage Incorporated, one of the enemy factions in that was a cult. You were going into their compound in American somewhere, where they wore crazy robes and had flamethrowers. It was a much more campy, over the top sort of thing.
It feels like this has come up in a lot of games, but it’s never really treated in a serious way. It’s more like, “We need some enemies. They could be in a cult. Let’s do that.” They do interesting things with that, but it’s usually not the reason for the game existing.
GamesBeat: Immersion in the story seems like a lot of the appeal here. You can take somebody to a very different world and experience let them make difficult choices there.
Rouse: Right. There is a sort of bedrock of—it plays like old Metal Gear, or the original Castle Wolfenstein from the ‘80s, one of my favorite games. It has core game mechanics that people will recognize and enjoy. We’re still tuning them. You have that. But yes, I think for most people coming in, it’s going to be about wanting to see this world, see how it’s different than what they expected, and also—again, I think what we have feels like a real group. Some of the best feedback I’ve gotten from people is like, “You’ve really nailed the tone.”
This isn’t a conventional storytelling game. There aren’t long cutscenes or signposted bits of action that have to happen every time. It’s really more simulation. You’re getting the narrative while you play. I try to never pull people out of playing the core game, while still giving them—you hear the cult leaders talk over the PA system the whole time. You get a lot of your narrative that way. You find documents in desks that you read. They’re everything from maps to find things in the camp to correspondence home from the members to discipline reports about Alex, your nephew, that might give you a sense of whether he’s happy there or not.
We’re trying to work in the narrative in a way that feels like, going back to—if I was coming into this group from the outside, how would I learn stuff? I’d learn by observing what’s going on in the world, seeing scenes like people around a gravesite. There are a lot of cages in the game, where people are locked up for punishment. That seems creepy, but maybe it’s not that bad? Different characters, as you find these documents, will be debating whether that’s good or not, how they’re carrying out punishments. It’s trying to put the player in the world and ask, “What do you want to do?”
GamesBeat: What more do you feel you have to do? Do you have a complete game now that you’re iterating on, or do you have features to finish still?
Rouse: We’ve just gotten to a full build of the game. You can play from start to finish and get all the different endings. There are so many endings, so many variations, that I haven’t even played them all. I’ve gotten some trusted friends, other developers, to check the game out now and see if they’re figuring it out. What are they missing? What are they not missing? What can we improve? We’re in a sort of alpha-beta polishing state. Just trying to get all those pieces together, and then a few last pieces of content that are coming in. They’re done, but they aren’t in the game yet.
What we’ve been showing at places like GDC or PAX is usually a little slice of the game. It’s not the full build. We don’t want to spoil it in a trade show environment. There we’ve created something that’s a little more linear. The full game is much more of an open world experience.
GamesBeat: How are you getting it out there?
Rouse: We’ve announced for PC, on Steam, as well as PS4 and Xbox One. We haven’t announced if they’re all shipping or not. It’s self-published. We haven’t announced a price, but it’s going to be an indie price. [laughs] It’s not a $60 game.
id@Xbox had us in their showcase at the last GDC. You’ve probably been to their event, a few blocks away from their convention center. They had a day of games in the id@Xbox program. PlayStation, they’ve taken us to PlayStation Experience a couple of times. Both have been pretty good to work with. I don’t need to get into too much inside baseball about that, but it’s good that they’ve been open to this type of game. It’s been very encouraging to me.
GamesBeat: Are you doing any kind of early access?
Rouse: No, we’re not planning to do early access. As a narrative game—my impression of early access is it’s great for games that are multiplayer, or games where you really want to play for six months to a year. The worst scenario with early access, as a player—you get in, you play the build, it’s kind of broken, or it’s not complete, and then you think, “Oh, I’ll come back to that later” and you never do. Your online impression that’s left is from this version that’s not really done. That works for Rocket League or something like that, where you’re going to keep playing and it keeps getting better.
For something like this, even though it’s a simulation game and designed to be replayed many times to experience all the different parts of the narrative, I always fear that someone playing an incomplete version – where not all the endings work, or where certain characters are missing – I just feel like all those parts need to be there for it to come together.