It's 40 minutes into my conversation with Richard Rouse III before I finally figure it out: The Church in the Darkness doesn't have a story.
Rouse, currently an independent developer but formerly of Ubisoft and Microsoft, tells me that he gave his upcoming game characters. He gave it a setting. He gave it a setup that, depending on how you feel about the tenets of socialism, might piss you off or confirm your suspicions.
Ultimately, though, once you infiltrate The Church in the Darkness' South American utopia, the story will burst into variations on Rouse's themes like fractal artwork.
And that's when it dawns on me: I'm the story. You're the story.
THE STORY OF THE STORY
Imagine you're a man. Imagine you're a woman. Doesn't matter. Point is, you have a sister. She has a child. You have a nephew. Or maybe a niece. Alex.
It's the late 1970s, and Alex's mom — your sister — is worried. Alex skipped town — skipped the country, in fact — to follow the Collective Justice Mission. Alex is in South America, because that's where the Collective Justice Mission is.
That organization holds some controversial beliefs about God and government and guns — but maybe not in the way you'd think. In the game's debut trailer, the co-founder of the Collective Justice Mission warns his flock about the impending invasion from do-gooders who won't leave them alone. He reminds them of their God-given right to live in a socialist society — and to defend it at the point of a gun.
It's a cult. And you, Vic, are going to find Alex.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
The Church in the Darkness' story comes from Rouse's lifelong fascination with cults. Its gameplay comes from a gaggle of other places.
It's a game that he's spent the last 10 years thinking about. Or at least it's a game that includes elements that he's spent a decade or more pondering. And it's something he could only have made, he tells me, on his own.
It's not that companies like Microsoft and Ubisoft are there to squash dreams like Rouse's. He obviously holds no grudges, and he's very understanding of the constraints they operate under. He doesn't complain. He just knows that there was no point in pitching his cult game about God and guns and socialism there. They wouldn't take the risk or court the ire of whatever portion of the public The Church in the Darkness is certain to upset.
So, Rouse's thinking goes, he had to go indie to make his dream project.
"If I'm going to spend my own money," he says, "it's got to be something you just love doing — that you can't not do at some point."
That decision meant taking risks — and the narrative setup is only one of them. As titillating as it is, it's only the foundation. Once the player begins the game, there are countless factors that mix and match to make each visit to South America unique.
Rouse has been dreaming of games with more open-ended narratives for decades. Since the mid-'80s, he's been excited about the possibility of games where he could make choices and and see the ramifications. Rouse says he's "literally stunned" that so many popular games in 2016 have fixed narratives. He doesn't think that's bad, in and of itself. But he's always believed that games — unlike, say, novels or movies or TV shows — offer a unique opportunity to bend narratives based on player actions.
More than anything, that's what The Church in the Darkness is about, and its story is a function of that desire. It forces players to confront inherently uncomfortable situations where the decisions they make will fundamentally change the story that unfolds.
Not just once, either. Every time a new game begins, The Church in the Darkness tweaks the underlying variables. You're always Vic, and you're always in South America to find Alex. The husband and wife team (played by the real husband and wife team of John Patrick Lowrie, who voices the Sniper in Team Fortress 2, and Ellen McLain, who voices GLaDOS in Valve's Portal games) are always the founders. But in any given playthrough, the husband may be more radical than the wife or vice versa. Maybe next time they're a team.
No matter what happens, you'll have about as much information as Vic, which is to say not much. What happens next is your call.
Rouse opens his laptop, plugs in a wired Xbox 360 controller and boots an early version of The Church in the Darkness.
I look into the game world through a camera hovering a couple hundred feet above the jungle, and my sense is that it feels somehow familiar. I've felt this before, even if I haven't seen it.
He creeps over fields, through tall grass; I see the first settlers tending crops. The settlement's thatched buildings remind me of the Others' camp from Lost. This doesn't seem like a militia cult, but neither did the Others.
Rouse tells me that the presentation reminds people of the PSOne-era Metal Gear games, and that's when it clicks. Of course this is a stealth game. It makes sense. Vic might as well be Solid Snake, infiltrating Shadow Moses Island.
Things get dark quickly.
A Collective Justice Mission devotee working the field spots him and gets suspicious. Rouse intends to raise his gun and subdue the character. He fires instead, and the crack of his pistol echoes through the encampment. It arouses more suspicion. Within seconds, he's running for his life. It's a reminder that in The Church in the Darkness, as in war, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.
He tries to hide, but the Mission is on war footing. They find him. They overcome him. He dies.
He starts again.
"it's got to be something you just love doing — that you can't not do at some point"
The Church in the Darkness has elements of a roguelike, though Rouse is clear that the game isn't a pure roguelike. Some modes in the final product will have permadeath, for example. But other modes will make it somehow easier to recover from your mistakes.
Your goal, at least at the beginning of the game, is ostensibly about finding Alex. To do that, you'll sneak through South America. You'll don new outfits, like you're Agent 47 in a Hitman game. Maybe you'll kill. Maybe you'll knock people out. Either way, you should hide the bodies.
But listening to Rouse, I get the sense that there's more to this game that he's not quite ready to talk about. It seems that the setup is one thing. What happens next is another entirely.
A DREAM (OR A NIGHTMARE) MADE REAL
Rouse speaks of his "dream of a game that changes more and forces me to think about complex decisions," and The Church in the Darkness is obviously that dream made manifest. In this game, it's less that the story is changing. It's that the actual choices are changing underneath players.
It's not Mass Effect, where you ultimately have a binary choice between paragon and renegade. It's not about a clearly defined good and bad. The Church in the Darkness is about, as far as I can tell, muddling through a deeply fucked up situation. That's a creative twist in and of itself, but it's not what really intrigues me.
The Church in the Darkness is steeped in politics and social issues, which means that the choices players make are likely to reflect their innate beliefs. It's not just about good and bad. And it's not just about left and right, conservative and progressive, Democrat and Republican. The Mission is innately a weird mix of all sides, and threading its needle is almost certainly going to be tough and uncomfortable.
That's likely to be true for Rouse — not just players. After all, he's making a game that he knows big publishers would shy away from. It's going to court controversy. It already has, with people accusing its story of trying to sabotage Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign. Thing is, Rouse had the story long before the primaries.
If he has an axe to grind or a cause to promote, I can't see it. Instead, it seems like he's deliberately not making a political point by mixing and matching political points. It's all in service, as far as I can tell, of making players' choices difficult and meaningful.
The question remains, though: Will players care about the boundaries he's pushing? Will that resonate?
Rouse thinks so. He says he doesn't want to make a game that "only artsy-fartsy people" will play — and he classifies himself squarely inside of that camp. It must appeal to more than that audience to be a success, he figures.
Richard Rouse III has a dream, and he's made peace with being different to make that a reality.
"I think this is making that case," he says, slaps his laptop and laughs.