The Church in the Darkness is a stealth-puzzle game in which I infiltrate a 1970s cult camp in order to rescue my nephew. You can take a look at the Paranoid Productions game in the Polygon video above.
I recently sat down with developer Richard Rouse III to talk about how the game plays. You can also read our earlier in-depth feature here.
As a stealth game, it follows a standard design path. I enter a dangerous place, seeking the center without being observed. If I'm seen, my options are limited. I have a gun, but am vastly outnumbered. I can run, but the area is heavily populated. I can disable sirens, but I must find the tools to work those alarms. Better to stay low, quietly going about my mission.
I have certain advantages. The guards and cult members do not know I'm coming. I can take them down using tranquilizer guns or chloroform. I can decrease their range of suspicion by stealing disguises. I can distract guards by throwing rocks.
But Church in the Darkness does offer some deviations from standard stealth games. The maps always stay the same, but the story changes on each play-through. So guards will be in different places, the cult itself will be more or less aggressive to intruders. There might be some cult members who are inclined to help you.
The game also reacts to the way you play. If you're aggressive and violent, you will almost certainly be executed upon capture. If you seek a non-violent resolution, you might get a second chance. This is an insta-kill game. There are no save points to rely upon.
Rouse told me that the game is picking up interest because of its topical themes of power and corruption. The Church is a Christian / Socialist outfit that despises capitalism and the United States of America. But although its micro-politics are centered on a bygone age of commune experimentation, its message is about the modern world.
The Church's leaders often make use of propaganda, coercion and intimidation to maintain power. "There's been more interest in the game as our country has become more crazy," says Rouse. "People ask me if it's anti-socialist, but it's not. It's about crazy people who suck all the power to themselves. Cults are people who give up critical thinking to follow a leader."
Each playthrough — which can last up to a few hours — reveals a slightly different kind of cult. I find out pretty quickly what I'm dealing with when I come across a totem. Sometimes, it's a gibbet where the corpse of a disloyal member is observed by heavily armed guards. Sometimes it's just a bare pole, surrounded by hippies, praying for a better world.
NPCs behave differently. Some will trade favors for quests, adding to the sense that each game is a separate experience from the last. This is unusual in stealth games, which generally rely on trial-and-error to effect progress.
I enter buildings in search of weapons, food and clues about my nephew's whereabouts. A story unfolds. When I find my nephew, he may be extremely keen to be rescued, or he may be so far indoctrinated that he wishes to remain.
But even the most benign cults are deeply paranoid about outsiders, and will shoot me if they see me. Loudspeakers spew out songs, slogans and announcements about the evils of otherness. (Observant players will notice the voice of Ellen McLain, best known as Portal's GlaDOS.)
This is a stealth game that seeks to add procedural randomness to a genre that’s traditionally relied upon linear narratives and fixed, predictable outcomes. The Church in the Darkness is out later this year on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One.