Every cult needs a charismatic leader. Richard Rouse’s cult needed two.
Shortly after he put up the scaffolding for The Church in the Darkness, a mural of cult psychology using his video game developer’s palette, Rouse realized he’d already painted himself into a corner. His ideal story required a married couple, musically inspired, born of a pre-Internet generation for whom idealist movements and their isolation was both lurid and understandable, sympathetic and threatening.
To Rouse, only two people fit that profile: Ellen McLain and John Patrick Lowrie. Both are in their 60s, with long histories as actors, singers and songwriters, finding their voices in a time littered with incendiary revolutionaries, earnest activists and suicidal fanatics, and an establishment media that lumped all of them together.
“I certainly had no plan B,” said Rouse, who as director for The Suffering’s two games had worked with Lowrie, but their last collaboration was in 2005. “And I’m glad I never got to the point of finding out who those other people would be, because I think John and Ellen are ideal for the roles.”
McLain and Lowrie’s names are perhaps most familiar to fans as GLaDOS from Portal, and Sniper in Team Fortress 2, respectively. But as Rebecca and Isaac Walker in The Church in the Darkness, the two are in their deepest video game personae yet, ones that started at the beginning of development and not at the end, when voice actors are usually brought in.
“Before we saw any copy or any writing, we talked with Richard about this game,” McLain recalled, “and he said we’d be married and the leaders of a cult. We both thought ‘What a wonderful job for an old married couple.’” McLain and Lowrie have been married since 1986.
In The Church in the Darkness, launching sometime later this year for PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One, the player has gone to check up on a relative who has joined a cult. In the late 1970s, the Collective Justice Mission is a commune set up in “Freedom Town,” South America, characteristics that instantly raise suspicion by present-day understandings. Instead, Rouse wants players to question whether the leadership’s motives are benign or malignant, and respond to what they experience procedurally, rather than posture Rebecca and Isaac as autocratic or megalomaniacal at the outset.
Rouse envisions The Church in the Darkness as a game with spider-webbing story paths and multiple outcomes; the roguelike genre description that’s applied to this game seems to have less to do with the action or the playing space and more to do with the characters’ behavior. No playthrough of The Church in the Darkness will begin the same way, or at least that’s the goal. Rouse hopes that his game’s endings will likewise be unique experiences.
Getting into character as cult leaders
For Lowrie, that meant approaching his character with an understanding of how cults can spiral into the kind of headline-grabbing tragedies with which the word “cult” is most associated in the United States. “I went through the Jim Jones stuff, the Charles Manson stuff,” he said, referring to the sensational, deadly news accounts of the 1960s and 1970s, “but I also knew there were benign cults, too. To make the game exciting and difficult and challenging, you don’t know if these are good people or bad people; happy hippies in the woods who are building a better society, or maybe they go off the rails like Manson or Jonestown did.”
Lowrie reasoned that cults descend into tragedy when something occurs to trigger an authoritarian response from the leadership, regardless of mental health. “So the thing that makes the game interesting when you start it, you don’t know if my character is mentally healthy or unhealthy, because it starts off different every time,” he said, “and as you go on, if you do the wrong things, that can tip them over the edge.”
Lowrie’s Isaac is the more spiritual of the two; McLain’s Rebecca is more ideologically motivated. As if to foreshadow what Lowrie had said about cults’ trigger events, McLain said Rebecca is “very tightly wound. In the player’s choices, when a player chooses to be violent, I react strongly,” McLain said. “I think that is in the writing, which developed through both my thoughts and also how Richard saw the character. I am more politically motivated, and I am ready to hit back hard.”
Still, even with McLain’s experience in video game voice acting, which requires acting and reacting to the same scene in different ways, Rebecca required considerable range. “It can be a real challenge when you’re reading a grocery list one minute and responding to the death of someone you love the next,” McLain noted.
Rouse said he didn’t want Rebecca and Isaac to be the same person. Isaac handles the inspiration, Rebecca the logistics, in other words. The couple’s common trait is music, which manifests in a soundtrack of 11 performances. Four of them are spiritual classics (with two alternate performances), five are completely original, written by Lowrie and performed by both actors. It’s unusual for an independent video game production to have a soundtrack with that many original vocals.
The three arrived at it in a tentative way. Rouse originally suggested that a song over the ending credits would be a nice touch. “And then John said, ‘Well, maybe I could write one.’”
By this point, Rouse, McLain and Lowrie had already had deep discussions about the characters, mapped out the broad events of the story and had done several voice-over sessions. Still, “I hadn’t worked with him in that way before,” Rouse said. “I thought I’d do the lyrics and they would do the music. Instead he said, ‘Why don’t I just try one.’”
Lowrie got it right the first time, with “The Song of Forgiveness.”
“I had just lost my best friend to lung cancer a couple of years ago,” Lowrie said, of his longtime duet partner Ron Keithe. “I wrote a song for his service, and ‘The Song of Forgiveness’ was one I also wrote at that time. The words come out of Isaac’s heart, that Isaac himself is reflective, that he wants to reflect on his relationship to the universe, to the divine, to good and evil. It’s a song that asks ‘How do we get back to a place of peace and serenity? How do we forgive ourselves for what we’ve done?’”
“I was like, ‘I don’t know how this is going to go,’” Rouse said of Lowrie going off to work on the song, “but then he sent over that song, and then he was like ‘Hey, I’ve got another one, and he sent it over. John is so knowledgeable about games, and art in general, that he was sending stuff that I thought was just great.”
The other songs that play in the end sequence can reflect the outcome of the playthrough or contrast with it. Like the procedurally generated story he’s striving to create, Rouse wants the soundtrack to serve multiple purposes. Other original songs are “The Song of Revolution” (a kind of up-tempo, folk-rock song), “After the Rain” (another contemplative piece), “In the Morning” and “The Working Song,” which Lowrie wrote to give life at the commune an everyday feel. “I wanted not to paint the cult as dour and drudgery, but these people had heart and wanted to have a good time, too.”
In the spiritual standards, Lowrie and McLain also made creative choices to match them to the game. For example, McLain had known “Shall We Gather at the River,” from singing in church choirs since she was 5 (and still does, at Seattle’s Mt. Baker Park Presbyterian). Lowrie chose a “strange, eerie and evocative,” arrangement by the composer Charles Ives for McLain to sing. “He was kind of wack-a-doodle,” Lowrie noted.
Currently, The Church in the Darkness is in “late alpha” stage, Rouse said, and he plans to show it off at PAX East in Boston in early April. But in talking with Rouse, one gets the sense that if McLain and Lowrie had not bought into his vision, and then supplemented it with their original music, it might not be in any kind of state. The irony is that may be the best testimonial for McLain and Lowrie’s capability in charismatic, inspiring roles, leading a labor of love.
“When you’re making an indie game, you’ve gotta keep your morale up,” Rouse said. “In a traditional studio, you’re still getting paid; for me, getting them on board jacked up my enthusiasm.”