The Church in the Darkness begins with a statement that there’s nothing to worry about. It’s the 1970s, and your character’s nephew, Alex, has run away from his family to join the community of Freedom Town, run in a remote part of South America by a Christian-Communist group called the Collective Justice Mission. Alex says he’s happy and healthy, but the question you have to answer is whether his message is a face-value declaration of happiness and purpose, or a sign that something is deeply wrong.
The answer to that question changes from one game to another. The backdrop of the story that The Church in the Darkness tells is always the same, but the way it unfolds and can change quite a bit. Your nephew might be trapped in a deadly, violent cult or he might be living in peace with an extreme, but non-violent, community of radicals. Likewise, your investigation of Freedom Town might bring the story to a successful conclusion, or spark violent disaster. Some of this depends on what you do, but a lot of it depends on how the game reshuffles its story with each new beginning.
For instance, when I played the game at PAX East, Freedom Town was a murderous hellhole. As my character crept between crude blockhouses and barns, I encountered armed cultist militia training with assault rifles on a firing range. On the edge of town, I stumbled across an execution ground, where a couple members of the community were bound and gagged while militia readied their rifles.
Later, when I watched Church in the Darkness developer and writer Richard Rouse play, none of those things occurred. ( Disclosure: I’m on friendly terms with Rouse, as we share some mutual friends who introduced us over drinks a few years ago.) Where the execution ground had stood, there was a small outdoor shrine. Where victims had been held bound and gagged, there was now a group of people getting a lecture from one of the cult’s officers.
This is partly about making a rather short stealth game more replayable, but it has more to do with how we think about cults and radicalism.
In how we imagine them and how media portray them, cults are objects of immense fascination, revulsion, and fear. The word itself evokes the unnaturally vivid images of the dead lying in and around the temple at Jonestown, or the siege and eventual destruction of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. In the popular imagination, cults tend to present alien and threatening versions of mainstream society’s most familiar structures and conventions, first by rejecting them, and then by presenting alternative and illicit versions of faith, faction, family, and sometimes all of the above.
But as Rouse pointed out during our conversation, cults are far more common than we imagine when we think about the most infamous cases. And, directly to the point of The Church in the Darkness, many of the worst disasters around cults have occurred because of confrontations gone wrong between state authorities and cultists. Part of what this game is about is trying to correctly gauge a cult’s character and intentions, figuring out whether this version of the cult is hellbent on bringing an apocalyptic vision to fruition, or a group of radical farmers trying to withdraw from what they see as the injustices and violence of 1970s America.
It’s an interesting idea, in many ways the kind of nuanced take on cults that Far Cry 5 briefly promised before settling on a depiction of drugged-out, violent zombies. On the other hand, for all its narrative variables, Church in the Darkness feels a lot more like an top-down indie stealth game than it does an experimental narrative showcase. While the game’s backdrops and decorations changed depending on how the dice rolled to create the cult’s character, the player’s interactions with that environment scarcely seemed to change. Guards patrol, sweeping giant vision-cones out in front of them like searchlights. Your character rifles through lockers for disguises and equipment, and occasionally disables alarms or finds characters to talk to and help.
What I couldn’t quite work out after my play session was whether the full version of the game is primarily about discovering evidence and uncovering the backstory of this cult, or whether it’s really more of a simple stealth game with a cult-investigation wrapper. Because while the thinking behind Church in the Darkness is interesting, and seems like it wants to capture a lot about the fraying social fabric and rise of different forms of radicalism in the 1970s, much of what I actually saw and did as a player was like a vastly simplified version of Shadow Tactics and the like.
In that latter case, no matter what the narrative is served-up, I worry the cult will always end up feeling creepy, violent, and other. After all, the mechanics themselves seem to allow for no way to engage with the cult than as a spy, acting as both hunter and hunted as you creep through Freedom Town. No matter what you learn about the Collective Justice Mission and its leaders, no matter what the truth behind your nephew’s letter at the start of the game, your relationship is inherently hostile.
Your character is an ex-cop, a representative of the order that the cult has tried to flee, and you arrive on a mission to check on the welfare of a wayward relative, ready to do violence. I am still wondering how those systems, against that backdrop, will adapt to a scenario where Alex doesn’t want your rescuing, where maybe your very presence could end up doing more harm than good.