Games

A Mysterious Cult Isn't Enough for the Repetitive 'Church in the Darkness'

A dynamic story leads to a frustratingly vague and meaningless game.

by Cameron Kunzelman
Aug 16 2019, 4:51pm

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.

The Church In The Darkness presents us with a simple scenario: in 1977, a young man named Alex is mixed up with a commune in South America. It’s unclear what his motivations are for being there, and no one has heard from him in a while. You, playing his aunt or uncle Vic, make your way into the compound and to find out what’s happened and, if necessary, extract Alex. Along the way you meet some people, do some tasks, and hunt for the truth. But the game’s rigid structure with shuffled pieces leaves a lot of interesting ideas on the table.

While the map stays the same through every playthrough, everything else gets remixed. The couple characters you can meet for sidequests will move positions. Alex’s location will also move around the map. The personalities of the leaders of the camp will change, as will their political ideologies. One session they might be fundamentalist Christians, and in another they might be anti-American socialists. The positions of adherents shift around, too, as well as the infrastructure like the medical facility or the pits where bodies are being buried.

The compound can be nefarious or it can be misunderstood. They might be burying bodies, or they might be peaceful farmers. Church’s Steam page says the game offers a “dynamic story” that takes place in a South American town founded by cult leaders Isaac and Rebecca, who possess “shifting personalities and motivations” that make every playthrough a unique experience. The work of The Church In The Darkness is the discovery of these different elements, and if that ideological parsing to figure out who is dangerous and who is trying to make a better world for everyone were the entire game, then it might be an interesting experiment to spend some time with.

An ambiguous postcard in the Church in the Darkness that may or may not be a sign a relative is in trouble.

But that isn’t the entire game. You could imagine a world where this might look like a conversation simulator or a strategy game. What Church actually feels the most like is a Hitman game: Your primary abilities are sneaking, knocking our or killing people from stealth, throwing rocks, using guns, and using items to disable or turn off alarms. Oh, and running. You’re running everywhere.

The total effect is that a run of The Church in the Darkness shows you this interesting world of conflicting ideologies, from the characters to your own biases, and asks you to navigate it with a fairly pedestrian set of mechanics that allow you to easily move across the map from point to point. Mostly, you run there and avoid the sight cones of enemies like you would in Metal Gear Solid.

But this is not procedural innovation that delivers a new game experience in the way that Spelunky would, and so I never found myself using these mechanics or the things I had learned in novel ways. The game basically plays the exact same way every time, with a slight number of shifts that really begin to look thin after the fifth time you start a run that lasts 20 minutes. Enemies have a predictable pattern, and the vast majority of runs follow a simple narrative structure of finding an ally, finding Alex, being tasked with speaking to Isaac and Rebecca, and then making your way out. The last options are particularly open, especially since knocking your nephew out and fireman carrying him to the extraction point is an option.

The cult compound in Church in the Darkness

If the goal here was to get players to consider mass movements and cults and ideologies and how those things intersect, then the rote mechanics work against it. If the mechanics were the point, then the ironclad conceptual structure of each run works against it. The Church in the Darkness ends up smashed between two different overriding concerns, neither fully committed to or developed in a way that would keep me coming back to the game.

This is compiled by Church’s bad luck by being lodged in my head at the same time as American Fugitive, one of the most compelling games I’ve played in a long time. Structured similarly to the first couple Grand Theft Auto games, it’s a carjacking, driving, shooting, sneaking, conspiracy-hawking action game that has no confusion about what it is at its core. Like Church, it is a top-down game that puts you in a sandbox with lots of solutions. Unlike Church, American Fugitive feels like a coherent whole that’s not giving short shrift to its conceptual pieces.

It would be tempting to say that a game like American Fugitive, despite sharing a perspective and many mechanics, is a different kind of game than Church in the Darkness. I think it would be very easy for someone to dismiss this comparison due Church actively attempting to critique ideology, our perception of social movements, and the critique of civil society that Isaac and Rebecca represent in all of their permutations.

A nighttime gunbattle in American fugitive
A scene from the more-evocative and specific 'American Fugitive', by Fallen Tree Games

But I think that it would be wrong to say that. Instead, I think it might be worth considering that a game like American Fugitive provides a model for the sweet spot between the complex social reflection game and a mechanically satisfying one. What the game manages to do is take an idea—you’re a fugitive—and expand that out to every possible place where that could interact with the world. If you hit another car, you’re wanted, because the cops are out looking for a fugitive. You need to scout a house before you rob it because, well, you’re a fugitive. You know how to change clothes in a hurry, and you have a distinct lack of respect for the boys in blue. I think you know why. Despite the actions you take being fairly standard in the sense that you do them across many games, they all fit squarely in a context of a person on the run who is fighting against small-town cops and the conspiracy that put him away.

The Church in the Darkness doesn’t feel that way. It does not feel like there was a distinct and coherent core that everything latched onto in a way that would make the experience feel cohesive. Being in a South American commune, surrounded on all sides on a clandestine mission, should make each and every action feel like it has a heavy weight on it. Where my sneaking, running, and hiding in American Fugitive feels weighty, being found, chased, or even shot at in The Church in the Darkness feels ephemeral and unimportant. Compound goes on lockdown? It’s unclear how that’s different from before. Enemies stop chasing me? I’ll be right back beside them in two moments, and they won’t have learned anything from my tricky distraction technique using a thrown rock. Cult leaders have interesting backstories and ideas? That doesn’t change how I sneak, how I complete the same side quests, or how I experience the linear and samey plot.

Church-In-The-Darkness-Review-Block containing the summary for a review of Church in the Darkness and declaring whether it is any good

The game feels stitched together with things that conceptually should work to create a structured and coherent run game, but instead just feel loose when they should be tight and restrictive when they should afford some play. American Fugitive gives me a place that feels like a place. The Church in the Darkness gives me some actions to do in a disconnected arena.

Despite The Church in the Darkness being based around research on cults and other social movements, I never really felt like I understood what made this whole thing tick on a fundamental level. Some people told me why they believed what they did, but that felt like mere dialogue, just words on a page that someone was reading to me. I couldn’t see it, couldn’t feel it in the game. Weirdly enough, American Fugitive offers the exact opposite experience, delivering a constant desperation and surveillance of the conditions around you to feel like you’re on the run. And that all comes from delivering on that core concept from all angles.