At PAX West 2016 last month, I had the privilege of meeting one of the creators of the seriously underrated game, The Suffering. Richard Rouse III was affable and completely open to talking about his latest project, The Church in the Darkness, which is a game centered on a religious cult.
I quickly played the demo and reveled in classic top-down stealth action. The game is about your nephew that belongs to a cult that relocated to somewhere in South America. Worried about him, the player is tasked to infiltrate the mysterious cult and find out if your nephew is safe. The setup is simple enough with your character ducking into bushes and houses trying to evade being spotted by a milieu of cultists. There is a convenient mechanic that allows the player to see sight lines and how hidden you are. In fact, the game does a remarkable job of conveying a lot of information intuitively. This makes sense since Richard has published a book on game design theory and has spoken at GDC.
After failing miserably at the demo (I play terribly under pressure) and marking out shamelessly on The Suffering, I was able to get an appointment to interview Richard Rouse III.
First, I wanted to know what prompted him to start working on The Church in the Darkness:
Richard: This was a very particular kind of story that I was interested in, because of the subject matter and the nature of these fringe and extreme groups have been fascinating to me for a while. I just thought it was a perfect, sort of setting for a game and that no one had really explored it. But I also knew that on a bigger project, you know, you have more responsibility to cover your bigger budget, right, so you got millions and millions of dollars spent you need to sell millions and millions of copies -
Me: You gotta hit all demographics.
R: Yeah right, right, and make sure no one gets upset about - no one protests. And you know, if you are spending that much money on a game, I can understand people being conservative and wanting to protect their investment, but for something like this, I felt like it really had to be done in more of an independent fashion, where it was - I was able to make the creative calls that the subject matter dictated - so, I could explore it from all sides and not have to pull any punches.
Like Richard, I sometimes harbored an unexplained fascination with cults and the people that join them. He told me that it started with an interest in dark subject matter, but soon changed:
R: The interesting thing about these types of radical groups that I found in doing research - is that they are not always clearly bad or good.
Me: I always look at it like people wouldn't join it if they were just obviously terrible right?
R: Right, there is a saying that no sets out to join a cult, right. You join a progressive movement or new religion or something that just has a different worldview. And I think there is also the perception that people who are in these sorts of extremist groups with a charismatic leader are "weak people", but they are actually very strong people that are willing to break with society and go try to do something different - even if it seems ridiculous to people who are used to living in society. To them, its clear that society isn't working - so "what can we do to make a more just earth" or "take care of our elders better" or whatever it might be. And it takes a lot of courage to do something like that. So a lot of these people are very strong willed, and sometimes they fall in with a group that's actually fine - and just living in a commune somewhere and that can be fine. But sometimes, you know, absolute power corrupts absolutely - often it does. Sometimes these groups end up not to be what they are about and sometimes they go catastrophically wrong.
The remarkable thing about cults and a big reason that I'm interested in The Church in the Darkness is the exploration of this theme. The natural reaction when we think about corrupt cults, propaganda, or cognitive dissonance is we would never fall victim to something like that. Of course, we would spot this stuff before it became a problem. But history has proven time and again that the human mind can be a dark and illogical place.
R: Its interesting that they didn't act like the brainwashed people - that's the stereotypes of what they are right? But that they were actually radicals and progressives and thought they were doing something really good, and you don't realize you are in a cult until its too late. So I started finding that really interesting, and what would make people go do this - leave society to do this.
Sometimes when some of these groups are successful we don't think of them as cults. Obviously, this is a slightly joking example but like Apple was kind of a cult behind Steve Jobs for a long time, right?
Me: There was a cult of personality there -
R: Right, right - and he was very successful because, you know, everyone got - well Steve was in charge and whatever Steve says we're gonna do that - and great things can come out of that. Apple has obviously had a lot of great things and didn't hurt that many people along the way. But its slightly weird to go to a big meeting like that - like say you are at a big tech company and you go to the meeting with the big CEO or whoever talking. Its a little bit like a cult group because everyone's like "Yeah, that what we wanna do!" They are not like maybe thinking completely critically about everything they're saying. And if that person is good and doing good things that's fine, and if they're bad and doing bad things then that's when trouble comes up.
A lot of those cult leaders start off with noble intentions and then when they get more and more power, they realize: "Wow I can kind of do these other weirder things I didn't tell people about. Or I can abuse this to sleep with everyone. Or I can abuse this to make my living conditions really nice or something like that" - it can go wrong.
I had asked Richard if the game was being received favorably at PAX West, and if anyone got offended by the subject matter. Surprising to both of us, he said everyone that played it seemed interested and not put off:
R: We've been in a period where games have obviously evolved a lot, and some have started to take on serious subject matter - sometimes in satirical ways, sometimes in just serious ways. So you like have games like Papers Please or This War of Mine or whatever that do those sort of subjects and don't hold back, and yet are also very popular, often because they are very good games on top of dealing serious subject matter. I think if you deal with serious subject matter and it might be really interesting, but if the play is not good, it doesn't matter. Its like watching a badly shot documentary or something. Its like you can't put up with it at some point.
So I think that people have become more accepting that games can do this kind of stuff and not just be like "well, games are suppose to be fun - why are we doing this other stuff". But I think the people that just only want those pure entertainment games - and thats fine, and there's nothing wrong with that - probably they see it [Church in the Darkness] and they just move on.
Following up on how games have evolved, I wanted to know if making a game out of a dark subject can give the wrong impression and make light of something serious.
R: I think about that a lot. I mean, I take video games seriously enough that I just don't discount it completely. The games that I love that have touched me, affected me as a player, you know, I see them as just as valid as film or novels or television or whatever. Its the same thing that in television - when there was a period that television was just viewed as just purely entertainment and cinema is where the good stuff is. But, television is just for crass entertainment value. And then they started slowly over the years entered, you know, like Archie Bunker or something like that. It was a show that was a sitcom but then dealt with racism and dealt with class issues and dealt with the working class problems - and just work that into something that was still an entertaining show and still a comedy and still had a laugh track. I think it did. I think at the time people were saying "Oh, this is terrible - we can't have this on television". But now, you look back on it and its like a total classic. And I feel like video games are making that journey too. I think every new media is discounted for a while before its accept. Film was, you know, in the '30s - people didn't want serious message stuff in their movies necessarily. They want rollicking musicals -
Me: Or a million Westerns.
R: Or another Western!
Me: Don't get me wrong I like Westerns -
R: Yeah. Again, its like there's nothing wrong with something that isn't - you don't want all your media to be depressing and dark, right? I certainly like Bejeweled Blitz as much as the next person. Its just cool to be able to do it - to do things with the medium other than just be pure entertainment all the time.
Lastly, I asked why The Church in the Darkness is a video game as opposed to a movie or a TV show. What does a game do that other mediums can't? Richard mentioned the idea of "abdicating authorship" and how a game isn't finished until it is actually played.
R: Looking this subject of these cult groups, like if you make a documentary of a cult group, you are getting one story. You're getting this is what they do, and then this is what happens and then that's it. The interesting thing when I was researching these groups is they're often more complex and things go different ways for different groups.
So making this group specifically designed so that they could be fully apocalyptic and dangerous and bad things are gonna happen or they could just be fully separatists that wanna live in the jungle and have their socialist utopia. You get to see both sides of the story in one game. You could not do that in a movie, right? And also, what do you [the player] decide to do about it when you're there. Do you take your person out even if he doesn't want to leave? Do you decide the leaders are bad or maybe one of them is bad? Do you try to assassinate them or somehow take them out of power before you leave? You can't do that anywhere else, right?
I think that when you are doing a game anytime narratively, you want to think what are we doing here we couldn't do in a movie or a book or a documentary or a song or whatever. I think every medium has its own strength.
After sitting there and listening to Richard expound about the various ideas and considerations in the creation, I will definitely keep up to date with his progress. The Church in the Darkness will be provocative to say the least. The game is slated for a 2017 release on Steam, PS4, and Xbox One.