Questioning what’s right or wrong can at times be troublesome. Occasionally there’s a definitive answer, yet there can also be a morally gray area that troubles personal perception. Is taking an extreme path for the greater good the right thing to do? Or is it a case of being misinterpreted by those reared on a different ideology? The questions fuel the action-adventure title The Church In The Darkness.
Following a cult in the 1970s, The Church in the Darkness has players questioning if things are as they appear. With an action-stealth basis, players have to piece things together with their own moral compass to decide what’s right, wrong, or simply in-between.
“I’ve been fascinated by cult groups for years, both how they are alternate societies within larger human society, but also how they are complex and hard to understand,” said Director/Designer Richard Rouse III. “The game builds on classic top-down action infiltration gameplay. People often compare it to the older Metal Gear Solid games, but it’s faster paced than that. One particular game I loved as a kid was the original Castle Wolfenstein, made long before Wolfenstein was known as a 3D shooter.”
“In terms of the core mechanics, I’m drawing from newer games like Far Cry or Dishonored. It’s been a process of keeping true to the spirit of that classic top-down infiltration gameplay, but while making it feel modern as well.”
FROM SUFFERING TO THE DARKNESS
A veteran of the industry, Richard has worked on many projects, one of which was the PS2 game The Suffering. Released in 2004, The Suffering was a horror game set in a prison. Coupled with a depth-filled narrative, The Suffering won over players thanks to its originality.
Despite their place in different genres, there are similarities between The Suffering and how Richard approached The Church in the Darkness. “It’s a totally different game, yet it’s still a game where I’m handling almost all the writing. So naturally, it has a narrative that works the way I like game narratives to work. The Suffering was all about the choices you made that affected not only how the game ends but also Torque’s backstory.”
“We’re not doing exactly that this time, but now the backstory of the cult leaders is changing before you start. Then your choices in-game come together with their personalities to create your own unique story of that play-through.”
“In The Suffering there were various human characters who you had to decide whether to help or ignore or kill. That’s obviously something you have choices about in The Church in the Darkness as well. I definitely see the games as a piece, though I don’t know how many other players would pick up on that. And that’s fine, after all, I don’t want to appear to be repeating myself.”
A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE
Outside of classics such as Metal Gear Solid, not many mainstream games feature a perspective outside the industry standard third and first-person viewpoints. Despite this, the vantage point The Church In The Darkness took wasn’t a concern for Richard. “When we announced the game I did see some mixed reactions online about the top-down perspective. But also a lot of players said they liked it. I find that when players play it they start to realize how it makes the game different. How you get so much more situational awareness, how you can play much more tactically because of the different information you have about where the threats are and all of that.”
Featuring a more old school, top-down view not only has benefits for the core gameplay but that of production as well. As an indie studio, Paranoid Productions doesn’t have the time or resources to create an overly detailed sandbox. It’s this perspective that made Richard and his team strive for pure originality.
“As an indie making a game on a small budget, it’s important to be as different from bigger budget games as possible,” Richard said. “Sure players are used to playing games in first-person and I love those games too – and I’ve worked on a bunch of them. But with that comes expectations about how good they have to look, how characters have to have animated faces, etc.”
“So many worlds that are first-person are almost entirely devoid of characters because they’re so hard to make look good up close without a ton of money going into development. With us, we’re able to have a town full of people because you’re seeing the community from a bird’s eye view. I also think seeing the world from that view lets you really get a sense of this living/breathing community that you wouldn’t any other way.”
AN OPEN-ENDED APPROACH
In crafting the layout of the cult compound, Richard wanted the player to have complete freedom. This was done to make the environment feel natural, but also allow various scenarios such as those built around stealth or complete action.
“The game’s approach is to be as systems based as possible – I want the world to feel consistent and be something the player can predict from any way they play. We want players to have a set of tools they can use to interact with the world how they want, whether that’s a gun (not encouraged, but there if you want it) or stealth tools, like an alarm clock you can wind up to cause a distraction or chloroform to knock people out.”
“To make all this work I try to avoid custom-scripting anything too extensively, instead letting the AI take over whenever the player interacts with it, however they want to To make both stealth and more violent approaches work, the trick is to make the systems and tools work well for both approaches or any approach that is a mix of both. It’s tricky, but we’ve spent a lot of time on it, and people like what we have working so far, and is definitely something we keep iterating on through playtesting.”
As players master the skills and tools available, they can expect a natural progression of how the gameplay unfolds. A base design element that some developers overlook, things will progress in a way that’s accurate for what both the player, and the character of Vic, are experiencing, sometimes with a bit of hardship thrown in as well.
“Because of this systems-based approach, the game is a bit more open-ended than a lot of stealth games, which tend to be more linear and focused on one critical path. Here the game’s more open, which allows you to try a lot of different things. That also means as you get really good, what seemed hard at first becomes pretty easy. Which is why we also have multiple difficulty levels. I’m trying to make the hardest setting something that’s extremely challenging even for me. For instance, on the hardest setting, if you take any damage at all you die. We want to make sure everyone will find the challenge they want in the game.”
DEFINING THE ACTION
Occasionally games which present a sandbox environment have logic rooted in pure design ideology. This often involves menial task and endless repetition. Thankfully, the action will play out differently with The Church in the Darkness. “The goal here is to have a world where players always get to do what they want. The world has enough of a simulation to let you do that,” said Richard
“I approach it with a “What would really happen” mindset as much as possible. If you were going to infiltrate a remote jungle town, would you kill everyone in your path to get to your target? Probably not. The game’s not a hyper-realistic military simulator or anything. But it’s also not forcing you to kill anyone more than you want to, or make killing too easy.”
This design stance allows a level of player freedom which some games tout, but rarely deliver upon. In this case, however, Richard and his team are allowing a true sense of freedom which means anything can unfold.
“So you can kill anyone in the game, or you can finish the game without killing anyone. And that’s true in any of the story permutations. Depending on the narrative scenario and what the player chooses to do, it’s possible to play as someone many would call a “bad guy”. But how do you define that? The game never comes down and labels you the “villain” or anything that specific. You get an ending that is a combination of the narrative you were dealt combined with the choices you made as a player. Then it’s up to the player to decide if an ending is “good” or “bad.” What’s important to us is that the player has to live with the consequences of their actions.”
THE THIN LINE BETWEEN GOOD AND EVIL
Fitting of the dynamic action that unfolds, The Church In The Darkness also lacks a linear narrative. The core basis will be that of main protagonist Vic trying to “rescue” his cousin from the cult compound. But players will see the narrative unfold differently each time they play. At first, players may perceive the Walkers, the couple who run the “cult”, as villains. Yet over the course of the game, things could change. Richard focused on this perspective to avoid presenting an otherwise familiar tale.
“I try to make the villains, not just “mustache twirling” psychopaths who you can’t connect to. If you look at The Suffering games, all the “boss” adversaries were victims of circumstance or at least thought what they were doing the “right” thing.”
“This is a continuation of that type of character design. I’m trying to focus on how the tipping point between someone being seen as a good person and someone being seen as a total villain can sometimes be razor thin. Hence our Preachers Isaac and Rebecca Walker have a lot of qualities anyone could look up to. But then they also do things that seem a bit weird. And then in some scenarios do what many would call very bad things. But of course, all that is open to the player’s interpretation.”
The reaction players have to the story is something Richard is keen to see. “One of my favorite parts of narrative design is leaving stories open for players to try to piece together and come up with their own interpretation. They never interpret it exactly how I would, and I love seeing what they come up with. Sometimes people will ask what the game is trying to “say”. I always say I’m not sure, that’s really up to the players.”
REPEATED JUNGLE TRIPS
For a game as dynamic as The Church In The Darkness is, there’s plenty of content and scenarios to experience. Players hoping to see everything the game has to offer may find it’ll be quite the endeavor.
“To see absolutely everything, I feel it’s going to be really a large number of playthroughs. Obviously, we have the different personalities the preachers can have. We have the different ways the game can start coupled with the choices you can make while that playing which are numerous. It has a multiplicative effect on the number of endings you can get.”
“We haven’t locked that number down yet, but it’s quite a bit more than ten different endings. There are all of the different ways to experience the challenges as well. There’s also characters who may show up in one playthrough and not in another. And different documents you can find in different playthroughs. We also have a perma-death. So if you fail enough times you need to restart. It’s my intent that if you can play through to an ending three or four times you will have a pretty good picture of the game. But the completionists will be going quite a bit beyond that.”
The depth Paranoid Productions aims to implement is refreshing. Players will likely feel as if they’re playing an entirely new game when they replay The Church in the Darkness. That alone should make it a standout for those looking for a game that isn’t shallow.
The Church in the Darkness will arrive in 2017 for the PS4, Xbox One, and PC