Interview: Richard Rouse III Illuminates The Church in The Darkness
The Church in the Darkness is an upcoming infiltration-strategy game by independent studio Paranoid Productions, written by the man behind horror hit The Suffering. This game sees players infiltrate a Christian cult in South America in uncertain times, hell bent on creating a refuge for the holy to escape the sins and punishment of society. Players will experience a new game each time they play through, with an open world that reacts to their choices and actions. We sat down with Richard Rouse III, the Director, Designer, and Writer of the game, to learn more about the story and his inspiration.
Q: Your voice actors for the married characters are actually married to one another, and you’ve said in previous interviews that you wrote the script with these actors in mind. Did knowing who would be voicing these characters make the process of writing any easier, or affect their personalities at all?
Rely on Horror fans may remember a game I worked on called The Suffering. Those games were the first chance I had to work with John Patrick Lowrie. He played everything from the gas-chamber themed villain Hermes to the stoned out corrections office Sergei, to the nasty guard who’s the first character you meet during gameplay in the first game (and who if I remember correctly never had an actual name). So from back then I knew John was great at voice over, and I had also seen some of his theater work, so I knew he was strong beyond just what he’d done in games. I thought it would be awesome to work with him again, and show people how big his range is.
And creating the character of Isaac Walker was really the process of creating a character that would be ideal for John to play. I actually talked to John about the game before I had written anything down – he was the first person I approached with The Church in the Darkness concept to see if he wanted to be involved. At that first meeting, I knew I also wanted a female cult leader, someone for Isaac to play off, and I thought who better than John’s wife Ellen McLain. She ended up being his perfect counterpoint as Rebecca Walker. In addition to her famous role as GLaDOS and work in lots of other games, I had heard her do the audiobook of John’s novel Dancing with Eternity – they did it as a pair and it was really interesting to hear them doing this long-form work instead of the snippets of VO you tend to hear from them in games.
So the parts were really written for them from day one. In terms of doing the writing, knowing it was going to be John and Ellen made it easier, absolutely. On previous projects, after you do the casting and you do your first voice over session with the actors, I always felt like that was when I finally had a good handle on the characters. In those situations, I’ve gone back and rewritten lines now that I know the characters better because the actors have voiced them and brought something to the performance I had never imagined. I know some writers have the characters fully formed before actors ever get involved and don’t want them to change much, but I love collaborating with actors, I think it makes the characters stronger to shape them around the actors playing them. So for this project I was able to go all the way with that idea, meeting with Ellen and John while I was writing, talking about the characters and their personalities. Writing a part for a specific actor is done all the time in films, but less so in games, so I’m really glad to be doing it on this project.
Q: The Church in The Darkness changes the narrative of the game a bit for subsequent playthroughs. What special considerations did the team have to make in planning those changes and scripting the voice acting?
Part of the great benefit of working closely with John and Ellen was we talked through all the permutations before we ever got into the recording studio. So I could explain what I was thinking in terms of how their personalities would be the same and yet different for each of the times the player encounters them in different playthroughs. Then they threw suggestions in and we worked on it together. The game is different than anything any of us had done before, so having it be a collaboration helped a lot in navigating these uncharted design spaces.
Beyond that, the interesting thing about a lot of these revolutionaries and cult leaders is how similar their rhetoric is, regardless of whether they’re relatively harmless and really want what’s best for their people, or if they’re more dangerous and disturbingly apocalyptic in their thinking. So what’s interesting is a lot of what they say will stay the same regardless of the leaders true motives, and finding those little differences will help players know what to do in each scenario.
Q: This game is narrated by the couple as a player infiltrates their cult’s base, which is an interesting way to inform players about what is going on in the game. Should players expect to rely on hints from the PA system when they’re noticed by cult members, or will the system be mostly relaying information about tasks the player has already completed? Will the PA sometimes be the best way for a player to figure out what their next destination or target should be?
The PA system in game serves a bunch of functions, and indeed at one point or another it does all of the things you mention. Sometimes its purely narrative – giving you a sense of the world and helping you understand Isaac and Rebecca Walker. Sometimes it’s giving you clues about whether Isaac and Rebecca are truly dedicated to living peacefully or if they think of the world with more a doomsday mindset. But the PA also works with the alarm system in the camp, so when the player’s detected or they’ve noticed something else the player has done, the changing voices on the PA system are part of how players know now they better be careful. And sometimes it will communicate bigger narrative events that are happening in the game – but I’m trying not to give away too many of the specifics on that just yet.
Q: Is there a true scripted ending to The Church in The Darkness, or is it completely open-ended? Will players have a different ending every playthrough, if they are making different choices?
It’s not a pure simulation like The Sims or something, so all of the endings are authored to some extent. But that said, there’s a lot of different possible endings you can get – and they depend both on the choices the player makes but also the narrative state of the game. With a game that has different narrative starting states – where the personalities of the cult leaders can change – you’re generating a lot of different endings just based on the way the game starts. So obviously, the possibilities for what can happen are quite diverse.
Q: The layout of the church changes with each playthrough, as well. Are there any major points of reference in the game that do not change from play to play, or is the game completely fresh for every player and every playthrough?
There’s a lot of things that change in the game with every playthrough, but there’s also a lot that the player will recognize. The important thing for me is that players see the different sides of the narrative, and that the gameplay challenges vary enough that it doesn’t feel like you’re just playing the same game again “to see the other story.” But at the same time, the key locations in Freedom Town stay the same and as players get more experienced they’ll be able to use knowledge of the world to get better and better at the game. But for specifics on that, you’ll just have to play the game.
Q: This game was inspired by the events of Jonestown, the origin of the phrase “drinking the KoolAid”, and one of the most visible cults in the history of the United States. Have you been working on this idea for a while now, or was it partially driven by the current cultural climate in the United States?
The game draws a lot from Jonestown, of course, but it’s not a documentary. This group isn’t the People’s Temple and the leaders are very different from Jim Jones. I did a lot of research of different separatist political groups who wanted to split off from conventional society and try something really different. So the inspirations are fairly varied, and I found it interesting how basically all of these groups start with some very positive intentions, and some manage to stay true to those beliefs, and some don’t.
Specifically the 1970s seem like the ideal era to tell this story because of what an unstable time it felt like in the US. You had the Vietnam war still raging on, you had continual fear of nuclear annihilation because of the Cold War, you had the peaceful movements of the 60s being seen as not entirely successful so you had some radical groups turning more violent, and you had the FBI actively pursuing a program to defeat any group they felt threatened by. It felt like the ideal time period for a group like this to exist.
I’ve been working on the game for a while, and I wouldn’t say it’s inspired by the current election cycle specifically or any given candidate who is now running. But I do think this is an interesting time to be working on a game like this, because everything comes in cycles. I think we’re again in an age of tremendous discontent in the US and so you again see people gravitating toward fringe groups, to leaders who are outside the mainstream, and just like the ’70s I think some of these groups are positive and some of them are dangerous. But in the moment, right now, it can be hard to tell for sure. We don’t have the benefit of hindsight just yet.
Q: What made you decide to use a Christian cult instead of the usual cult-in-a-videogame fallback of “vaguely occult”?
They say that, whenever possible, write what you know. I was raised Catholic so have spent a lot of time with the Christian Bible and it’s a book that I have always found fascinating. Whether you believe in it or not, it’s a book that is staggering in its depth and complexity. And in researching these extreme progressive groups, I found it interesting that, though some of them have developed their own belief system, but just as many if not more are based in Christianity in some form. Though you don’t often hear about it, there’s a history of people who identified as socialists but also strongly Christian. So I felt grounding it in a Holy Book I know and which so many have used for their faith made the game feel more grounded and realistic.
Also I just love quoting from the bible in my dialog. Going back to The Suffering, I had several characters do it – like in Ties that Bind there was a minor character who lived in the sewer at the beginning of the game and who spoke nothing but Bible quotes. Farther back, my earlier game Damage Incorporated had a character with a call-sign of Preacher who quoted the good book quite a bit. And for The Church in the Darkness, Isaac will be quoting from the Bible while he’s preaching to his people. It feels very natural and helps make the game feel grounded in reality.
Q: Why South America?
South America has fascinated me for a while. It’s a place that, if you’re wealthy, you have access to a lot of the trappings of Europe or North America, but at the same time it feels like a place where you can go and really live privately, by your own rules. Obviously this is a simplification, but South America is where people from the US or Europe go when they have to get away, either from the law or from society itself Over the years you have everything from mining companies to Nazi war criminals to religious sects moving there, and really being able to take the law into their own hands in the communities they build. You also have this feeling there that nature is unstoppable – that the Amazon and the wildlife in general will in the end consume everything. People from other continents frequently mis-judge how hard it can be to survive in this environment, often leading to disastrous outcomes. For all these reasons, I find South America absolutely fascinating.
Q: The game is top-down and open world. Players can choose to kill or evade enemies, and will have to work around any obstacles their choices create down the line. With so much left up to the player, were you concerned that the story would be somewhat lost, or does it give players the chance to become more immersed?
Though narrative is a big part of the game, first and foremost I want it to play as a good game that stands on its own even if you ignore the narrative. I want it to appeal to players who just wanted a cool action-infiltration game done in a style you don’t see a lot of these days. It’s a simulation of a world where players can play it however they want – whether it’s knocking guys out and hiding their unconscious bodies, or using all sorts of distraction techniques, or taking guys down more permanently using heavy weaponry you’ve confiscated from the captain of the guard.
The story is not as “big” and forced as you might see in a AAA game – there aren’t cut-scenes and there’s a good amount left up to players to interpret and try to understand. It’s a game where you can get heavily involved in the narrative to the level you want. But at the same tie, we are using a few in-game techniques to make sure players always know what’s going on and don’t lose the narrative thread completely. Beyond that, you’ll just have to play the game and see.
Q: You are best known for your previous work on The Suffering. Did you enjoy the process of making The Church in The Darkness, without any supernatural elements, after working on a story that was so driven by supernatural forces?
As you say, The Suffering games were distinctly horror games, and in them players fought some twisted and dark supernatural creatures. But when I wrote The Suffering games, I wanted to explore not only the supernatural horror but also real-world horrors that came out of our setting – like the reality of the American prison system and the death penalty. So the darkness wasn’t just the supernatural stuff, but the very real parts of the setting and the human characters players met.
Those real-world themes were definitely a bit more in the background in The Suffering. In The Church in the Darkness they are more in the foreground. Not many people would call Church a horror horror and it doesn’t have any supernatural elements, but it still dives into some very dark subject matter. But it’s not just dark for the sake of it – with the shifting narrative I wanted players to get to see both sides of how events can play out. In my research, so often I have read stories from cult survivors, where they say “It’s not as simple as you think. There was good and bad. We weren’t just brainwashed.” The Church in the Darkness isn’t a documentary, but I want to fill it with believable characters you can empathize with, even in the darkest moments, even when they’re making terrible decisions.
Q: Speaking of The Suffering, who holds the rights? If not yourself, would you ever be interested in reacquiring the rights to make a third entry in the series?
I get asked this question on Twitter a lot – makes me happy every time it happens, because I love that people remember The Suffering games fondly. I haven’t done a ton of research into this, but it’s my understanding Warner Bros acquired the rights when they bought a bunch of Midway assets. So who knows if a new game can ever happen. But if the circumstances were right and I felt we were able to make a good game that lived up to the legacy of the series, I would definitely be up for doing another game in the franchise. But of course, at the moment The Church in the Darkness is taking up most of my time.
Currently we’re aiming for a release in early 2017. We’d love it if people wanted to follow along with our development, we have a mailing list to join at http://www.paranoidproductions.com/church, or find us on Twitter https://twitter.com/churchdarkness.