[Game Preview] ‘The Church in the Darkness’ Worships at the Altar of Stealth and Suspense

Thomas Wilde investigates a religious cult in 1970’s South America in his hands-on preview of stealth action game The Church in the Darkness.

Usually, when a creepy eschatological cult shows up in a video game, it’s with a total lack of subtlety. They’re sacrificing people to demons, worshipping an elder god, or are all at least half tentacles by volume. The most low-key depiction of a cult that I can think of offhand, up to this point, is in Outlast 2 and you’re still forced to wade through a pile of their victims within the first fifteen minutes.

The Church in the Darkness, by comparison, is more about suspense and the slow build. Its director, Richard Rouse III (lead designer on the recently-rereleased The Suffering), told me at PAX West earlier this year, that it isn’t a game about the supernatural at all. It’s just about people, caught in a bad situation that’s slowly beginning to get worse.

It’s set in an isolated corner of South America in the late 1970s. Isaac (John Patrick Lowrie) and Rebecca Walker (Ellen McLain), the leaders of a populous cult that calls itself the Collective Justice Mission, have decided to ditch the United States and its society in favor of building their own village from scratch. The result is “Freedom Town,” a sprawling agrarian complex by the side of a river, miles from civilization. The Walkers preach that America is a fallen society, out to destroy those who think as they do, and it’s taught their flock that the best thing to do is shoot strangers on sight.

You play as Vic, a variable-gender, variable-race ex-cop whose nephew, Alex, joined the cult two years ago. Six months after the move to Freedom Town, Alex hasn’t written or called, and at your sister’s request, you track the cult down to find out what’s happened to Alex.

Church is a very stripped-down, lo-fi stealth/action game, where your resources are at a premium and almost everyone you run into is willing to shoot on sight. You have the option to go lethal and solve all your problems with violence, but there are a lot more cult members than bullets, and the game is built around multiple endings and manipulability. You may decide to wipe out the cult on general principle, but it’s not going to be easy, it’s definitely not going to do Alex any good, and it’s definitely going to cause problems when you end up having to get information out of the Walkers.

The first few minutes of the game are fairly typical stealth-action stuff, although it’s in such a low-tech, mundane location that it’s interesting again. You aren’t some high-tech assassin or soldier, fighting terrorists with top-of-the-line gadgets and drones. It’s 1977 in the middle of nowhere, so you have to muddle through with thrown rocks, improvised disguises, and the occasional chokehold.

There’s a certain paranoid thrill to the game once you get into Freedom Town proper. The guards are everywhere, they shoot on sight, and there aren’t any conspicuous holes in their patrol routines for you to exploit. Everywhere you go, you’re just one step ahead of being spotted and having to run for your life, while you frantically search for information and supplies.

Every idle document you run across, as well as the constant barrage of preaching and scripture over Freedom Town’s PA system, slowly paints a picture. The Collective Justice Mission may like to pretend that it’s a bunch of peace-loving hippies who’ve voluntarily withdrawn from society, but they’ve also armed half the cultists and charged them to stand watch over the other half. The Walkers are citing scripture and are nominally Christian, but at the same time, none of the cult’s iconography looks quite right. There’s obviously something wrong here, but there’s some ambiguity about what that something might be. Maybe the cult’s shaking itself apart due to personal pressures, or maybe it’s heading towards another Jonestown moment and you’ve got a front row seat.

The moment that’s going to stick with me for a while came on the PAX West show floor, when Rouse was playing the game and talking about its design. I’d begun to think that it was a little too “momcore” for me, to use John Rogers’s term. The cult was clearly up to no good, and we’d been given a quest to find inconvertible proof thereof, but for the first few minutes, it looked like the game was mostly about choking out angry hippies.

Then, at the same time as Isaac and Rebecca began to play a cheerful folk song about the values of prayer and hard work, sounding for all the world like an elderly couple on public radio, we stumbled across a clearing where the cultists were stoning someone to death. Whoever it was, they were wrapped in a sheet, tied to a post, and had been there for a while, in an area designated for the purpose. It was an effective, sharp little shock.

Back at PAX West, part of the news about The Church in the Darkness was that it had found a publisher, Fellow Traveler. Right now, you can put down US$30 to pick up the “True Believer Special Edition,” which gives you access to the game’s short alpha demo in advance of its official release, which is what I’ve been playing.

What’s interesting to me about The Church in the Darkness is that it’s explicitly a game about suspense, rather than terror or horror. There aren’t any shoggoths in the basement or rednecks with weaponized farm tools; in fact, the biggest monster in the game as it stands is potentially you, if you decide to murder your way through Freedom Town. It’s a stripped-down, back-to-basics slow-build stealth game without a single chainsaw massacre to be found, with just enough of a creepy atmosphere that I’m interested in seeing where it goes next.

Publisher: Fellow Traveler
Developer: Paranoid Productions

The Church in the Darkness PC alpha code provided by the publisher.

The Church in the Darkness will release on PC, PS4, and Xbox One in 2019.

[Preview] ‘The Light Keeps Us Safe’ Makes You Fear the Dark Once You See the Light

You awaken alone in a dimly-lit room, seemingly in a bunker of some kind. A voice on local comms gets you up to speed as you head towards the exit. Upon leaving the claustrophobic low ceilings of the bunker, you find yourself on a long gangway in a dark and expansive underground cave. It’s at the end of the gangway that you see the first sign of something that doesn’t fit what’s been established. A high tech doorway with a bright energy barrier.

What on Earth has happened to make this life normal for you? Well, that’ll be where you step through that door, pick up a modified torch and head outside to find that the answer is… the machines. The machines and the darkness. This is the world of The Light Keeps Us Safe and it is the latest intriguing example of deprivation of the senses in horror.#

Killer robots of various shapes and sizes roam the land above, hunting anyone foolish or desperate enough to venture there. The upside is, these infernal machines are susceptible to light sources, so you’re safe as long as you either have one or can stand in one. The snag in that well-woven plan is that light is in incredibly short supply on the surface these days.

The Light Keeps Us Safe‘s surface world is unsurprisingly gloomy. The inky darkness envelopes whole swathes of the horizon and the only reprieve are either the hazy radiance of certain buildings and streetlights or the threatening glow of the machines and the structures they’ve created. The feel is very much one of a 1980’s idea of an apocalyptic future. The Terminator seems like the obvious nod, but developer Big Robot has a far wider range of media influences to call upon than that.

Films by Tarkovsky and David Lynch helped inspire the tone, backed by musical influences such as Boards of Canada and Tim Hecker. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was a book that played a significant role in the oppressive, bleak vibe of this barren world (thankfully, The Light Keeps Us Safe, while oppressive, is not as bleak as McCarthy’s book). In terms of how it looks, you can see quite quickly that Arkane’s Dishonored is a touchstone, especially in the strange machine structures design, but Jim Rossignol, head of Big Robot, also cites S.T.A.L.K.E.R. as another influence. Both can be felt in how the game looks and plays.

Certainly, the stealth is something of an inversion of Dishonored. Whereas the shadows were your friend there, here you’re literally hiding in plain sight by seeking the safety of brightly-lit areas. There is a need for sneaky stealth too, but the dark that normally helps hide you, is as much an enemy as the machines, and the only respite from the zap-happy tin terrors in the dark is to hide in or behind something and pray the threat wanders off instead of investigating your hiding spot. In the early hours, this is your key strategy. Your torch can ward off the machines temporarily, but wits and cunning are just as handy.

You and your flashlight against an army of murderbots in unending darkness may seem a tad unfair, and in truth, the odds are definitely in favor of those with circuitry, but that flashlight you carry is modular, and it can do some pretty remarkable things with light. In addition to fending off machines, the torch can be adapted to foil traps, open new areas, and discover hidden places that can only be seen in a certain light. There’s likely to be more to it than that as things progress, but so far it’s a fine amount of variety that shifts the current obstacles and challenges about fluidly, and the modular flashlight is a neatly-simplified way of carrying a toolkit full of abilities.

Even in its Early Access phase, The Light Keeps Us Safe is showing its talent for a tense game of Cat and Mouse. There’s a splendid sense of impending dread as you peer into the long, looming darkness, gauging how long it will take you to reach the safety of the next precious light source and the exhilaration of making it by the skin of your teeth is often almost euphoric. Even when you gain more means of fighting back the threats are leveled accordingly. If that remains the case throughout and any frustration is tempered, then this has real potential for longevity.

One tried and tested (and reviled in some corners of the internet) way to keep up longevity and dread is procedural generation and The Light Keeps Us Safe employs that to its map each time. With its strong visual design, there is not much dilution of identity caused by the procedural map and the dark and open nature of the game world means randomness is not all that intrusive to the experience. After all, you’re largely running blindly into the dark whatever the map is like.

Being Early Access, you’d expect some technical gripes and there’s definitely a few fixable issues. The frame rate can suffer occasionally but has been largely fairly stable. There are instances of textures not loading and some pop-up, but again, nothing out of the ordinary for a game in its nascent stages. To be honest, The Light Keeps Us Safe is one of the better examples of an Early Access game. The edges are a touch rough, yet largely, this is a polished affair already.

The base of it is much like any other survival game, though wisely, crafting is not a thing here, and that is going to be a problem for those exhausted by that genre, but the atmosphere of The Light Keeps Us Safe, and its focus on moment-to-moment survival, really helps it strengthen its identity. If it leaves Early Access with the focus in the right places (a stumbling block of many titles to go through the program) then The Light Keeps Us Safe could well be a long-term success. For now, it’s a refreshingly focused survival effort that brings new light to the fear of the dark.

Preview code provided by the publisher

The Light Keeps Us Safe is out now on Steam in Early Access.