[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.