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Richard Rouse III shows off The Church in the Darkness at his booth on the sixth floor of PAX West 2018. (Thomas Wilde Photo)

The Church in the Darkness, a game from Seattle-based Paranoid Productions that took nearly five years to develop, is a difficult and often unfair stealth/suspense thriller with a heavy dose of potentially controversial historical fiction and a steep initial learning curve. In an industry full of games — even indie games — that are carefully crafted from the ground up for mass-market appeal, Church feels like it’s got a target demographic that consists of maybe three people, all of whom were probably on the dev team.

If you can get past Church’s rough first hour, though, and figure out how to work within its systems, it turns into a weirdly addictive sandbox. I can’t blame anyone who puts it down before that point, as Church really does have a problem with making a poor first impression. But it’s worth sticking with.

“When I was starting out, people said, ‘You should make a simpler game than this,’ and they weren’t wrong,” Richard Rouse III, the game’s director, said in an interview. “I’ve seen indie stories where someone says they have to ship something in a year. They don’t make the game they really want to make; they make something else that they think someone else wants. Maybe it succeeds, but they’re still not doing what they wanted to do.

“If people go indie, I’ve found, there are two main reasons,” he continued. “One is they really want to be their own boss, run their own business, control their destiny that way. Others really want to make a specific game or type of game that they’re not able to make somewhere else. I’m in the second camp.”

Rouse previously worked at Surreal Software, Midway, Ubisoft, and Microsoft, with projects that include Microsoft’s State of Decay and Sunset Overdrive, and the 2004 cult-favorite horror game The Suffering.

He originally started Paranoid Productions in 1994, when it shipped his first two games, Odyssey: The Legend of Nemesis and Damage Incorporated, for the PC. Rouse would spend the next 20 years working as a designer and creative director for several other studios, before bringing Paranoid Productions back as an indie studio to develop and publish The Church in the Darkness.

Rouse has a lot of credits on The Church in the Darkness, including writing and programming, but the game also has a surprisingly deep bench of additional contributors. In particular, it features a strong lineup of well-known video game writers, including Chris Avellone (Planescape: Torment, Fallout: New Vegas, Pillars of Eternity), Marc Laidlaw (Half-Life), Steve Meretzky, and Brenda Romero (Jagged Alliance, Wizardry 8, the forthcoming Empire of Sin), with stellar voice acting from John Patrick Lowrie (the Sniper in Team Fortress 2, Halo 3), Ellen McLain (GlaDOS in Portal 2), and Arif Kinchen (Saints’ Row, Mafia III).

The game ($19.99, available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and Steam) is set in South America in 1977. Isaac and Rebecca Walker (Lowrie and McLain), the leaders of a Christian socialist movement called the Collective Justice Mission, have gone into self-imposed exile from the U.S., following multiple death threats and a few FBI raids on similar organizations. For the last two years, they and their followers have been building a village called Freedom Town out in the middle of the jungle.

You play as Vic, an ex-cop, whose gender and race you pick at the start of a new game. Your estranged sister Stella asks you to check up on her son Alex (Kinchen), a member of the Walkers’ congregation, who hasn’t spoken with Stella in 18 months. The Mission has a bad reputation in the United States, so you head south to check on Alex.

When you arrive, the people of Freedom Town are (somewhat justifiably) paranoid, well-armed, shooting strangers on sight, censoring the cult members’ mail, and aren’t letting anyone leave. Your first goal is to infiltrate the village, find Alex, and figure out what to do next.

It’s not that The Church in the Darkness has a big plot twist at this point, but rather, that it can have several. There are a few constants in its plot — the village is always well-guarded, your first goal is always to find and talk to Alex, and Freedom Town’s layout is always the same — but everything else can and does change between runs through the game. This includes the Walkers’ motivations, Alex’s attitude towards the cult, the Mission members opinion of the Walkers, and the general mood of Freedom Town itself.

Almost the entire plot can be different every time you play the game. Alex might be glad to see you, angry that you’ve fought your way towards him, or demanding that you leave him alone. You may luck out and get an Isaac and Rebecca who are every bit the peaceful well-meaning hippies they want you to believe they are, or end up with a game where one or both of them have gone mad with power. Freedom Town might be a peaceful well-armed enclave of happy farmers on one playthrough, and on the next, the cultists are stoning one another to death for fun and Alex will beg you to get him out of there.

You also have the option of acting to destabilize Freedom Town yourself, by shooting your way through the village or assassinating major NPCs. Almost every major character can die in the game, with a variety of potentially devastating domino effects.

As a result, the game’s tone moves around a lot between runs, ranging from suspense to tragedy to a revenge drama. At its most tense, it slowly builds a sense of dread as you stumble across incriminating documents, strange iconography, and bizarre events on the outskirts of the map. On every run, Isaac and Rebecca constantly broadcast sermons, prayers, and announcements through the village’s PA system, which can sound like anything from a couple of unnecessarily cheerful summer camp counselors to a couple of harbingers of the apocalypse.

What gives the game that extra tinge of creepy authenticity is that both Isaac and Rebecca, as they rant, will bring up multiple real-world incidents to justify their withdrawal from American society, such as the death of Fred Hampton or Henry Kissinger bombing Cambodia. The Walkers are usually going to at least one radical extreme on most of the story paths I’ve seen, but a lot of the time, you can actually see their point.

“I’m a fan of really dark subject matter,” Rouse said. “But I’m also a fan of real subject matter. I pushed the dial all the way to real-world horror because everything in here is supposed to feel like it could really happen, even if it’s exaggerated a little bit to make it condensed and interesting. Everything in here is supposed to be plausible. Long ago, I did a game called Damage Incorporated, my second game, which was set in a military unit that was dealing with domestic terrorism. That was set in the real world, and I wanted to get back to something that didn’t need to be gory or unrealistic to be horror.”

Once you manage to complete the game a couple of times, you also unlock more possible NPCs to appear in town and more options for your starting arsenal, which eases your way through the admittedly repetitive opening minutes. There are 19 possible endings, based on which version of the characters you get at the start of the game and the actions you take in response. From start to finish, a single run through Church can last anywhere from a few minutes to an hour, depending on what you do, the locations of your goals in the village, and the path you take.

This is where the aforementioned learning curve kicks in, though. The Church in the Darkness feels a lot like you’re playing another stealth- or infiltration-focused game — Dishonored, Thief, Hitman, etc. — at a deliberate handicap. The combat is lethal, costly, and best treated as a last resort, but sneaking around the village is almost as difficult.

“When you do play Dishonored, it’s very fixed,” Rouse said. “A game like Hitman is meant to be replayed, but it’s sort of like replaying a puzzle. This is more about a dynamic system you’re interacting with, versus something where the level designer placed everything exactly in the right place, and now you should figure out the optimal path they had in mind. That’s a factor of making The Church in the Darkness replayable; if you’re going to make something replayable, it can’t be as authored predictably every time.”

Because of that lack of predictability, there’s no simple way forward in Church in the Darkness. The minute-to-minute gameplay can be grueling, as you have to carefully find a way around, past, or through every cultist you encounter. You can create distractions or find disguises to make things easier, but even after some practice, you’re still always perched on a razor’s edge. Some areas can be almost impossible to get through without violence or using up a lot of resources, and all it takes is one wrong move and the whole village will take up arms against you.

You only get one save file per run, which automatically tracks your progress as you go, so you can’t “save-scum” your way through the game. When you screw up, you have to either start over or quickly improvise a way out, and due to the sheer number of cultists in Freedom Town, trying to run and hide from a guard is an easy way to end up in more trouble than you were in when you started. I’ve had more than a few runs that went from a promising trip to a particularly violent Mardi Gras parade, because a cultist suddenly spotted me and in my attempts to find cover, I just kept running into and alerting more of them. I’m thinking about redubbing it with the “Benny Hill” theme and uploading it somewhere.

As I said in the introduction, I don’t blame anyone who picks this game up, runs through a couple of grueling failed attempts, and immediately puts it back down. If you stick it out, though, and get a couple of the easier endings, you eventually start to unlock more and better resources, like a tranquilizer gun and a higher-quality disguise, which makes future progress faster and easier.

For me, that opening hour was a vicious series of compound failures that made me want to do anything else, but eventually, I did get comfortable enough to start deliberately messing with the game’s systems. That’s where The Church in the Darkness really shines, as you start to get into the story’s weirder and more elaborate routes. According to Rouse, it always stays roughly grounded in reality — there is no special ending where, say, the Walkers summon a Lovecraftian nightmare — but it can take some dark turns nonetheless.

That opening hour makes it hard for me to give The Church in the Darkness an unqualified recommendation. There’s a lot going for it once you figure it out, most of which has to do with its deft writing and design, but it can be a tough game to learn. Once you do, it has a weirdly addictive quality that makes it easy to pick up and play, with a lot of new things to discover about its story and environment.

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