In a digitally constructed narratives, it’s hard to avoid going over the top. It's just as easy--maybe even easier--to create fantastical creatures, abilities, and characters as it is to create realistic things. Is there any advantage in going for something down-to-earth instead of something otherworldly?
The Church in the Darkness, set in the 1970’s, tells the story of Vic, an ex-cop infiltrating the South American compound of Freedom Town in search of his sister’s son. Freedom Town is run by Rebecca and Isaac Walker, who built the compound to be a socialist Utopia—but their ultimate goals may be different. What's more, those goals will differ profoundly for each player.
The Walkers' motivations, their plans, and the key players in their cult will change with every play through. Sometimes they might simply be starry-eyed idealists. Other times, they might be preparing for their own personal apocalypse.
Rouse is a fan of otherworldly settings and characters for video games, but The Church in the Darkness, he began thinking about what kind of setting would work well for the sort of narrative storylines he liked to explore. The setting of an isolated cult encampment was a perfect playground for a dynamic narrative.
“I had that setting floating around, and another piece of inspiration was wanting to do something with a narrative that changed every time you played,” says Rouse, “not just because of choices, but because of narrative elements changing every time.”
And real-world cults, especially those that made headlines in the 1970’s, when Church in the Darkness takes place, had natural stories to draw on.
“Dark things happened with some of these cults—bad outcomes, laws broken, people dying," he says. "But there’s a lot of groups that sound very similar, but that didn’t end in death and destruction. Could that be an interesting setting for a story that changes every time you play?”
These different storylines, by the way, aren’t necessarily generated through players successfully completing the game over and over again. The game has a permadeath system, and Rouse says that system doesn’t just send players back to the start of the current story--it resets the whole world state, creating a new set of narrative circumstances for the player to deal with.
Branching game narratives have traditionally required branching dialogue trees. On an indie budget, building these with full voiceover and related animations can be a gigantic challenge. But Rouse’s cult compound setting gave him another inspiration: use loudspeaker announcements from the cult leaders as the major tool for exposition.
Rouse says this method of storytelling, where cult leaders Rebecca and Isaac Walker are broadcasting messages to the entire game world, draws from the setting and lets storytelling occur naturally while players focus on exploration and problem-solving. “I love playing a game at my own pace, and getting narrative at another layer at the same time," he says. "It's not narrative time, then gameplay time, then narrative time, then gameplay time--it's all part of the continuum.”
Rouse says that players will find notes and physical objects that they can pull narrative clues from. These clues to help players understand why the various cult members have come to the South American jungle. But he stresses that these “notes and clues” differ from similar items in games like Bioshock, Shadow of Mordor, or Dead Space.
In those games, Rouse notes, clues and audio logs help to convey information about the past, and give a fuller picture of how the game world ended up in that state it's in when the player encounters it. But In Church in the Darkness, Rouse and his team use the clues--which shift from playthrough to playthrough--to give players clues about their present predicament, and what kind of cult leaders they’re dealing with right now.
To get the trappings of the cult correct, Rouse first had to consider the dark edge to his real world inspirations. After all, many of these communities ended in tragedy, but Rouse says that's only a reason to look for more humanity in all the characters.
"I think the key to dealing with that kind of dark subject matter is having respect for the real world events," he says. "Not just using them to create sensation - doing enough research that you see more than one side of the story."
"It also comes down to respecting all of the characters, not just the main character/hero."
And for The Church in the Darkness, those other characters include the dogmatic (and potentially villainous) leaders, the Walkers. Rouse and his team turned to a real-life married couple for assistance: veteran voice actors Ellen McLain and John Patrick Lowrie. They’re most known for their work in Valve games--Glados in Portal and the Sniper in Team Fortress 2, respectively. Rouse, having known the couple for years and seen their work in theatre performances, brought them on very early in the design process to help build the characters of the Walkers.
Rouse describes a different process then ones he’s used for previous VO projects. He let Lowrie and McLain help shape the characters they’d be inhabiting in the recording room. “Your traditional voiceover situation is one where the designer works on the game, preps a big script, then sends it to the actor the day before the session, then the voice actor shows up and does their best on the day,” says Rouse.
“But because John and Ellen were involved in the very first discussions, and we would go over early scripts I had before the recording session, they knew everything.”
It’s another argument for rooting game design in real-world elements, where Rouse can pull from the personal relationship of McLain and Lowrie to help players understand the context of a given scenario——or fool them into making mistakes based on misleading information.