"You're sort of buying a lottery ticket," the game developer Richard Rouse recently told me while explaining the mindset of trying to make an indie game after spending many years doing big budget stuff for Microsoft, Ubisoft and others. "It might be really successful," he said. "I certainly hope it is. But you shouldn't go into this betting on that."
Rouse's new game, the murkily titled The Church In The Darkness, is a gamble. No one has done it before, so no one knows what the potential is for a game about infiltrating a religious cult in a South American jungle in the late 1970s. No one knows what the potential is for an action-infiltration game, for a throwback to one of Rouse's old favourites, Castle Wolfenstein, with the twist of having a malleable story.
He's done big game studio work before on series such as Rainbow Six and The Suffering, but his cult game was going to have to be indie. It's not a big-publisher kind of game.
"People don't want to go out on a limb with something that is maybe going to offend someone," he said. "I wouldn't even propose a game like this with a $50 million budget. Because, will this sell 8 million copies? Probably not. But will it sell 100,000 copies? Hopefully." Hopefully The Church In The Darkness will also be as interesting in its finished state next year as it seemed when Rouse showed it to me last month in San Francisco.
You play the game from a bird's eye view, controlling a person named Vic. It's the late 1970s, and you've headed down to a jungle in South America to infiltrate Freedom Town, a compound set up by the Collective Justice Mission cult, a group that Rouse says is "progressive with a slightly militant bent". Your nephew, Alex, has joined the cult, but relatives in the US want him back. You will sneak in, dodge guards, don disguises, collect useful items, choose to knock people out or kill them, all as you try to figure out what the deal is with the cult and how to get Alex out.
"You can go through the whole game without killing anybody," Rouse said. "That's really important to me, giving the player choice to look at the situation and make the choices they want and not always be killing folks."
Rouse has been thinking about making this game for a long time. He told me he's been fascinated by cults for years. He is intrigued by their leaders, these highly charismatic people who could convince people to do things. He's also aware of cults' seductive appeal. Many cropped up in the '70s, objecting to the Vietnam War, promoting self-betterment, getting members off drugs and onto a better path. "It all sounds good and then it goes horribly wrong," Rouse said. "It's interesting to chart why that happens. But then, as I researched, the more I found lots of groups where that didn't happen... where things didn't blow up."
Rouse is also a big fan of interactive narrative and the idea that the same game can tell different kinds of stories. That interest synced well to his fascination with cults as his research revealed how differently things can go. People know Jonestown, the 1978 mass suicide/poisoning that killed some 900 cult devotees in Guyana. They may not know about the Source family, a cult chronicled in a 2012 documentary and whose leader eventually renounced his own teachings before dying in a hang gliding accident.
The cult in The Church In The Darkness can run the gamut, from simply peaceful and isolationist to apocalyptic and menacing. Players won't know which it is when they begin infiltrating the jungle compound to get their nephew back. That ignorance is a crucial dynamic, since players will need to watch for clues about the cult's nature.
"I don't want it to be that any one element is a complete tell," Rouse said. "They might have a bloody whipping post but everything else is positive." Yes, a whipping post might not instantly signify that the cult is bad. Rouse reasons that even a relatively well-meaning cult leader in a jungle might not have a better option than public corporal punishment to get a malcontent in line and back to farming or whatever other jobs the compound needs done. Not ideal, of course!
In a playthrough that Rouse took me through, we saw a whipping post, yes, but Rouse said it was "not the gnarliest whipping post" that could appear in the game. We saw a basketball hoop that he said is usually complemented by a loudspeaker message from cult leader and basketball fan Isaac Walker thanking people for setting it up. A grimmer playthrough might show the hoop covered in graffiti.
"There's lots of little subtle changes," Rouse explained. They aren't just in the decor of the game but in how it plays. Meaner cults will have more aggressive guards. Loot such as health items, weapons and guard-distracting alarm clocks, might be distributed differently. Each playthrough should last a sitting or two, and each should feel different.
The game's story and its endings will change, too, reflecting the consequences of the actions you chose amid whatever version of the cult the game set up. "You might rescue Alex and then leave the camp but then find out that something terrible happened after you left," Rouse said. "If you realise that ahead of time, you can try to find the leaders and take them out. But if you go in and kill them and they were just socialists living in the jungle happily, you're the arsehole. You're sort of fulfilling their worst fears."
Rouse is working on the game full-time with about 15 other developers, musicians and artists contributing part-time. He plans to release it on PC, Mac, PS4 and Xbox One. He's targeting early 2017 to see how his lottery ticket plays out.