The year was 1978. After years of amassing followers and relocating to Guyana, Jim Jones would lead his followers to one final, far-off country: the grave. Nine hundred and nine would drink cyanide-laced flavored water on November 18th of that year as a show of loyalty to a man claiming to be a messenger of God. Nearly forty years later, Richard Rouse III announced that his upcoming title, The Church in the Darkness, would send players into the heart of an isolationist cult, deep in the jungles of South America… not unlike The People’s Temple in Guyana, or as it is more commonly know: Jonestown. This is our The Church in the Darkness review for PC.
This review is a bit personal for me. While I am a reviewer, I am a pastor first. If you have seen my other work here at GameSpace, it is no secret. For the sake of your time and interests, I am going to separate out the main review of the game from my personal thoughts. However, I will share both for those who dare to dive a bit deeper.
The game opens with text to let you, the player, know that it is 1967. During this year, the Collective Justice Mission has been established in Oakland, California by Isaac and Rebecca Walker. Their message of equality, socialism, and integration sparks revolution in the hearts of the people who hear their message and are tired of the status quo. As more followers are drawn to their message, the Walkers move the mission to South America in order to live out their faith, unhindered and unharassed by the outside world. Building a commune of the backs of their truest believers, Freedom Town is born as a symbol of the freedoms they claim America never afforded them.
Nine years into this religious expression, communication between family members in the Mission and the States dissipated, leaving families to wonder just what is happening in Freedom Town.
And this is where you come in.
In The Church in the Darkness, you play as Vic – which, cleverly could be short for Victor or Victoria – you get to choose. At the beginning of each game, you choose your skin tone and gender. From this choice, you will discover that your nephew Alex has been a member of the Collective Justice Mission and residing Freedom Town. With little to no news to go on, your sister begs you to use your skills as an ex-law enforcement officer to infiltrate the camp, locate Alex, and convince him to come home with you… if he is willing.
Along the way, you will discover more and more about the Walkers and the Mission through their compound-wide radio messages, hidden clues scattered about, and through interacting with the residents of Freedom Town who may not be too keen on sticking around for much longer.
The Church in the Darkness plays much like a classic Metal Gear game. Stealth movement can get you where you need to go, but this cult is highly suspicious of outsiders. Find disguises, throw rocks to misdirect, hide in cabinets, and avoid the gaze of guards to achieve your goal to reach Alex.
How you execute that mission is up to you – both metaphorically and literally speaking. If you want to run through, guns blazing, you are welcome to do just that – including abducting Alex. If you want to take a more subtle, non-violent approach, that, too, is welcome. But, be warned: the mercies you extend may be repaid to you in turn.
That’s right: if you get caught and your actions have been violently adversarial, you could be executed with extreme prejudice. However, if you have taken a non-lethal approach, you will be extended some grace in the form of a second chance. Maybe.
These action-based outcomes don’t stop there; with play, the personalities of the preachers will shift, opening up the possibilities of nineteen endings. Not only that but with each play through, you will be given the opportunity to experience a different personality of the preachers than you did in the previous session. You will also start with a new insertion point, the potential of new items unlocked, and members of the Mission to interact with. If you want a greater challenge, there are four levels of difficulty. Each level of difficulty will limit just how much of the field of vision you can see and the amount to time it is revealed to you.
You do have a choice on PC to use either mouse and keyboard or a gamepad, but the gamepad layout for The Church in the Darkness takes a little bit of time to get used. Takedowns are located on completely different portions of the controller (lethal actions on a bumper with non-lethal on the front-facing buttons) and there is a glaring omission: the is no button for crouching. With no ability to edit gamepad controls, you are left with the choice of not crouching (the mechanic which allows you to see field of vision) or the use the mouse and keyboard. Hopefully, this omission is not present on the console releases.
This issue aside, The Church in the Darkness handles their design of the cult very well. With real-life husband and wife team voicing the Walkers, John Patrick Lowrie (Sniper, Team Fortress 2) and Ellen McLain (GlaDOS in Portal) bring their musical offerings into the mix with their charismatic conviction, making this dynamic power couple even more alluring.
With all of that said, it’s time to dig in a little deeper.
Beyond The Pale: Digging into the Cultic Nature of The Collective Justice Mission
Since everyone has differing religious upbringings and experiences (or lack thereof), it is imperative that words or terms are clearly defined. This way, we are all talking in the same language about the same things. While I covered some of this information in my Far Cry 5 article The Pastor Versus The Father, it is worth covering this ground again.
What is a cult?
In 1981, Dr. Robert Jay Lifton wrote an entry in The Harvard Mental Health Letter (Vol. 7, Num 8 – February 1981), defining three major characteristics of a cult:
- A charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship as a general principle that may have originally sustained the group (from) lose(ing) their power
- A process (of) coercive persuasion or thought reform;
- Economic, sexual, and other exploitation of the group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.
Within these structures, we see individuality is rejected for the greater collective, manipulation takes place by manufacturing spiritual experiences, and a demand for total transparency from acolytes while leaders live in veiled mystery. Often times, these groups begin as an offshoot of from a generally accepted system of belief – known in theological circles as the “pale of orthodoxy.”
In the case of The Church in the Darkness, the Walkers preach a message that has ties to Christianity, but bastardize the Bible by removing context, cherrypick references to fit their politically-charged message. Much like a modern-day cult, there is an exclusivity to their claims that is unsubstantiated by their source material, but when confronted about the discrepancies, claims of some new or special revelation are often given as a defense. Interestingly, at some point, Isaac Walker can be heard declaring his disdain for people who would twist Jesus’ teachings, insinuating that all other preachers are biblically illiterate.
The crafting of the Collective Justice mission touches on each one of Lifton’s points to varying degrees. As the faces and voices of the Mission, “devotional” prayer cards with the Walkers visage can be found throughout Freedom Town. They are the icon, an object of worship – hitting point #1. The Walkers practice public discipline of members who have “strayed from the path” (#2) – using people as cautionary examples as well as convincing those being tortured or abused that this is “God’s path to redemption” – they are “worthy” of such attention. While exploitation takes place in the form of farming, construction, and upkeep, labor is seen as a form of worship as well (#3). There are allusions that there may also be some sexual misconduct by the leaders. In some playthroughs, the devotional cards have the pictures of the Walkers scratched up with words like “harlot” and “adulterer” etched into them.
How is it that two people could start in such a good place and have such good intentions, but go so terribly wrong?
While the Walkers are fictional characters, the time period The Church in the Darkness is set in is not. It would be an understatement to say that it was a powder keg of social issues. From the Civil Rights movement to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the fallout from the Vietnam War, the American church had a number to wrestle with and reconcile.
For the Collective Justice Mission, I imagine that their anti-establishment message felt justified in the face of injustice. After all, God is a God of perfect justice, right? People could rally behind a message like that in their angst toward society. Yet, the message of Jesus was never a political one in the sense that people for the past two thousand years have tried to make it… though many would (and still do) try to rally followers around it. One of the authors of the New Testament would admonish a young pastor named Timothy that there would be people who would gather around them teachers who would say things that “their itching ears longed to hear.”
At the end of the day, fidelity and accountability to the message, preaching what the Bible actually says, not what we want it to say, can keep preachers (like myself) in check, but it is imperative for the listener to search the source material as well.
Oh, and don’t think I didn’t catch that Isaac and Rebekah reference, Richard. Well done.
The Church in the Darkness send you creeping into the heart of the South American jungle to uncover the mysteries of a cult, the lure of their message, and the status of your nephew. As a stealth game with multiple endings and difficulties as well as the opportunity to select both gender and ethnicity, it allows players a high degree of accessibility to the experience. While there are some issues with the controls, The Church in the Darkness is a pretty satisfying stealth infiltration game to play however you like… but how will you be received?
Will The Collective Justice Mission welcome you with the love of Jesus or is God the only one in this camp who will have mercy on your wretched soul?
COMPARE TO: Metal Gear, Splinter Cell