I often struggle to follow—and rarely attempt to contribute to—conversations that veer into the nebulous realm of “gaming culture.” From my clumsy “Mario Kart” skills that cost me a middle school friendship to the non-committal nods I give in response to “Fortnite” references, it is safe to say that video games exist firmly outside of my comfort zone. Two months ago, my limited experience with video games heightened my surprise when I stumbled upon an interview in Paste Magazine while doing research for my independent study on New Religious Movements in America. The subject of the interview was Richard Rouse III, known for his book “Game Design: Theory and Practice” and for the game The Suffering. The article, entitled “Building A Believable Cult,” delves into Rouse’s upcoming project, a game called “The Church in the Darkness.”
The basic premise of the game replicates what the article calls “the cults of the 1970s.” Groups that spring to mind include The Peoples Temple in Jonestown, Guyana and the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, whose violent demises made major headlines in 1978 and 1993 respectively. These groups have also become nearly synonymous with their leaders. Jim Jones’ extreme paranoia and self-proclaimed messianic status and David Koresh’s “New Light” revelation, which raised concerns of sexual abuse within his community, haunt the American psyche long after these communities came to their tragic ends. “The Church in the Darkness” replicates the specific framework and imagery of The Peoples Temple. In doing so, Rouse’s game approaches this dark underbelly of American religion with a confounding duality—it is a seemingly reverent homage that cannot help but also become an utterly irreverent exploitation.
With the recent emergence of series such as “Wild, Wild Country” on Netflix and the demand for games like “The Church in the Darkness,” Americans seem to be returning to the cult experiences of the 1970s and 1990s with a kind of morbid fascination. That is to say, Rouse’s game mines a pre-existing vein. Yet placing the quasi-folkloric story of Jonestown within the virtual realm of the video game elevates the current curiosity. The increased agency of characters and complexity of narratives in games speak to a shift in the larger virtual market. Not only does there seem to be a desire for more realism in escapes from reality, but this escape is made within the dark crevices of the American past itself, and players are allowed to try out these alternate realities, and even to replicate their devastating consequences.
Rouse designed the game to be “full of randomization,” with many potential characters and perspectives from which to choose. Within this myriad of simulations is one in which, as the Paste interviewer rather bluntly puts it: “you [the player] are going to be the asshole.” Beyond challenging the often narrow assessments of the aftermath of Jonestown and Waco, Rouse’s game questions the fundamental policy of interfering with alternative, isolated communities, questioning the nature of the threat they pose to society. His game makes the player question, as the interviewer observed after playing a demo, whether “everything would have gone just fine if it wasn’t for your stupid meddling.” To this, Rouse responds eagerly: “I think most groups we would call cults are providing something positive to people at least at some point in their life,”?referencing yet another cult of the late 20th century, Heaven’s Gate, many of whose members performed an act of mass suicide in 1997.
“These people,” says Rouse, “would have found some other way to connect with people today. You can hear it in their voices: some of them would have just been very into fandom.”
Rouse’s interest in these groups, and the creation of the game “The Church in the Darkness” itself, precludes the relegation of these cults to the past, giving them an almost atemporal quality, an eternal appeal. These groups offered idyllic escapes from the pressures of reality, “before,” as Rouse acknowledges “anything catastrophic happens that negates all of that.” Today, the nature of video games is to offer a similar kind of escape. Rouse’s latest project seems to be an iteration of this format that is not only more interactive, but more interrogative of its own premise and significance in today’s society. Players can enter into an alternate universe that not only allows them to escape the reality of the present, but deeply question the reality of the American past.
Rouse concludes his interview with a curious assertion, especially considering the nuance he brings to the rest of the interview: “we’re […] less religious than we’ve ever been.” When I chanced upon this Paste article, it struck me as evidence of continued religiosity in our society, a reverence for the past and a creation of a safe haven—in this case, a virtual one—in which to entertain alternate ways of contemplating the world.
As such, I was left with several questions, many of which are guiding my own research. How do we define religion? How do we situate it within larger social structures while contending with it as a social structure in itself? What is it about alternative religious movements or ways of life that continues their relevance and appeal with the “specter[s]” of those failed attempts looming so large in American history? Rouse’s game, which comes out this year under the company title “Paranoid Productions” will no doubt cause further questions and hopefully prompt conversation about this seemingly taboo topic. I am fascinated to see the developments of the game and how it fits into the larger context of religion in the supposedly secular realm of modern America.