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Simulated Sincerity: Cult stereotypes come to light in new video game

October 12, 2018

This piece represents the opinion of the author.
Sydney Reaper

While struggling to think of a topic for this week’s article that would be neither an emotionally draining nor a repetitive account of the Kavanaugh hearings, I was directed by YouTube’s “recommended for you” algorithm to a video published on September 26 by “Plebs Play,” a podcast which tests up-and-coming video games. Becky, who goes by the moniker “Dr. Gamerknitz,” runs the podcast with Matt “ChromeSDK” (don’t ask, I don’t know). She chooses in this particular video to test none other than “The Church in the Darkness,” the game I analyzed in my first article.

After relative radio silence on the game’s development and interviews with Richard Rouse III only as recent as April, this video emerged from similar obscurity—I was the seventh viewer. I thought that watching a simulation of the game rather than simply reading about one would be fascinating, but the reactions of players themselves along with the double voyeurism of watching someone watch their own demise within a virtual cult deepened my growing concerns for a commodification of such a contentious chapter of American history.

Becky’s co-host Matt begins by lamenting the difficulty of the game’s title, calling it “The Church of Darkness” as opposed to “The Church in the Darkness.” This didn’t strike me as particularly notable until Matt explained: “there is a difference, because ‘Church of Darkness’ would be like referring to, like, a Satanist type of thing, where this is a cult.” The subtle juxtaposition of a “Satanist type of thing,” demonized and alien, and a “cult” is significant given Richard Rouse III’s own agenda behind the creation of “The Church in the Darkness.”

In my first article, I examined an Paste magazine interview in which Rouse advocates for a revised understanding of such “cults” as well-meaning escapes from a harsh reality; just “some little group of people still hanging out on their own somewhere.” The distinction between the community in the game and “the Devil’s work,” as Becky jokingly puts it, seems to confirm this sympathetic attitude as the driving force of Rouse’s game. However, a close examination of the game specifics through Becky’s video reveals a more insidious, perhaps unconscious, effect perpetuated by Rouse’s simulation.

To my great surprise and even greater dismay, the reality of Rouse’s game contradicts the lofty agenda he advocates. I maintain my assertion that his attitude towards alternative religious communities runs the risk of dangerously simplifying a complex and sensitive component of American society, but after watching someone play the game, it became clear to me that the simplification actually cuts the other way. Rouse’s depiction of “Freedom Town” is not one of a well-meaning utopia, but instead relies on the very mythologies of monstrous cults that Rouse critiques and is nearly impossible for the player to actually engage with.

The game starts out with the proviso: “The Church in the Darkness has a story that can start numerous different ways. Based on the way you play and the choices you make, many different endings are possible.” However, as is evident from Becky’s average playing time of one or two minutes before she is captured or killed, the game, like the community, proves nearly impenetrable. The decision to use the framework of Jonestown for the basis of “The Church in the Darkness” is fraught enough, but Rouse seemingly justified this by referencing his larger agenda of reshaping the American attitude towards alternative religions and ways of life. Unfortunately, the reality of his game—with its questionable additions of out-of-place Cuban flags, racially stereotyped characters and an impenetrable jungle—does just the opposite.

A loudspeaker blasts the beliefs of cult leaders Isaac and Rebecca throughout the game, including phrases like “no life at all would be better than a life of American hypocrisy.” While the actual ideology of the cult is entirely ignored by Becky and Matt, it remains incredibly disturbing to the trained ear. In fact, their ignorance raises an even more pressing issue: how many players will really recognize or appreciate the historical references this game so casually integrates into its narrative?

I’m not questioning the intelligence of players, merely suggesting that a gun-driven adventure game is perhaps not the best platform to explore the subtleties of alternative cultural and religious systems. Moreover, a game that is designed to be incredibly difficult and fast-moving makes it difficult for even the most attentive player to experience its potential nuances. For Becky, who makes daily videos and weekly podcasts specifically discussing and experiencing virtual gaming, even the beginner setting of “The Church in the Darkness” proved difficult. Out of her approximate eight tries within the simulation, she successfully connected with sympathizers in the community once or twice and was immediately shot afterwards on both occasions.

Rouse explains defensively, “my cult … [is] very welcoming. They’re pro-LGBTQ, they’re very leftist, they’re against the US government.” While some letters—skimmed only briefly by Becky in the course of her playing—revealed some socialist sympathies and spoke of a vague sense of “equality,” in most interactions community members were heavily armed and quickly subdued the “infiltrator” for torture or killed them on site. From the target range practice by the Rajneeshees documented in this year’s series “Wild Wild Country” to the sawed-off shotguns that prompted the BATF/FBI raid on the Branch Davidians in 1993, Rouse’s game smacks of stereotypes and does little to advance his argument that he is providing an outlet for those captivated by the allure of trying “something else,” an alternative to the “disenchantment” he claims is plaguing American gaming youth.

Fundamentally, a game that hinges on the player’s own investment in the narrative cannot support the degree of ambition and nuance for which Rouse seems to be striving. The difference between “The Church in the Darkness” and “The Church of Darkness,” the mistake made by Matt, is not simply a distinction between semi-acceptable cult activity and horrifying Satanism. More interestingly, the functioning of “darkness” as a descriptor for the surrounding environment rather than for the church itself implies external forces of corruption affecting an otherwise mild and isolated community as opposed to a community that is itself born of “darkness.” Yet, Rouse’s own reliance on reductive stereotypes and the fabrication of the game itself suggest that the question of cult emergence and alternative religious movements is more complicated than an examination of outside influence on an unwitting, pure community.

Instead, the darkness permeates both internal and external factors of community and identity construction against the backdrop of an “alternative way of life.” ?While the release date of “The Church in the Darkness” is still unknown, my concerns for and intrigue in its eventual integration into the public market are mounting.

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