Key design lessons devs can learn from The Church in the Darkness


Last month Paranoid Productions, led by veteran game designer Richard Rouse III released The Church in the Darkness. It’s a cult-infiltration game that procedurally shuffles the type of cult the player is sneaking into. The game will introduce new characters, environments, and important items based on the motivations of its two cult leaders voiced by Ellen Maclain and John Patrick Lowrie. 

Rouse, who’s spoken with Gamasutra before about his design inspirations, was able to discuss some of his lessons from the development of The Church in the Darkness on the GDC Twitch channel. For your convenience, we’ve appropriated a few notable lessons that may help developers working on their own stealth simulation games. 

If you’re curious about how to approach moral decision making in your game design, or the nature of designing replayability, read on for a few select tips that will help you in your work!

One of Rouse’s favorite design expressions is the concept of “choices per second.” It’s a phrase that refers to the number of available choices a player has at different moments in gameplay. It’s a concept meant to smart as small as “where can I immediately go at this moment,” to “what options do I have to survive this encounter?”

If you’re a designer interested in making games that are constantly tweaking the available choices per second a player has, you should probably know Rouse argued there’s one frequently-used tool that goes against this concept — the dialogue tree.

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“The most basic implementation [of dialogue trees,] is ‘here’s four options, press each one and you’ll eventually hear all the stuff,” said Rouse. “It feels very canned, it doesn’t feel like I can ask NPCs anything, which is what I want to do. When you’re wandering around this world as a player, you can go anywhere you want, you can go inside this building, you can go inside there, and there’s just a ton of choices all the time about what you’re doing.”

“Conversation trees limit that to a pretty small number of choices and that’s less interesting to me fundamentally.”

It’s notable that The Church in the Darkness has dialogue trees — they’re just squirreled away in safe havens, rest points where players aren’t in danger of being ambushed by desperate cult members. Rouse also explained that if you’re developing a run-driven game like The Church in the Darkness, you need to consider that dialogue trees are full of content that players may have already experienced on earlier runs. 

It’s why shortly after launch, he and his team quickly began patching in the ability to skip those cutscenes and cut the time between decision making for experienced players. Much of Rouse’s development choices on The Church in the Darkness gravitate around mixing up player choices, and why they’d want to make them in the first place. 

In theory, every game is replayable. Just finish the game, and start a new one, right? But what can designers do to make players want to try and play a game again?

The Church in the Darkness is structured around playing run after run. Rouse said there were two kinds of replayability on the team’s mind during development — narrative replayability and core gameplay reliability. “I feel like we do a better job with narrative replayability except for those moments I was just talking about in terms dialogue repeating [for repeat players] when it shouldn’t and stuff, things that are almost bugs,” he said.

“In terms of replayability, when you’re looking at a narrative, I like to say that in a lot of games that want you to replay for the narrative because you can make choices, get different endings. It’s less common for games to have a story that changes over time as we do. So often you play the game once the way you want to play it, make the narrative choices you want to make, and then the second time you’ll play the game how you don’t want to play it. And you’ll make the opposite of the choices you made before.”

Rouse also said that accounting for player failure and not just defaulting to a flat “game over” state offers ways to mix up that core replayability. He pointed out how the fact that the player gets captured in the game acts as a temporary stopgap against just resetting the game, and how even on a run with similar underlying elements, getting captured raises the stakes that may not have been there on a player’s previous run.

Cults are morally complex concepts. Many shroud themselves in trappings of spiritual enlightenment or social justice, but may still turn violent when narcissistic leadership collides with growing tension with society around them.

To properly examine them in a game format that pays tribute to stealth PC games from the ’90s, Rouse and his collaborators needed to think about what it would morally mean to infiltrate one of these cults. As Rouse put it, “I see the morality system as hopelessly intertwined between narrative and gameplay both, and you can’t really not talk about them both at the same time…Other games that are lovely but are different than this one will have more of a wrist slap for every bad thing that you do, right?”

“We definitely try balance that here, like if you get captured, you can break out and keep playing unless you have murdered a bunch of people in which case they kill you right away,” he said. “And that’s a wrist slap for having made that choice but it also makes a lot of sense, right? That they wouldn’t take a chance on you had you not done that, whereas if you do non-lethal takedowns, people get back up again in this game. “

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Rouse pointed out that the classic good-bad morality spectrum in games tends to align itself along player power. Games like BioShock, Knights of the Old Republic, and other video game morality tales tie efficiency to evil choices and reduced conflict to good choices. But The Church in the Darkness blurs those lines a little. Killing guards, as in many stealth games, is a way to keep the alarms off, but here it raises the stakes for players if they’re captured in more difficult sections.

“We definitely try balance that here, like if you get captured, you can break out and keep playing unless you have murdered a bunch of people in which case they kill you right away. And that’s a wrist slap for having made that choice but it also makes a lot of sense, right? That they wouldn’t take a chance on you had you not done that, whereas  if you do non-lethal takedowns, people get back up again in this game.”

Meaning players who choose not to kill the guards, but rather knock them out, still will face their own kind of difficulty. Sure, you’re being nicer to the computer AI, but it’s still going to come hunting for you after it gets back on its feet. 

For more insights on the making of The Church in the Darkness, you can watch the full conversation with Richard Rouse III down below. 



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