What is the story in Receiver about?

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July 28th, 2012

"They have been poisoning your mind through your media, lowering your natural defenses." -Receiver initiation tape.

In the spirit of open development, I have decided to talk in detail about various aspects of our game Receiver, starting with the story. This post contains spoilers, so if you intend to play the game or watch a playthough, you should do that before reading on. That way you can come to your own conclusions about what the story means to you (and also understand what I'm talking about).

The narrative for Receiver started out with a simple idea: what if the beliefs of a UFO doomsday cult turned out to be completely true?

My interest in cults started in the 1990's with a chain of dramatic events that left a big impression on me as a child. These include the Aum Shinrikyo nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, the Waco siege involving the Branch Davidians, and the mass suicide of the Heaven's Gate followers. It was amazing to me how organizations with such silly beliefs could turn out to be so deadly serious.

In Receiver, I wanted to explore what it would be like to be initiated into a cult. I have read a lot about cults and cult-like organizations, so I had a pretty good idea of where to start. The first idea is that you never feel like you are in a cult; instead, you are one of the chosen few. You have a special destiny, and you will use your magical powers and secret knowledge to overcome a great evil. Does that sound familiar? It should, if you have ever played a video game in the fantasy genre. I wanted the story to be appreciated on a few levels, and I thought this most basic level would be a good foundation to build on.

"Nobody joins a cult. Nobody joins something they think is going to hurt them. You join a religious organization, you join a political movement, and you join with people that you really like."
-Deborah Layton, Peoples Temple member

I wanted the Receiver cult to seem as real as possible, so they had to have a belief system that fit with the facts of the game (and fit in with Black Shades), and also included real concepts from religion, new age mysticism and survivalism. This belief system was the second layer of the story. Finally, the most important part of creating a believable cult was to use the actual methodologies of real cults. The Receiver cult in the game reflects Lifton's Eight Criteria for Thought Reform :

  1. Milieu Control. This involves the control of information and communication both within the environment and, ultimately, within the individual, resulting in a significant degree of isolation from society at large.

  2. Mystical Manipulation. The manipulation of experiences that appears spontaneous but is, in fact, planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to demonstrate divine authority, spiritual advancement, or some exceptional talent or insight that sets the leader and/or group apart from humanity, and that allows reinterpretation of historical events, scripture, and other experiences.

  3. Demand for Purity. The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection. The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here.

  4. Confession. Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group. There is no confidentiality; members' "sins," "attitudes," and "faults" are discussed and exploited by the leaders.

  5. Sacred Science. The group's doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute. Truth is not to be found outside the group. The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism.

  6. Loading the Language. The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand. This jargon consists of thought-terminating clich├ęs, which serve to alter members' thought processes to conform to the group's way of thinking.

  7. Doctrine over person. Member's personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.

  8. Dispensing of existence. The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. This is usually not literal but means that those in the outside world are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious and they must be converted to the group's ideology. If they do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the members. Thus, the outside world loses all credibility. In conjunction, should any member leave the group, he or she must be rejected also.

As you play the game you are exposed to a diluted form of these thought reform techniques with the goal of inducing a genuine religious experience. I was interested in the idea of trying to cause a religious experience for a few reasons. If we could do that in a game, then it would be proof that these techniques really do work, and It would allow people to reflect on the meaning of religious experiences and media control in general.

Judging from the comments I have read about Receiver's story, I think I achieved mixed results on that goal, and so the jury is still out on whether the game "works" as a religious artifact (if you are one of the few who heard and understood, you are a Receiver). On a broader level it seems like a lot of people found the story and ideas interesting, and felt it added to the atmosphere of the game, which is more than I could have hoped for. Especially for my first attempt at writing a complete game narrative, and my first try at voice acting!

Thanks again for playing the game! What did you think of Receiver's story?