Of our studies it is impossible to speak, since they held so slight a connection with anything of the world as living men conceive it. The cosmos of our waking knowledge, born from such an universe as a bubble is born from the pipe of a jester, touches it only as such a bubble may touch its sardonic source when sucked back by the jester’s whim. Men of learning suspect it little and ignore it mostly. Wise men have interpreted dreams, and the gods have laughed.
– H.P. Lovecraft
“The following is a contributor post by the Sometimes Vaguely Philosophical Mage.”
Cultist Simulator is a game about the unknown, about the inability of the human mind to correlate all of its contents (the most merciful thing in the world, as Lovecraft said), about darkness begetting darkness, and also sometimes about achingly normal problems like running out of cash. It is a very peculiar game in many ways, and one that I suspect I will find rather difficult to adequately describe (I am, in fact, cautious of describing it too thoroughly, lest I go mad from the revelation), but I shall do my best.
On the surface, Cultist Simulator is a video game about a tabletop card game. It’s also a deeply narrative-driven game about starting a cult, although I find the actual ‘cultist’ element takes something of a backseat once you’ve passed that milestone, and about discovering ever more eldritch truths in a sort of alternate-universe-1920s-Gothic-maybe-London. Its aesthetic is easily compared to the previous works of its creator, Alexis Kennedy: Cultist Simulator is, as far as I can tell, the first creation from a microstudio of sorts by the name of Weather Factory, founded by Kennedy and Lottie Bevan, but Kennedy’s got form, having also created Fallen London and Sunless Sea with previous studio Failbetter Games (of which he was also a founding member). Failbetter describe themselves on their website as ‘purveyors of only the finest examples of interactive narrative’, and the Fallen London setting as ‘a dark and hilarious Victorian-Gothic underworld’, and it’s immediately clear from the first few moments with Cultist Simulator that it aspires to similar themes, at least judging by appearances. It boasts a consistently atmospheric air of the Gothic noir in its UI and visual design, and the mountains of flavour text you’ll stumble across are endlessly intriguing, yet filled with whimsy and a sort of humbly-mundane-in-the-face-of-the-eldritch humour.
Playing the game goes something like this: you have several actions, or verb cards, available on your table (you’ll start off with just one or two, with more either unlocking permanently or flitting in and out of existence as you progress). You also have numerous cards which relate to objects, people, books, concepts, places – things, in short: nouns – and combining these object cards with action cards will cause something to happen. For example, you have a ‘work’ action. Combining this with a ‘health’ card will cause you to work a menial, back-breaking job; a ‘reason’ card will make you work dull administration far beyond the point of tedium; a particular job card will of course involve working at that job.
These will yield rewards in the form of new cards: funds, promotions, afflictions of the mind or the body, and occasionally special and transient cards whose purposes may be intensely, deliberately opaque. These actions take time, so you’ll often find your table filled with actions just ticking down the seconds until completion, a sight that can lend itself to drive and focus or to distraction and madness. It’s also worth noting that whatever object, concept, or resource you might devote to an action will most likely be exhausted, transformed, or temporarily disabled by the effort: you may find that sparks of inspiration have ascended into something more tangible, or that your reason has become dimmed and won’t function for a time. As with any experiment in Cultist Simulator, the results of your actions may help further your goal, or they may be the end of you.
The meat (and delicious tentacley meat it is too) of the gameplay therefore revolves around combining cards in various ways to yield ever more interesting results, which will initially be an unpredictable and confounding affair but which gradually becomes more intuitive as you come to learn which things are likely to produce which other things. You’ll need to carefully manage vital resources like health and funds, or meet your end in an ignoble and crushingly unspectacular fashion, while also developing more unique cards like lore scraps and new acquaintances into something you can use to gain power, or knowledge of higher truths.
It’s tricky enough managing these valuable cards in a more-or-less closed system, where you can gradually unravel the arcane nature of your actions and begin to predict (if not with certainty) what will result from certain combinations, but just to throw an additional spanner in the works, there are unpredictable events which will just sort of happen. A new acquaintance might reveal themselves; a pleasant or unpleasant day might affect your mental state; an adversary might start to develop evidence against you. Keeping track of the necessary inventory of resources while also maintaining a defence against these surprise turns becomes an exercise in luck as much as in smart resource management.
Some of the things that will pop up to haunt you, by the way, will be the creation of people who backed the game on Kickstarter. Among this number is a woman called Poppy Lascelles, who has ended my game more than once and who is the brainchild of Alice Bell (current editor of VideoGamer.com, although I understand she’ll have moved on to new ventures possibly even by the time this article goes up, and a personal friend of mine from a previous job). So… thanks, Alice. I don’t know how many more of the people and items I’ve stumbled across have been contributed by Kickstarter backers, but Alexis Kennedy has certainly worked hard to make sure that every element of the game is woven into his tightly-written oeuvre, so unless you were looking for one you’d never realise it was anything other than straight-up Kennedyism.
So what actually happens over the course of all this action-combining, resource-managing, problem-solving gameplay? Well… I’m not entirely sure. I’ve played quite a lot of Cultist Simulator now and I don’t think I can ‘sum up the story’, as it were. I think that even if I could, to do so would be a huge disservice. The allure of the gameplay is in experiments, in unexpected revelations, and the same goes for the narrative. Through your actions, which to begin with will appear mundane, if not normal, you will gradually start to uncover a semblance of a truth (albeit one too eldritch and monstrous to be understood) underneath it all; the player characters may experience violent reactions to this ranging from the devastating to the transcendent, and you as the player should experience this along with them.
Ah, yes: I say ‘them’ because you won’t be playing as just one person. You’ll go through endless cycles of death and rebirth before you stumble across anything resembling the truth, in fact: Cultist Simulator also borrows elements from the roguelike genre, with your character meeting a grisly (or boring) end only to be replaced by a new one, who may or may not discover some scraps of information about their predecessor’s life and works. In some cases, in fact, your successor picks up right where you left off; die to physical affliction or starvation, and you can resume in the shoes of the doctor who treated you as you died. In others, you might be an inspector who had heard of the last protagonist’s occult teachings, or just someone who stumbles across a fragment of the truth spoken by their predecessor.
I’m not sure what I can compare Cultist Simulator‘s brand of piecemeal unfolding of lore to, except perhaps the Soulsborne games. An odd comparison, since the two are absolutely nothing alike in terms of gameplay, but Dark Souls and its sisters have received a lot of positive attention for the way they distil a complex and thorough portrait of a dark fantasy universe without ever really telling the player much about what happened here. All the lore is presented in breadcrumbs, little hints in the flavour text of item descriptions, requiring abstraction and piecing together, and Cultist Simulator does a similar thing: each item has only a few sentences of description, but when each of these is put into its place in the wider context, something resembling a mythos begins to reveal itself. Never too clearly, though: Lovecraft, for all that popular culture has done to turn his most enduring creations into tangible, physical squid-octopus-dragon beings, excelled at leaving things unseen and unsaid, and Cultist Simulator lives and dies (sometimes gruesomely) by that philosophy.
The 8-bit Review
Cultist Simulator boasts very little in the way of graphical excellence, really, at least at first glance. No high polygon counts to shout about: it’s a visualisation of a table with some cards on it. It is, however, a table with a consistently and suitably dark aesthetic, and the portraits on the cards, while simple, are rather charming. There are also a few things that can happen later on to cause the appearance of the table to change in a way that’s really rather breathtaking the first time you see it. This is a case of simple yet effective, of less is more.
Even the portraits of the developers on their website fit with the aesthetic:
The concept of combining things with other things to yield more, different and hopefully better, things isn’t a new one. Remember Doodle God? This is a particularly good and refined example of this type of gameplay, but it’s also a particularly frustrating one in the early going due to its insistence on almost total opacity; the learning curve is vertical, requiring blind experimentation until you just happen to figure out what’s going on. Once you do – or once you learn to enjoy the unpredictability of the endeavour, accepting it as wholly in keeping with the nature of the universe and the darkness beneath the surface – it’s a smooth experience that you can get into a real rhythm with.
That rhythm is helpfully disrupted by the sudden occurrence of random (or pseudorandom) events, just to keep you on your toes: you’ll always feel just a step away from being overwhelmed by the eldritch horror of such a fruitless struggle, and that’s… exactly how you ought to feel while playing Cultist Simulator. I would suggest that this gameplay is very effective here, paired with these themes and this narrative, but in a vacuum is broadly unremarkable. (This is why I would wholeheartedly encourage anyone picking up Cultist Simulator to get frustrated, give up a few times, descend into existential madness for a bit, then come back to it. I can understand the desire to give up entirely, but sticking with it pays off.)
Insofar as there can be said to be a narrative, it’s an extraordinarily engaging one. The story of each of the main characters is, of course, whatever the player makes it, but it’s always a satisfying story. Even if you die in unfortunate, unremarkable circumstances, the experience adds to the feeling of richness and history when the next protagonist comes along. Your story will be a confusing one, but you won’t be able to help feeling engaged, dragged along in the perpetual current, desperate to know what unfolds next; the tale of whomever you happen to be playing as this time could lead to a walk in dreams through a wooded manse, or to capture at the hands of the Suppression Bureau. You could draw attention to yourself with words and paintings on the subject of the hidden truths, or, nameless, fade into obscurity. Each journey is one worth taking, whether it leads to ascension or defeat to the whims of your mortal coil.
Everything about this game is designed to reinforce its core themes. There’s not a foot (paw, tentacle, amorphous appendage, whatever sort of extremity you’re disposed towards) put wrong on that front, really. From the first moments – in which you sit and try to work out what on Earth is going on and what you’re supposed to do on a very basic gameplay/mechanical level – to those times several hours in – in which you sit and try to work out what on Earth is going on and what you’re supposed to do on a much more cosmic level – you are continually gripped by the same sense of needing to unearth something beneath the surface, something which you may regret unearthing. You know you might regret it, but you need to do it anyway.
It’s hard to say more than that without giving away some major reveals – although, to be honest, even the ‘major reveals’ are little more than moments of uncertainty which carry existential implications of cosmic proportions. You’re not likely to stumble across any of these secrets for a little while (even that makes sense; these secrets shouldn’t be found as often as once every lifetime), and when you do it will either be a whimper of an ‘aha’ or a scream of ‘EUREKA!’. Either is just as appropriate as the other: revel in the end, or cower before it. The cult you form may have teachings encouraging one or the other, or neither, or both.
Don’t pick this game up and expect to be able to play it straight away. As I’ve alluded to, it takes failure and despair before you can start to move forward, and that really is a conscious, deliberate part of the appeal, but it’s certainly not something to dive into for a quick hit of entertainment.
I will admit that I find myself conflicted as to whether to give it a ten out of ten, in fact, for that very reason – it would be a much worse game if it were more accessible – but I think it bears recording that this really is not a game that you can just sort of pick up and play, which means it naturally won’t be suited for everyone. Heck, it’s only suited to me during those rare phases of life when I actually have the time and mental capacity to properly get lost in its world for a while. It takes investment to start divining any sort of meaning from the game, and even then it’ll only be in rare lucid moments that connections start to make themselves clear (or what passes for clear in Cultist Simulator).
Oh, and just while we’re on the subject of meanings not being apparent, there’s also an option in the settings menu which allows you to toggle between ‘bird’ and ‘worm’. As far as I (and anyone else on the Internet, to date) can tell, this does nothing. I rather like it.
Usually reserved for books, I’ve included Linguistics as a category because of how vital the written word is to the success of Cultist Simulator. Alexis Kennedy’s previous success with Fallen London also hinged on his ability to create an incredibly cohesive world out of nothing more than a few sentences at a time, only ever really alluding to the larger universe with little more than broad implications. He has a way of focusing on specifics and minutiae in the mundane and drawing out a larger sense of wonder or terror of the universe at large.
Most of what you do and learn in Cultist Simulator will be text-based. The gameplay of moving cards around the table is the primary visual element, but this doesn’t really correlate to any plot threads; the game’s spirit and its detail, its cosmos and its humour are all to be found in the descriptions of the many items you’ll encounter and collect. It wouldn’t make sense to stick each of these descriptions in some sort of order and read the thing like a novel, but it expertly unravels the universe of the game (or, at least, some perception of it) in a way that’s just obscure enough, just smart enough, and just funny enough. Even the text in the settings menu sticks with this: ‘Preferences vary; the Red Grail, among others, has taught us that.’
I mentioned that the gameplay is nothing new, really, and I stand by that. To be honest, the setting isn’t all that new either, and nor is the aesthetic: play one of Kennedy’s other games and read a bit of Lovecraft and you’ll get something of a picture. In combination, however, Cultist Simulator pulls the best out of its components to create something much more compelling than the sum of its parts. It’s perhaps the best representation of Lovecraftian horror in its truest sense in gaming: it doesn’t just take a Great Old One and use them as the baddie for an FPS or something, it creates a complex and terrifying picture of the universe and has the protagonist (and the player) discover just enough to drive them completely mad.
I think it’s fair to say, then, that Cultist Simulator is uniquely nuanced, and uniquely charismatic in the way it shows its hand. It’s a combination of ideas that are decidedly un-unique in such a way that it creates something much harder to pin down. (A bit like taking a bat, an octopus, a dragon and a giant and getting Cthulhu, I suppose.)
My Personal Grade: 8/10
I really do recommend Cultist Simulator to anyone with an appetite for a horror game that’s a bit smarter than your average jump-scare-fest. It’s a deeply coherent, immersive game, which is always nice, and one that’s frustrating enough to be extraordinarily satisfying in moments of success (as few and far between as those might be). Invest a bit of time in it, and you’ll find yourself getting lost in its dark world, dreaming dreams of worlds and beings and truths ever less familiar.
That said, it really isn’t for everyone. Those looking for something more straightforwardly ‘entertaining’ (or action-packed, or indeed containing any sort of action whatsoever) should probably steer clear, as should those who prefer a quicker cycle of failure and success. It’s not a particularly gratifying game, unless you really don’t mind waiting and trying a lot of things that you’re fairly sure are 99% likely to completely fail. It’s also quite possible that it’s more addictive than it is actually fun; to me, the moments of progress are worth the time spent achieving largely nothing, but your mileage may vary as to whether ‘watching the timers on your actions count down then putting a new card in and repeating the process in the hopes that this time the outcome might be an interesting one’ is really a worthwhile endeavour.
For the sake of transparency: my own investment in the game has only really been a few hours so far, and I’ve made very little in the way of progress, really; I’ve been aided by the Weather Factory’s ‘time-strapped journalist’ prep kit, which included some assistance in starting the game a little further along so that I could behold some of the mysteries. I am planning to invest a lot more time into the game so that I can discover more of it for myself; I have had a few experiences of making it to something exciting, but I’ve only scratched the surface in my limited time with it.
If I had to give some specific gripes, such as they are, they’d be as follows: you can’t auto-arrange your table of cards (so you have to manually move them around to keep it tidy, and it can be really tricky to find the one you’re looking for); the almost total lack of audio (atmospheric for sure, but I sometimes found myself wishing for just the faintest of tunes as I watched my cards); and while I for one appreciate the commitment to opacity, I think perhaps it might have been sensible to include some sort of mode aimed at those who just don’t have the time or patience to get past the game’s steep barrier to entry. Maybe this could include the ability to rewind bad decisions, adjust how often hints appear, or get some sort of indication of when an action is likely to have a desirable result; it wouldn’t be mandatory by any means, but I think it is a bit of a shame that a lot of potential players who might have had a blast with late-game Cultist Simulator might never make it past the first few minutes. That said, of course, Dark Souls was almost as insistently steep with its learning curve, and I suspect that the online community that sprang up around it will have aided a lot of players entering the game for the first time. I’m expecting that a similar community will soon be flourishing around Cultist Simulator and all its secrets, so that players who want to dive in will be able to do so with greater ease.
Ultimately, of course, I can only judge based on my own experience, and I’d say it’s a good one. I’m extremely grateful to the Weather Factory for providing a review key, along with a press kit including plenty of pictures (and other assets) which I’ve been using throughout this article. Let me know if you’ve played Cultist Simulator, or if you’re thinking about picking it up, in the comments – and whatever you do, never renege on a deal with Poppy Lascelles…
Aggregated Score: 7.1
Though he’s been known by many names across the vast and peculiar landscape of the Internet, every iteration of the Sometimes Vaguely Philosophical Mage has shared an urge to look far too closely at tiny details and extrapolate huge, important-seeming conclusions. These days, in addition to Mage duties, he can be found discussing gaming and other pop culture (and occasionally sharing some of his own musical and fictional creations) at the Overthinker Y blog and on Twitter.
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Categories: Game Review