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‘Cultist Simulator’ and Uniqueness of Narrative

Moonlit streets shudder as I walk, fascination lingering in windowpanes and the eyes of strangers. Dreams haunt me for weeks, maybe months, before I finally learn how to go beyond simple visions of fields, rain, and memories of the woman who sometimes watches me as I sleep. A disciple follows me into the dim confines of an occult cabaret in celebration of her promotion to the next tier of our organization, a ritual where I spoke the old words, an incantation that increasingly drives my desire for the all-encompassing light of the House.

We are the Mirror of Glory, and we venerate he who is the Door in the Eye. We are, if you must be crass about it, a cult. We are—well, really just a chaotic mess of cards spread across a pale blue table, which itself is virtual, because I’m sitting in the bathtub with my tablet two inches from my face, scrutinizing the board for the next thing I need to do to secure my rightful place in virtual history and—I guess, maybe?—an ascension from my mortal body.

I’m playing Cultist Simulator, the latest narrative game from Alexis Kennedy, of Fallen London and Sunless Sea fame, and the very first title from Kennedy and Weather Factory co-founder Lottie Bevan in the guise of their new studio. Originally a PC-only Kickstarter project, it’s reached rather surprising commercial success for a game of its type since it released nearly a year ago, and has gotten quite a bit of love and attention from its developer both as a result of its recent success and from promises and speculations made as far back as their original funding campaign. I’ve spent an equal amount of time with it on my tablet and my laptop, since I’m living in Japan without a desktop PC or even a mouse, but I’ve also played the game on a desktop and a phone, and it works well in any of its iterations. It’s also available just about wherever you could want, from itch.io to GOG, Humble, Steam, Apple, and Google Play.

There can be ... a lot going on.
There can be … a lot going on as a game of Cultist Simulator progresses.

But you might rightly ask, why am I here to tell you about a game that’s nearly a year old? For starters, I suspect few enough of you are familiar with it, but it’s recently gotten some substantive free updates, is on the verge of getting a couple new pieces of DLC, and the mobile versions ported by Playdigious only launched a few weeks ago. It seems like the perfect time to get a few more eyes on this fascinating, unique, and rather niche game that you’ve likely never heard of.

The difficulty, then, comes in trying to explain exactly what Cultist Simulator actually is. I initially set out to write a review, but as I waxed long about the narrative peculiarities of the game as they stand alongside its mechanics, I thought I should write more of an editorial, only to discover that without more explanation there was little chance of getting the point across. Cultist Simulator, as straightforward as its core mechanics and concept are, is a difficult thing to describe. As you do run a cult (think dark robes and incantations, not guns and poisoned punch), one might be tempted to think of The Shrouded Isle by Kitfox Games, but there’s rather little commonality there in either tone or gameplay. In some ways it does indeed feel like a simulation of founding a religion and rising through a skein of otherwordly mysteries on your way to something greater, and in other ways it reminds of an epic board game along the lines of Arkham Horror, et al. But it’s not really either of those things. Or perhaps it is, but then approached with a roguelike sensibility, covered with several layers of expertly written narrative, and drowned in a healthy slathering of the unknown. It’s in some measure a distillation of Lovecraft and Zelazny without feeling exactly like either one, maintains a literary tone without feeling snooty, and then somehow manages to cram all of that into a compelling card game that teaches you how to play it by the act of playing it.

Okay. Maybe that’s a lot to digest all at once. Let’s break it down just a bit.

The game has no tutorial, but it starts with simple concepts that are easy to grasp.
The game has no tutorial, but it starts with simple concepts that are easy to grasp.

The game introduces its most basic concepts with your first character. There’s almost nothing to do at the outset. You can give them a name, pick up your only card (representing your job), and drop it on the only other thing on the board, an action appropriately just called “work”. There’s a bit of dark and moody text to read in the window that opens, a timer that pops up showing how long it will take to complete the action, and then you wait until it’s over. Following this early narrative thread, a few more actions appear, some of which you can interact with using cards, and other automated ones which will interact with your cards whether you like it or not. And thus ends the nearest thing you’ll get to a tutorial. The rest of your game, until you either starve, succumb to despair, go to trial for unnamable crimes, or possibly figure out a way to actually, you know, win, you will have to make sense of entirely on your own.

It can feel daunting at first, especially as the actions and cards begin to pile up, and many of them feel like whole microcosms unto themselves at the start. I have a “dream” action, but what can I dream of? This money card? Yes. My reason and passion and health cards? Yes, those too. But what does any of that do, and am I doing the right thing? Such questions accrue quickly, yet this is where Cultist Simulator begins to achieve the marvelous and unique things that ultimately make it so unique when compared to other games of similar narrative style. Experimentation is the first order of business, and different actions can have a variety of consequences, either because the results are semi-random or because of the influences that resulted from the different cards you put into them, and feeling out what will help you along and what will kill you is all part of the fun. The game doesn’t go out of its way to actively obfuscate things, and in fact often tells you what certain potential results may be (or heavily hints at them through its descriptors), but you do have to pay attention to what can sometimes be fine details. It’s made all the more difficult because the game has no set layout itself, and allows you to place both your actions and your cards anywhere you want in the virtual space. When cards start pouring out of every corner, it becomes readily apparent that while this is a bit confusing, it also lets you tailor things to how you intend to play.

The game gets progressively more complicated as it goes, though there is an eventual plateau.
The game gets progressively more complicated as it goes, though there is an eventual plateau.

Yes, it would be fair to call this Trial and Error: The Game, yet that’s dismissive of what a risky but masterful stroke of genius its amorphous framework turns out to be. It’s partly because of the experimental gameplay style, but also because of the mountain of writing at work to paint the game’s world into your mind’s eye. As a new player, not only do you not entirely understand the mechanics, but most of what you read sounds almost like nonsense, albeit tantalizing. As you progress, you learn what happens when you put your passion card into the work slot, and what time does to your money cards, but also about the game’s surprisingly deep mythology. Because the game can be paused (and fast-forwarded) at will, you’ve always got time to stop and read whatever grabs your interest, and every book and piece of lore has a description. Books will also reveal their contents (briefly) when you study them, containing both flavor text and foundational stuff at the core of the game’s fiction. Even if you can’t initially puzzle out what a Know or a Name are, you don’t know why the play you just read directed the cast to murder the audience, or you can’t get a grasp of who (or what) the Sun-in-Rags might be, those things often become more and more interwoven with other text fragments as you go. It’s a little bit like the way Dark Souls delivers background information by subtly hiding it in small parcels—just with a whole lot more of it. No one thing ever gives you a complete picture, but the more disconnected bits and pieces you find, the more you can stitch together a larger tapestry from what you’ve learned.

Adding some more immediate and grounding narrative interest are several player legacies that work to add a starting point for a new game and also inject a little variety into the proceedings. Your first handful of cult leaders are likely to die (or be devoured by despair, or overcome by visions) in the process of getting their fledgling organization in working order, but with one character dead, your next will often begin with a different position relative to your last, and you’ve always got a choice of three different legacies to choose from for your next game. There are only a small number of these legacy types, but an extra one is already available as DLC on the PC version, and two more are planned for release in the near future. Even without them it isn’t as though any given legacy has to go the same way each time, as there are multiple cults to found, win conditions to explore, and professions to dabble in while you go about the devious business of acquiring occult knowledge and power, but the extra variations are welcome from a story standpoint, and help propel a player in different directions.

The game demands players keep track of any number of things at the same time.
The game demands players keep track of any number of things at the same time.

This style of experimental play is certainly not something that Cultist Simulator invented, and many readers will doubtless remember a time when “emergent gameplay” was the buzzword of the day. I can remember using it any number of times, including in a review of Shadow of the Colossus during its original debut on the PS2, as that game also lacked lengthy explanations about its own interesting elements (such as chasing down the lizards that would increase your stamina bar, something you had to stumble upon yourself). That said, there’s something special about the way Cultist Simulator works its knowledge-as-game magic, even compared to Sunless Sea, the game to which it is in some ways most directly comparable. Despite the mechanics and the narrative elements being as clearly distinct as they are—during later playthroughs, you’ll largely be able to stop rereading familiar text unless you want a refresher—they weave together seamlessly, and because the narrative pieces generally aren’t so long or story-like as they are in Sunless Sea, it becomes more possible to stick useful nuggets of revelatory information or even mechanical hints into them. It’s quite a different take on the usual narrative game formats, and one that’s simultaneously accessible, compelling, and deep.

The core game may not be everyone’s cup of tea. The way I’ve described it to friends in the past is that it’s very much not for everyone, but if it’s for you, it’s super for you. I’m a fan of difficult experiences that don’t tell you what to do at every step, all the more so if they require you to engage with their content to progress, and while you don’t need to read every scrap of text in Cultist Simulator’s considerable library of bite-sized literary delights, it can and often does reward you for paying attention, in terms of both mechanical details and piecing together the larger world of the game. I’ve been playing narrative games since the early 90s, and have never played anything quite like it. This is the kind of risk few studios would have the guts to take, and makes a strong statement about the work Weather Factory intend to do once they start in earnest on a new project.

For the time being, they’re still making sure that Cultist Simulator gets the love it deserves. They’ve already released one DLC, allowing you to play as a new legacy called the Dancer, and are set to release two more in the next month or so, the Priest and the Ghoul. The existing DLC isn’t currently available on the mobile versions of the game, but Lottie assures us that it will be soon, the others to follow. The Dancer was an interesting character in and of itself, but also brought with it new paths to victory and a lot of cool new narrative bits to enjoy. If that holds true with the next two, the resulting package will be rich indeed.

The game's inherent simplicity belies its eventual complexity.
The game’s inherent simplicity belies its eventual complexity.

In the end, Cultist Simulator is a hard game to recommend, but one I will proselytize without reservation. While it may not be for everyone, those to whom it speaks will undoubtedly feel like they’ve been given a gift, something rare and superlative that was made especially for them. It’s a game where exploration is a joy, and it’s legitimately best to know as little as possible before you dive in. (Take my advice on this and reserve any YouTube or Twitch-watching for after you’ve gotten yourself a win—you don’t want to spoil the uncertainty and experimentation for yourself, and it’s a ton of fun seeing people puzzle out how to play for the first time, especially when you already know the answers.) For a tiny indie studio with less than a handful of employees, this is a strong start, and one that seems to have done well enough to sustain them into their next projects. I’m genuinely excited to see what else they have up their sleeves.

Though I really wouldn’t say no to a Cultist Simulator 2 at some point, even if I’m not sure exactly what that would look like. Because despite all that I’ve discovered, having run my fingers across the history left in Mansus-stone by the dead who wander there, there’s a gnawing hunger for more. When the streets shimmer during an evening walk, or I watch the light that leaks from the eyes of a knowing stranger, all I can do is think back to the House, think back and wonder what else I’ve yet to learn.

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