Electron Dance
16Apr/185

Dabbling with… Cultist Simulator

The third episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2018.

You know, I don't think I've played anything Lottie Bevan or Alexis Kennedy have put their hands to. Both are ex-Failbetter Games (Kennedy founded the company) and Failbetter is mainly known for Fallen London and Sunless Sea. The fine architecture of these games is constructed from words. If you do not like words in your games, then do not play them. I like words in my games but I also didn't play them. Sunless Sea was the talk of the town after it was released.... but somehow I never got around to it.

Bevan and Kennedy now work under the guise of Weather Factory and their debut title is someting called Cultist Simulator, which they obtained funding for through Kickstarter. Now even though I follow Kennedy on Twitter, I had never quite figured out what Cultist Simulator was all about. It was a card game of some sort? Lovecraftian? When I heard it was at Rezzed, I knew I had to go seek the truth, no matter where it led me. I had to make up for all those years I hadn't played Sunless Sea.

I'd describe Cultist Simulator as "Lovecraftian card panic". The game presents you with an empty canvas - a desk surface upon which just a few cards and actions lie. Although I'd like to say you "use actions on cards" it feels rather reverse; you pull cards into actions. Through this apparently simple interface, you will embark on a journey into a Lovecraftian world, attempting to become the kind of cultist people want to hang out with. Maybe you can make your Lovecraftian nightmares flesh. Or maybe you can make someone's flesh a Lovecraftian nightmare.

It's as much a survival simulator as anything. You'll be worrying about making ends meet in the beginning, as your funds run out and you descend into starvation. But at the same time you will be studying the Elder Lore, investigating dark conspiracies and developing a following. All from moving cards into actions.

As the game progresses, more actions become available: Dream, Study, Explore, Talk and they keep on coming. The canvas becomes covered in cards. There's one extra ingredient though. Where does all the panic comes from?

Time.

Like my beloved Cart Life, things are always happening whether you're clicking things or not, such as the aforementioned starvation and death. Cards will decay if they are not used. You will character will become despondent if you do not make progress.

Initially, I took it slow. My first character lost his job then quickly died of starvation. I tried the scenario a second time, made more progress but my character was still unable to find new employment thus died, once again, of starvation. I then chose a different character, one who came from a wealthy family. I tried to relax but then dearest Papa perished which left me with limited funds that inevitably ran dry and I died. Of starvation.

Bevan, who was overseeing the fresh acolytes like myself, explained that the game does not yet have a decent tutorial so it was not surprising we were all dying like flies. I was still struggling to put together the pieces, but the game was presenting as a puzzle and this hadn't been frustrating. All this failure had made me want to understand where I had gone wrong and what I didn't understand. It made me want to learn. For the new player, it is confusing. The board rapidly fills with new actions and cards and without imposing some order on the table you will be overwhelmed.

The only negative was this: I couldn't shrug off the feeling that there's a subtle paradox at its heart. You want to bask in all the wicked words yet the time panic reigns supreme. Whilst you can use the pause key to halt proceedings and examine closely everything before you, somehow that feels like a bodge. Eventually, I imagine you begin to recognise certain cards and will no longer feel the need to pause for reading. But I doubt that point will come early as I expect Cultist Simulator will be stacked full of the weird and strange.

This is a minor quibble though, because I admit I was rather smitten. Cultist Simulator is due for release on May 31 and can be wishlisted on Steam.

Interested in other games I've dabbled with? Check out the series index!

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Comments (5) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Intriguing! I look forward to seeing more of this.

    Much as I admire Failbetter’s early work, I’ve dropped out of Fallen London every time I’ve played as I’ve very rapidly found myself running through the same stories in order to boost stats in order to access more stuff. Maybe I was missing a beat, or maybe this is just the expected grind you endure when not paying hard cash, but either way it ran contrary to what I liked about the game.

    As for Sunless Sea, I never persevered long enough to feel that I was either learning or advancing in the meta. In every game I died relatively early and had to start again with the same setup and re-randomised seas. Again, I liked the idea of the game more than the actual experience. I do wish I had stuck with it, though, as I gather it really unfolds once you’ve more experience under your belt and your careers / lives are successful enough that you can begin to unlock new stuff in the meta.

    Bloody love the writing and imagination of both games, though!

  2. Ah, I feel like I should do Sunless Sea one of these days. I don’t really have much idea about it involves.

    Still, I remember making an ill-judged tweet making a comparison of the Sunless Sea/Sunless Skies (Sea->Space) and Bioshock/Bioshock Infinite (Sea->Air). It was curious to hear that Failbetter had to downsize recently and I couldn’t help thinking of this tweet. Failbetter were showing off Sunless Skies at Rezzed, though. I didn’t stop by so don’t expect it to turn up on this list :)

  3. Heh, I didn’t even know Sunless Skies existed. Nor had I heard about Failbetter downsizing! I only knew that Kennedy had left so that he could return to focusing on the creative stuff he likes rather than the 80-90% management he found himself doing (wise move IMO).

  4. *Allegedly* some have blamed mismanagement after Kennedy’s departure. I’m not that knowledgeable about it because it’s too close to gossip news for me.

  5. Yeah, you never can tell with rumours like that. Not implausible, but how could you know for sure.

    Shame though, despite not quite getting on with their games I admire their commitment to idiosyncratic and interestingly realised worlds, and their tradition of putting writing under the spotlight.


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