Electron Dance
10Jun/1818

Penetrate the Night

Cultist Simulator (Weather Factory, 2018) shambled out of the gloom into the daylight on May 31, 2018. That wasn't even two weeks ago and according to Steam I have played 21 hours of Cultist Simulator.

I dabbled with the game at Rezzed and my take, today, is a smidgen different from that one. Cultist Simulator has a simple but critical flaw.

It is... addictive.

If you haven’t played Cultist Simulator you probably think I’m just being cute. What an opener. The flaw of being “addictive”, heh heh. But if you bothered to look around at the other Cultist inductees, you’ll notice a lot of knowing nods. They all know what I’m talking about.

Let me brief you on what Cultist Simulator is. I previously summarised it as “Lovecraftian card panic” but I now recognise this is utterly inappropriate. Cultist Simulator is actually, without a doubt, the Starseed Pilgrim Overcooked Minecraft of Lovecraftian narrative games.

If you recall, droqen’s Starseed Pilgrim was part-mystery part-bastard. Pilgrim never told you what to do or how you might possibly accomplish the thing you do not know you are supposed to do. Critics had a tendency to write reviews so mysterious that it pissed people off but we just don’t have the right vocabulary to deal with games that put forward mechanics as a medium of exploration. And with Pilgrim, there was a total hulking bastard of a game squatting on the other side of the veil of mystery. I worked my ass off completing Pilgrim, my whole ass. Then I wrote about the critics’ responses, wrote about how the game worked then made a film about the critics’ responses. I had a lot to say about that, you know.

Part mystery, part bastard

Cultist Simulator is the same deal. A fresh new game opens with just a handful of tiles and icons and you’re goaded into dragging one thing into another. Stuff happens. Why, this feels like a tutorial, you console yourself. But lest ye have the Vantablack Wool of Shub-Niggurath pulled over your eyes, Cultist Simulator tells you very little, directly, about what you need to do.

Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about the Overcooked bit.

Okay. In theory, it goes like this. You’re gonna start a cult in the 1920s and use your followers to chase down lore and artefacts across the world, also do terrible things to innocent people, all of which is in pursuit of your own ascension to glory. Weather Factory translate this concept into tiles and cards. You drag cards into tiles for things to happen; like dragging your job into the work tile. Some tiles will grab cards themselves; when you are being investigated the adversary tile will hoover up echoes of your past misdeeds.

Tile. Card.

I used to think of them as “verb” and “noun” - like “work” and “job” - but my view changed after a few hours of play and it was Andy Durdin who beat me to the realisation that this was like a cooking game. The tiles were various ovens that needed to be fed card ingredients. There were lots of recipes needing different ingredients, and cooking produced new ingredients. The heart of Cultist Simulator, then, is to figure out the sequence of recipes that will eventually deliver the perfect cake. If ascension was a cake, that is.

One more thing. Each “recipe” takes time to cook; for good outcomes, it’s a necessary evil, but for bad outcomes, the cooking time becomes a countdown to doomsday. It doesn’t have the madness of the co-op pressure cooker Overcooked, of sprinting back and forth between ovens and juggling tasks in a short space of time, because you live inside the pause key. It is the only way to plan your actions and read the wonderful text.

You would be wise, young acolyte, to note this is indeed a game about reading. Because not only are the words delicious but they laced with clues and hints about what you should be doing. It will occasionally be extremely direct “find some dread, now” but most of its mysteries are shrouded in language constructed for the game. Who is the “Mother of Ants”? What are the Hours? Are references to “the Sun” related to Forge or Lantern or both?

What? I also mentioned Minecraft? Oh. I guess I did. Remember your first days inside Minecraft, where you shuffled items around a crafting table hoping to find something new? That is the core and joy of Cultist Simulator. Finding the recipes that advance the cause, the excitement when you strike upon something previously unknown. That first time you enter the Mansus is a brilliant shock moment of discovery, when the game’s reality peels back and reveals-- but it’s gone so quickly. You want to journey there again. You wish to learn of its nature. It calls to you.

Skip this paragraph if you want to keep all the mystery intact but I want to share a minor anecdote to demonstrate how Cultist Simulator is full of surprises. Being the kind of shady cultist you are, there are investigators - which the game terms "hunters" - who work for the Suppression Bureau. Their job seems to be lock up anyone dealing in the occult. The game manifests your infamy as “mystique” and “notoriety” cards. You discover early that hunters are looking for these cards and think a lot about how to manage them. Now, you might find this strange, but it had not occurred to me that the “human corpse” card I had lying around might be, well... a problem? Oh man, did the hunter like that card.

And that is the essence of Cultist Simulator’s genius. The player and the avatar mirror each other perfectly. Both battle against mad, cryptic texts attempting to discern how to make progress, face difficult challenges and seek out an unstable balance between the rush of knowledge and the possibility of becoming untethered from the real world.

...particularly that last one.

See, the mechanics bubble with mysteries. How do you recruit followers? How do you breach the Stag Door? How can you get the precise books you seek? What’s the deal with that “Temptation” card? How can you move out of the “temporary headquarters”? How can you stop a hunter without just, well, stabbing them in the face repeatedly?

The mysteries are legion and they dazzle. While you’re mulling them over… there is grind to see you through. Grind is easy. It asks no questions of you. It offers routine and promises progress. Keep all the numbers rising, let them fly, head for the stars! But it is a drug that fogs the game with an illusion of progress to distract you from frustration. And there… there is the trap.

You keep cooking the books. More passion. Better skills. More funds. More reason. Better lore. But are you actually getting anywhere?

Curling up in the womb of grind dulls any sense of urgency. Players can vanish for hours in those numbers instead of leaning into the flesh of the game, trying to find some part which will give. Thus, when caught out by a spate of bad luck or lack of attention - a sometimes casualty of grind - hours will be flushed down to the Dank Toilet of The Mansus. Oh, you painted too hard and drove your character crazy. You didn’t see it coming. Start again. Back to the grindstone. I always worried grind was my Achilles’ heel: I suspected the focus on grind increased risk, simply because more grind means I was playing for longer before getting anything done.

I am not saying progress is easy. Naturally, Cultist Simulator is no pushover. It throws sickness, dread, fascination and hunters in your way to distract you from the path, plates to spin. But the game is ruthlessly efficient at devouring all of your personal attention. There is always something to do and no natural break in the proceedings. Move cards, unpause, wait a few seconds, pause, move cards, unpause, wait a few seconds, pause, move cards--

Tell yourself this: I will just do this task. Do it: just this task. It will take a couple of minutes and then I can shut down the game today. Oh, but it is ten minutes. Oh and now I see another “low-hanging fruit”, so I will just get that done… just that... I am not breaking my promise. No, this is fine. I will just move the cards, unpause, wait a few seconds, pause, move cards--

Every time I played Cultist Simulator I would play in excess of three hours. A brain wired into the tiles and cards, a deep state of flow. And I realised while I played I barely moved. Just as the pursuit of the occult within Cultist Simulator was unhealthy, so was my pursuit of winning the game. I have a tendency to become addicted to games that I enjoy and recall the sessions of Prey last year were a little on the chunky side. But this was a different class of addiction, one with comfy seats, free snacks and fast WiFi.

This is no isolated story.

I had been chatting on and off with Andy Durdin on Twitter about our parallel progress but around 10 hours in, Andy reached the point where Cultist Simulator ceased to be entertaining for him, becoming a form of work. Not that he stopped there. After he had accrued 55 goddamn hours inside the game the discovery that he’d been spinning wheels for the previous 15 because of something he’d missed was too much to bear. I cannot tell you whether this was down to some UI issue, overly-cryptic text or Andy just not seeing the wood for the trees... because I haven’t got to that point yet. But discovering so much time had been “wasted” he then had a meltdown on Twitter and claimed that was it for Cultist Simulator. After this, it was divorce. Conveniently, Andy has packaged up his tweets into a series of blogposts (caution, spoilers) and you’ll find Andy’s ragequit at the end of his Day 4 post.

Naturally, he continued playing again the next day. Naturally.

But leave it to Cultist Simulator developer Alexis Kennedy to share a player comment which was a cogent and concise summary of what I’ve spent over a thousand words trying to put across. “Interesting game, but had to delete it after it got a bit addictive and playing non-stop for 19 hours and forgot to eat.”

Look, I can safely say I adore Cultist Simulator but my dysfunctional relationship with it, eh not so much. I still intend to reach one of the major endings where, I expect, I become some sort of a monstrous Developer-God who makes Lovecraftian-themed games that induce fatal addiction. That is to say, I will continue to play but, boy, will I need to put in place some very explicit limits.

Maybe I should ask my wife to pull the power on the PC if I keep playing beyond sixty minutes. Maybe I should decide on a safe word if I think I’m in too deep. Maybe I should keep a friend on speed dial, one who can talk me down from the fourth hour straight.

God. I need to come up with something.

Update: This essay has now been turned into a movie that you can watch right now on YouTube!

Disclaimer: Electron Dance received a free Cultist Simulator Steam key from Weather Factory.

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Comments (18) Trackbacks (0)
  1. The title of this post is a mashup of a line from one of the trailers “penetrate the house” and what happens if I start playing at 11pm.

    In fact, after posting this, exactly the same thing happened again. I noticed it was getting light outside…

  2. I hope it’s alright to bring up my own game. You mentioned it first, after all.

    When I saw your tweet about Cultist Simulator (Starseed + Overcooked), I bought it. I wanted to know: what’s it like to be an outsider to Starseed Pilgrim? But also, I’d seen Cultist Simulator before (probably your fault) and was piqued.

    So I picked it up, and now I’ve put it down. (It has taken 10 of my hours.)

    There’s a curious lack of feedback in many, many areas of the game, exemplified by that final post by Andy on Day 4. When I put the game down, I looked up what I was missing, and was like, OK, I guess I *was* missing that, and that might have made my life easier.

    ~

    When I played La-Mulana I had a very weird, but pretty good time with it. That game oozed mystery, it felt impossible, and it was full of riddles. SSP came out of a desire to make a game as impressive/mysterious/puzzling but rooted in a consistent sort of ‘logic’. I am a programmer first, and that means… mechanics. And to my mind, it succeeded there, but I legitimately can’t tell whether that’s just because I designed it.

    But the things I discovered in Cultist Simulator felt more like what I got out of La-Mulana (but worse, because I love platformers and don’t like click-drag-pause-click-drag-pausing for consecutive hours. my wrist hurts!).

    Most of the things I learned in CS were useful for one thing, and not much else, and then I’d have to go figure out a whole new thing again. How do I get rid of Dread? OK. How do I make this crap job better, which the game is hinting at heavily? Oh, OK, I do that. And then none of that knowledge was useful or interesting anymore except in the one situation where the game demanded I prove myself, or pay dearly.

    I stopped playing Cultist Simulator because I don’t like clicker games and when the mystery fell away, I was left with a more and more extended clicker game with a mystery at the very end. I think, in that way, Starseed Pilgrim might be an apt comparison. Except instead of a clicker game it’s a platformer.

    (Also based on its track record I wasn’t really *that* interested in the answer to the mystery anyway)

    Hi, I’m here in your comments again, I hope not being too much of a downer!!!

    Grind sucks tho!!!

  3. I think CS has turned out to be something like a clicker game, but perhaps unintentionally? I ended up in an enormous grind not because grinding was necessary to progress, but because I thought it would lead to discovery of the means of progress. It wasn’t necessary; nor did it lead to discovery. Nearly all of it was just waste. And the core of my fit of rage (instead of just massive sigh) was learning that.

    CS being mysterious about actual goals is not a bad thing at all. But juxtaposed with a massive, distracting, addicting grind engine, well that’s just irresponsible. :)

    I can’t say much about SSP, because the only time I tried it, I was rapidly baffled by not being able to figure out how to play. But I’ll defend some of the things you learn in CS as reusable: once I understood how dreams of the Way worked, it opened up new tactics for me in exploration, in summoning, and in Visions-avoidance. Understanding the patterns of Rites made summoning much more reliable and opened up multiple tactics to summoning specific minions that I needed, adapted to the resources I had.

    But how much of that would I have actually learned and understood if I hadn’t been sinking hours into the grind? Probably very little!

  4. All right so, first of all, long time reader but I never actually commented. So, ehm, hi!

    I think the Overcooked comparison is apt. I bought CS after reading the review on RPS. I expected a sorta-idle sorta-clicker, and I didn’t mind – actually, I’ve come to appreciate clickers since I started playing more on iOS than PC. I enjoy stuff like A Dark Room or Spaceplan, and a good clicker with a twist (especially a Lovecraftian twist).

    Cultist Simulator, for me, is not that.

    I understand the “addiction”, the state of flow, but I can’t reach it. And not because I don’t like the game; actually, I like it a lot. It’s beautifully written, for a start. And I quite like the gameplay loop, even: I don’t mind the grind while I try to figure out the next step (I haven’t played much, so there’s plenty to discover).
    But it stresses me out, that loop. I can’t play for long because all of those damn timers ticking down make me hyperventilate, even with the pause. I guess it’s thematically appropriate, with all the eldritch secrets and stuff, but it doesn’t really help me to keep playing for more than an hour or two. Reading the stories of meals skipped, maybe it’s for the best. But I also think that not being able to give in to the grind is slowing my progress somewhat. Playing relatively short sessions means, to me, focusing a lot more on just surviving and less on uncovering the mystery. So, I guess that’s the upside down of a grind-free CS experience.

    Speaking of which, I am reminded of an episode of Extra Creditz (YouTube show about game design and everything around it) about ethical design and exit points. Reading your piece, Joel, I was thinking about whether this design is really “ethical”. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that CS is on par with the Skinner boxes that populate the App Store. And again, these feeling of “compulsion” could signify a deeper immersion, in-character as well because of the Lovecraftian setting. I often feel empathy for the main character of CS: his predicament in the game is mine playing the game, juggling way too much while understanding basically nothing. But is it really a good way to go about designing a game? Where is the line between the Cultist Simulators and the Clash of Clans (Clanses?) of this world?
    I wish to reiterate that I don’t think Weather Factory set out to make an “addicting” game in the worst sense of the word. But addicting it turned out, I guess in all the senses of the word. I think it’d be an interesting case study on the usefulness and difficulty of designing exit points.

    Hope that all made sense, and was not excessively rambling.

  5. Droqen

    You’re always welcome around here and there are no restrictions on bringing up Starseed Pilgrim :)

    It’s funny that you mention the comparison to a clicker just as I started to feel that. As my earlier comment mentioned, I had another unruly session with Cultist after I posted this article and realised I was spending minutes going through a very precise ordering of clicks. Like, effectively the only thing I was having to do was wait for the sequence of actions to complete. The only thing that I was looking forward to was having a crack at The Peacock Door or my first rite. And then Dread or Visions would pop up (the worst is when they appear together) and it derails the click schedule for five minutes while I deal with it.

    And it was only then I started to see the “clicker” aspect because I wasn’t really having to think for a lot of time. I guess I am just hitting what is the “ten hour threshold” for yourself and Andy because know I’m not sure I want to go back in. I haven’t managed to use any rites, I’ve just got the 6th mark and I’m at the Peacock Door. I’ve started to backup the save game because the idea of starting again feels me with literal dread.

    I don’t think your comments are a downer! I think Cultist is reallllly interesting from a design perspective. Did you finish La Mulana? I played quite a bit back in the past but drifted away; I don’t tend to finish difficult time sink games. In Dark Souls, I’ve paused for over a year at the start of Blighttown. I have endless unfinished puzzle games.

    Andy

    When I was following your progress on Twitter, I was always wondering whether you really needed all that grind. You were ahead of me, so it was pure speculation. But it was the fact that you’d not discovered The Way cards that made me realise the game can easily eat up your time without making a jot of progress. And, naturally, it turned out to be the case – again and again. And that’s why the rage you felt is so perfectly understandable, because it feels like the design has left you hanging: oh, sorry, did you just spend 30 hours barking up the wrong Eldritch Tree? But, yeah, a lot of that grind is instructive in rather subtle ways. For example, you increasingly “game” the system by locking cards away in ovens, for example if you need to extend the timer or hide them from other cards like Adversary. Although I find that weirdly dissonant on a narrative level. How do you hide your notoriety in the act of painting?

    I wouldn’t mind if it was easy to spend a few minutes on Cultist here and there but the fact that the game swallows me whole once I open the executable bothers me, considering I’m going to have to spend a lot of time in there getting to An End.

    The minor victory I uncovered as a detective was not really satisfying. I like that it existed but, well, if you don’t get to the top of the Mansus, what’s the point, right? :)

    Anonymous Commenter

    Hello, long time lurker!

    I think the panic you feel, which is something I picked up on at Rezzed, goes away with exposure. But… it doesn’t really? As I wrote, it sucks up all your attention. There’s no idle about it. You become a critical component of the game and there’s no walking away – pause or no pause. The game becomes one of “how do I free up another space in my cooking schedule to do some work on the mystery”. Is it a state of flow? I don’t know: it feels like someone has borrowed my brain for Bitcoin mining.

    I agree – I doubt Weather Factory set out to make the most compulsive game in the world, but it’s ended up like that. I admit I am quite surprised to be talking about the problem of addiction with a game like this, but after a week of much-reduced sleep I had to stop and ask: what the hell? I am not joking when I say Electron Dance work I had scheduled this last week is not completed as a direct result. This is not complementing my life, it’s eating part of it. (As you might suspect, the original idea for this article was more negative than what ended up on the digital page. I dialled it back.) It’s such a fine line. We often talk of the “journey” vs “the destination” but I think the reason we come away from Cultist feeling slightly disoriented is because there’s an awful lot of the journey which doesn’t generate forward momentum.

    And don’t worry about rambling. The Electron Dance comments have provided shelter for rambling since 1962.

  6. Interesting update, all. I just listened to A Gamasutra Twitch interview with Alexis & Lottie of Weather Factory. Turns out the clicker aspect was absolutely deliberate and built in from day one.

    Notable points: Kennedy made sure something was happening every ten seconds; another anecdote cited of someone could not go into work the next day (due to obsession with the game).

    So Kennedy had used a clicker as a basic design element and injected agency into it – however, the Aspect: Clicker becomes much more dominant later when you seem like a slave to events and it takes longer to spin things up. (Consequences for deep game experimentation, for sure.)

  7. I’ve played this game for a mere 7 hours and already burnt myself out on it, I think, unless they happen to tidy things up quite a bit. From reading old guides and such on Steam, it seems that things worked a bit differently in the past- Reason decayed into Dread, and had to be dreamed back into a usable state (if I’m reading these correctly) among other things, and while new things were added and old things were tweaked, there still seem to be plenty of leftovers, fissures and breaks between things old and new that need mending. Maybe they’re all intentional- people seem to be having a good enough time along this bumpy road (or maybe I’m just seeing errors where there are none) so my experience may merely be due to blindness.
    And I am blind- a mere 7 hours is clearly not enough to see all there is to see, and I found myself spinning my wheels against endless tides of plenty of funds and too much dread, or the other way around. I know now that Expeditions are mostly found through the Mansus, a Promotion is not gained through Dilligence, and the Talk panel is more useful than it seems, but I can’t bring myself to go back to the grind, slapping the same cards down over and over to generate those precious few pennies, trying to combine Lore and hoping you have enough random cards lying around to complete them.
    i dunno
    It’s a cooking clicker game where most of the pieces are hidden behind esoteric combinations and vague dialogues, and if you don’t keep on top of everything, you’re gonna end up losing everything. I really want to play more of it, I want to try out the things I’ve learned, even if not on my own. But the risk of losing all that time, which I seem to have in shorter supply than most, is too great. or something like that, i guess idk

  8. It kind of sounds to me as though if you take out the clicker/grind aspects, what you’re left with is a text adventure with an unusual interface. You have to figure out puzzles to progress and once you’ve figured out the puzzles they maybe make more sense than they did when you were trying to figure them out when you kept having to try things with other things, but also they’re what I were calling riddles rather than puzzles (or, as droqen just said, one-time interactions rather than mechanics).

    And the clicker part is perhaps in part something that keeps you interacting with it as opposed to the usual interactive fiction thing of just staring blankly at it, or trying the same things you already tried that didn’t work before (I have a transcript of one of my games where someone tried the same thing fifteen times in a row!), or giving up and hitting the walkthrough or quitting. Does that make sense? I ask because this sounds like something I maybe want to not do.

    (It seems somewhat related: Today I found the Ghost Wolf in Proteus for the first time!)

  9. matt w: i really like that interpretation of it, that the clicking gives you something to do other than stare blankly at the prompt trying to figure out the solution. i would love to see more of that! i think the part where CS loses me is where you *must* go through a bunch of clicking, that is, it becomes extra cost to test your solutions? but if there was no extra cost and the clicking was just something to keep your mind occupied while thinking about solutions, that… that sounds kind of nice

  10. Kneeckoh

    Okay, so in a nutshell what I really like Cultist Simulator is poring through the text fragments looking for clues and worldbuilding. Some of these fragments appear very briefly and are on a time delay – you never know what you might find. Clicking through certain dialogs without thinking sometimes can be similarly wasteful. I think Andy’s spoken to the difficulty of the text trying to be simultaneously enigmatic and purposeful which causes problems for some users.

    (Oh and I will disagree on this: a lot of my expeditions have not come from the Mansus…)

    Combining Lore, indeed, is a tricky one although it is possible to prepare for. I don’t particularly enjoy this aspect but *shrug*

    The more you practice, the easier some of this gets. But the struggle is constant. Progress is definitely slowing.

    I’ll let you into one of my little secrets. The permadeath aspect does not interest me as much as it did especially as I felt like I died several times through “UI bullshit”. The game settings can point you towards the save file and I’ve backed up the save file multiple times and rolled back when UI bullshit got me again. I have no intention of restarting from the beginning.

    Matt

    I’m not sure I can agree 100% regarding the “text adventure with an unusual interface”. The time taken by actions is kind of key to whether certain things are doable – the fact that cards decay means you have to think about how long something is going to be around for use, or obstruct. This all culminates when you’re facing imminent doom in 60 seconds which, to be frank, I think it does not flag as a problem until too late (Fascination is extremely dangerous because it can happen super-stealthily right now, I lost two games to stealth defeat).

    The game is ostensibly a cycle of find recipes to create ingredients from which you must new recipes… but there’s another part of battling against the clock to make things happen. Your ovens can only do one thing at a time and, unlike something like Minecraft, you’re not going to get two “work” ovens. While you could take out the timers and replace them with a sort of turn-based mechanism, I don’t feel like it would perfectly translate to a text adventure.

    During the early stages, I think the clicker DNA is not so obvious as there’s a lot of new things to try out and discover. Work is the main constant from the beginning, the need to generate funds. But once there’s a much longer cycle to achieve anything that it becomes clear: for example, I need a new “moth” follower, that’s going to involve collecting followers until one of them turns out to be moth (I haven’t figured out any input into the process). Then it feels like it descends into pure clicker, because I am no longer making decisions and carrying out a plan may take 10-20 minutes depending on my luck. Cultist seems to know this and throw in challenges to stop the rot: dread, fascination and so forth. But they feel like they just make these cycles inevitably lonnnnger.

    (It’s tempting to reach for a walkthrough. The reason I’m playing Cultist is for the moments of discovery, not to beat it. I feel reading a wiki just kills the point of the game. YMMV.)

    Wuh – I can’t believe you’ve never seen the ghost wolf before.

  11. Well yeah, everyone’s just talking about all the weird stuff that happens in autumn and I’m like “I didn’t see most of that stuff” but part of it is because games of Proteus last a little longer than I usually have time allotted for, and since I always spend a while in spring I tended not to explore in autumn as much–and also there isn’t as much animal life just hanging out there in autumn. But this time I did decide just to sit down in the circle of statues and wait for nightfall (I’d also seen a walkthrough, though a while ago) and that led me to the thing that led me to the ghost wolf. Which is sort of what I was talking about–there’s a recipe there, but since you don’t have to do it to get to the end of the game there’s an incentive just to do the other things you can do rather than hit on the recipe.

    Anyway this reminds me–does anyone have suggestions for ambient games? What I want is something relaxing and atmospheric that I can play for like 10-15 minutes before bed time. And not something that’s going to get me going “ooh, just do this one more thing” or “ooh, I’m almost here so let’s stop and figure that out” because then I mean to play it for 15 minutes and I’ve played it for an hour and a half and I’m sleep deprived and I don’t have any time to read my book.

    Along the lines of:
    NightSky (normal difficulty) except I’ve played NightSky like hundreds of times
    maybe some of the less difficult parts of Knytt Underground but I’ve also played that through a lot and it gets into the “just one more thing” problem
    however the music and visuals of these two are aces for what I want
    Proteus if it were something that happened in shorter installments
    Osmos impasse levels if they were much easier and shorter, perhaps
    maybe I should go back to Sword & Sworcery (I restarted it)

    Bonus points for being a game I already own! OK, that’s a lot to ask.

  12. You know, what the clicker-with-riddles really reminds me of is Little Inferno. Though that has no depth–the riddles are really just “What combination of things is the answer to this phrase?” Purely riddles rather than mechanics. What keeps you involved there is ostensibly watching the interaction as everything burns, though it’s really the clicker dopamine response, so that by the end it seems like the satire is of all the time you spent playing the game. At least you don’t send as many hours up the chimney.

  13. Ambient game update: I was finally inspired to get myself Winebottler so I could play Knytt. Knytt is short! This is particularly noticeable if your first encounter with the Knytt universe was Knytt Underground. Also I can see why, if you came at it in reverse order, you might (like Anna Anthropy) compain that Knytt Underground is padded in order to justify its price tag, though I disagree. Now I’ve bottled Saira. This could be a dangerous path, this bottling.

    Also I think the ambient game I want is Walk Or Die.

  14. Hello Matt,

    You haven’t been ignored, I’ve just been attending to that 3,000 word article and organising the stream this week.

    I TOTALLY GET that “end of day” problem as Cultist Simulator completely screwed up my life for the last two weeks. Proteus-wise I find Autumn is my favourite season just because it’s the more weird one. I’m not sure I have any recommendations myself because I’m always pushing forward with new titles. Dissembler is the only thing I find is easy to kill a little bit of time but I’m not sure it’s the ambient game you were looking for.

    The Little Inferno connection was brought up on the stream (I *think* it was Gregg or perhaps Salty Horse) and then I felt remiss about not playing Little Inferno because I loved World of Goo. From what I gather, it certainly sounds like Little Inferno is much more of a clicker than Cultist Simulator though. At least with Cultist, I feel like I’m trying to solve puzzles – some are practical puzzles, like how to get the ingredients together in a certain window, and others are what you’d expect: what do I do next? (I didn’t realise Anna Anthropy didn’t like Knytt Underground because she thought it was padded?)

  15. Don’t worry I didn’t feel ignored! I have no problems posting four times in a row on the same thread, as you probably know.

    The auntie pixelante comments on Knytt Underground are here, in relation to a comment by Terry Cavanaugh that he thinks Knytt Underground originally grew out of The Great Art (which I don’t think is true, but never mind):

    “this actually goes a long way toward explaining knytt underground, because knytt underground is just this with all of the detritus and focus on quantity that one expects (or expects an audience to expect) of some ps3 game that you spend money for.

    “i like this a lot so far. i haven’t finished it yet, but it’s a much richer experience.”

    Which I disagree with powerfully. The problem with The Great Art–besides the awkwardness in the inventory system and controls (why did it take Nifflas so long to settle on up arrow=jump?)–is that while there are often a lot of different places to go, there’s also often only one or two or maybe three that can open up something new. So a lot of backtracking is necessary while you poke and prod at the edges of what you’ve explored.

    In Knytt Underground there’s a lot a lot of different ways to go at any given time in the main game, so there’s less mandatory scouring the map for anything you might be missing. I mean, there are definitely places where you have to go on big loops in order to find a path through something, and there is backtracking, but there’s also usually the option to wander off and do something else and get distracted by a sidequest (they’re all sidequests). In this way it’s much closer to the structure of the original Knytt. And you couldn’t do that without a massive scale. (Well, Knytt does. Though I think Knytt has a lot of paths that are basically linear, like the paths through the clouds. It’d be interesting to do a topological analysis of Knytt.) Knytt Underground doesn’t demand that you 100% it either, which The Great Work does.

    I can’t really recommend Little Inferno. It’s satirical but the ultimate aim of the satire is the amount of time you spend playing it (all the hours that go up the chimney), which makes the player the butt of the joke. It’s like, was your favorite part of World of Goo the story?

  16. Ooh I knew what I had meant to say and forgot! A big difference between Knytt Underground and The Great Work is that Knytt Underground is not really the unlock-abilities-to-unlock-the-map kind of Metroidvania. Which maybe means not a Metroidvania at all, but simply an open world platformer? There are a couple of relatively small areas that unlock through events, but mostly it’s mastering your moves and the secrets of the game that will allow you access to more and more of the world. Whereas The Great Work is decidedly a “You can see something you can’t jump over now, but get some items and you’ll have the power to get over it” kind of game.

    And the first kind of design was something that I think I saw touted as an aspect of the older-school Metroids by none other than Anna Anthropy. Definitely that was the philosophy of REDDER.

  17. I had a similar experience with the game, but i’m not sure i would describe it as being addictive – it feels more like i am in denial about whether i like it.

    I really want to like it. The idea that you figure out it’s occult mechanics by yourself, mirroring the protagonists dabbling with things beyond their understanding, is brilliant. The game builds a great atmosphere, has good writing, and seems to be inspired by the things i like about Lovecraft (dreams, ancient tomes, unspeakable secrets, vague dread, …) in a time where so many focus on the boring and superficial ones (tentacles, cthulhu, …).

    But every time, the low enjoyment-to-tedium-ratio just quenches all wonder, no matter how hard i try to preserve it. Cultist Simulator has displaced Sunless Sea from the top of my games-whose-concepts-i-love-but-which-are-just-to-frustrating-to-bear-list (which has exactly two entries at the moment). The “mechanical” game beneath it all, the one whose mechanics you are gradually figuring out, is just … not that great imo.

    And yet I keep coming back to Cultist Simulator (only to be left with a metaphorical stomach-ache).

    (Sorry for the indulgent mini-rant, i just needed to vent somewhere apparently)
    oh, also: another longtime lurker here, love your work!

  18. Hi Pseudonymous C! I was surprised, in the end, how simple some of the mechanics turned out to be. The rites were substantially less complex than I expected which confused the hell out of me. Effectively it’s about stats of objects as opposed to the objects themselves and the interchangeability was somewhat of a let-down. But I still kinda like the game. It’s really trying and I respect that.

    Thanks for reneging on your lurking duties and adding to the conversation down here instead!


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