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.
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.
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.