Please read these four selections from Cultist Simulator. After you read them, there will be a short quiz.
“It enters the world one limb at a time, questing like a serpent, cawing like a crow, throbbing like a vein. It will cuddle close against my leg, if I let it, and afterwards I will have to dispose of my shoes.”
“In the forest where the moon couldn’t go, the boughs of the trees were woven together like bandages or lovers.”
“His face is creased by so many wrinkles that his features lie buried amid shadowy pockets of skin. Still, the dwarf’s well-practiced habits have left telltale tracks of a welcoming rictus across his visage.”
“In the display cases of the impossible museum, I always see an apple white as snow and hard as marble. A golden beetle in a stern box. A coy geometry awaiting my touch. A black envelope bursting with spring. A brass opera-box for instruments of record and measure. A storm in a tin. I always wake before I see the aisle’s end.”
And now for the quiz:
Which one of those passages actually isn’t from Cultist Simulator? Which one is instead from a very recent and very popular RPG that features a lot of text, and a lot of gameplay, and a lot of appeal for people who might read fantasy novels? Which one has no sense of nuance, offering nothing for the ear or imagination? Which one is rote description with all the flow of thesaurus entries grinding against each other, written as if good writing is simply a matter of finding less colloquial words? Which one has none of the humor of ruined shoes, the disturbing juxtaposition of lovers and bandages, or the cerebral tickle of “coy geometry”?
If you can answer these questions — all five questions have the same answer — you might not mind that Cultist Simulator might not be a very good game. At least not a very good strategy game, or resource management game, or replayable card game, or RPG. It’s a buried narrative. An excavation, really. It reveals the imagination of Alexis Kennedy, one of the writers responsible for Fallen London (formerly Echo Bazaar) and Sunless Sea. This is his first game as an independent developer and it’s an esoteric delight.
Have you played Doodle God? It’s an iOS ditty about dragging two objects together to make a third object. Simple stuff. You might even call it a time waster. But it’s compelling for how it spiderwebs out into a gratifying complexity. Fire plus animals equals food. Food plus humans equals a village, but food plus animals equals a predator. A predator plus humans equals a corpse. A village plus a corpse equals religion. It’s like chemistry, in which we examine how the universe in all its glorious complexity is only ever built from a handful of basic components. But with the gameplay complexity of a toddler playing with blocks. I admit — sheepishly — that I find Doodle God is fascinating.
Cultist Simulator has a similar structure, but not as simplistic. Rather than just bumping things into each other to see what happens, you drag cards onto tiles as a rough approximation of dragging a noun onto a verb. Move the job card onto the work tile to make a living. Move a book card onto a study tile to read it. Move a passion card onto a sleep tile to have dreams.
But whereas Doodle God reveals the familiar, its combos clicking into place with clever little affirmations of the natural order, Cultist Simulator has something else to show you. The more you play — and necessarily fail, as befits this kind of mystery/horror — the more you start to discover something else in there. An economy, a mythology, a set of gameplay systems live underneath the day-to-day reality of going to work, reading books, and sleeping. Your protagonists discover these at their peril and your edification. Your next protagonist will learn more. And the next after him even more. Eventually, one of them will start working in the context of this hidden world’s economy, mythology, gameplay.
The revelation is the point and the captivating writing is the payoff. Cultist Simulator will be ruined if you watch someone else play it first. It might even be ruined if you study a screenshot too closely. In fact, I’d say it will be ruined if you read threads discussing how to beat it, in the same way an adventure game is ruined if you just follow a walk-through. But it might also be ruined if you don’t. Like many videogame stories, it’s got a specific endpoint, and it can only entertain so much faffing about before it runs out of things to show you and expects you to just get to the end already. This was the situation I found myself in. I got stuck a few times and eventually ran out of things to see and do. And then I got stuck again and tried some smaller path and hit another dead end and had to backtrack. Eventually, it was more exasperating than rewarding. This isn’t a Metroidvania. It was more like a nine-point turn on a narrow road to get back to the highway.
So unless you’re in it for what the writing reveals, you’re liable to grind against one of several frustrations. Although it expects you to die, there are no rogue-like returns for your failures. The different starting points don’t make for different kinds of games. The interface is not there to help you because the kinesthetics of moving cards around a tabletop is part of the experience. There’s no autosort because sorting the cards is what you’re doing the whole time. It’s up to you to infer how these cards relate to each other. An auto sort isn’t going to do it for you, any more than a jigsaw puzzle is going to label its pieces in numerical order from the top left to the bottom right.
The title is a bit unfortunate. It might even be a spoiler. It feels like a working title someone forgot to replace. You could take pretty much any sequence of three or four words from within the game and come up with a better title. But I suppose it has to sell. At least it’s not called Cultist Tycoon. If I were Kennedy’s publisher, I’d hector him into calling it Cultist Tycoon. I’d also tell him to add an autosort, bigger artwork, and in-app purchases. Lucky for me, I’m not Kennedy’s publisher. Lucky for me, I’m a guy who doesn’t mind when the conventional wisdom about game design sits in the backseat, or even gets thrown in the trunk, while the writing does the driving. As with Fallen London, as with Sunless Sky, the gameplay is just a framework into which you fit jewels made of words. The end result is a glittering construct of stunningly good prose.