The very first thing you see upon loading Cultist Simulator for the first time is a black screen with some white text. The top half of this text is a suitably otherworldly quote from one of Cultist Simulator’s fictional occult authors, but the bottom half consists of the following, far more foreboding statement:
Explore. Take risks.
You won’t always know what to do next. Keep experimenting, and you’ll master it.
In a way I suppose this is at least thematically appropriate. With these four short sentences Cultist Simulator managed to instill a feeling of nameless dread before I’d even gotten into the game proper. Unfortunately it wasn’t the dread of eldritch abominations or unspeakable nightmares, the sort of thing which a game called Cultist Simulator might choose to make its stock in trade. Instead I was assailed with a dire premonition that I was, once again, about to embark upon an unpleasant journey into the waking nightmare that is the Trash Game Dimension.
I’m always deeply, deeply suspicious when a game opens with a line like “Keep experimenting, and you’ll master it..” It’s a sign of two things. One is that the game may be willing to abrogate one of its fundamental responsibilities to the player: that of actually teaching them to play it. It is true that some games get away with a broad philosophy of not having an overt tutorial and instead allowing the player to learn through actual play, but such games have to be exceptionally well structured in order to avoid having the player feel like they’re fighting against an unnecessarily obtuse system instead of playing a game. A good example of this is The Talos Principle, which introduces puzzle components one at a time in simple scenarios to allow the player to grasp what they do before combining them together in more complex ones; it’s still a tricky game, but the player is free to devote their brainpower entirely to figuring out how to solve the puzzles instead of how individual puzzle bits work. A bad example is The Witness, which did have similar teaching puzzles but which spread them out all over the island in a non-linear fashion and deliberately hid the island map from the player. This is 2018, games do not come with 200-page manuals any more, and even if they did I wouldn’t have time to read them1. Teaching the player to play your game is not optional; I do not want to waste my time figuring out what a bunch of unlabelled levers and buttons do through trial and error when I could be actually playing your damn game. You know, the thing I actually paid money to do.
The second thing that “experimentation” implies, however, is far more insidious: that a developer has, deliberately or not, inserted an unnecessary layer of obfuscation on top of their game mechanics in order to hide the fact that, if they actually had bothered to tell the player how they worked, the player would swiftly realise that there’s not much of a game there at all. This is why I was rather horrified to see Cultist Simulator open with those words; it’s a game that leans heavily on its writing — as expected, given that it’s developed by some of the people behind Sunless Sea — but which had to have some meaty mechanics backing it up in order to lend some depth to the primitive-looking interface. If there’s nothing behind the curtain then Cultist Simulator is reduced to a text adventure with a frustratingly obtuse interface. And after 4-5 hours spent on four attempts to build a cult and summon Yog-Sothoth (or whatever the endgame of Cult Simulator actually is), I am sorry to report that that is precisely what Cultist Simulator has turned out to be
(And then there’s a final insult: it’s not even a very good text adventure.)
Okay, so. I have prematurely relayed the unfortunate news that it’s as shallow as a puddle, but what is it you actually do in Cultist Simulator? Upon starting your first game you’re confronted with a single card denoting Menial Employment, and a box with a hand on it. The box represents Work, and you start your Menial Employment by dragging that card onto box. A timer starts ticking down from 60 seconds, and when it is complete you get a couple of Funds cards that represent money. You also get fired, which is not a great way to start the game, but a few more options open up at this point: you receive cards corresponding to your character’s attributes — Reason, Passion and Health — and you can engage in more work by dragging these cards onto the Work box. Health results in you doing backbreaking physical labour for a meagre Funds reward (after waiting the requisite 60 seconds), and also temporarily exhausts the Health card for another 60 seconds, during which it cannot be used again. However, firing a Reason card into the Work box results in you getting a job doing clerical work represented by a special “A Position At Glover & Glover” card that can then be used to earn money from that point on.
Working opens up two other action boxes: a Time Passes box, which automatically sucks in a Funds card every 60 seconds and represents your outlay on food, lodgings and other necessities, and a Dream box. Dreaming is your personal window into the occult, and by putting special cards in here you can progress further and further into the otherworldly Mansus in pursuit of your poorly-defined endgame goal2. Interacting with these opens up yet more boxes: first you get an Explore box for searching out occult secrets, occult locations, and occult secret locations (again represented by cards in game), and your first Explore action will probably turn up Morland’s Bookshop. Exploring Morland’s Bookshop with some Funds will result in you purchasing some esoteric tome, which can then be plugged into the Study box to unlock a fragment of arcane knowledge. Eventually you get access to the Talk box, which is your cue to actually talk to some people, found a Cult, and induct some Followers. Followers can assist in Rites, Explore to find new locations and temporary hirelings, and be sent on Expeditions to specific locations to try and steal everything not nailed down.
Now, having described all of that my description of Cultist Simulator as a glorified text adventure is hopefully a little clearer; you have a selection of action verbs (WORK, EXPLORE etc. etc.) that you can use on the items in your inventory (here represented by the cards you pick up) to advance the story. The fact that I am dragging cards onto boxes instead of typing words into a terminal window doesn’t differentiate it at all; the only thing really setting it apart from a text adventure is the use of timers to have many different things going on at once and tackle things in a less-linear way, but the timers don’t really add anything interesting to the game — they’ll use up certain cards for the duration of the timer plus any exhaustion period meaning that you can’t use them for anything else that might come up, but this is why the first thing you do in Cultist Simulator is start levelling up your base attributes so that you can get more Health, Reason and Passion cards and not get blocked on doing something useful by other actions or card exhaustion. I suppose having abstract concepts present in the game as tangible things that you can use to interact with other things is kind of neat, and I really wish that idea was present in a different, better game instead of making me play Cultist Simulator to get at it.
Part of the trouble — a big, big part — is that the UI is a hot mess. Five minutes into the game and you’ll have built up a dizzying array of cards and action boxes, and the game doesn’t even try to sort them into some semblance of order — no, that’s yet another thing it chooses to leave to the player in tacit acknowledgement that it’s not really possible to try and sort its sprawling mass of concepts in anything resembling a sane manner. Even once you’ve made a basic attempt at organisation you’ll find things quickly careen off of the rails as new cards and temporary card boxes are popping up all the time, going so far as to displace — or even be placed on top of — your meticulously arranged layout.
Of course, an attempt at organisation cannot be made until you understand what the cards are and what they do, and it’s here that Cultist Simulator really started to piss me off because it guards these secrets as jealously as one of the actual in-game cultists would. Right-clicking on a card will bring up a small box in the top right telling you what the card is (which necessarily takes your attention away from the main play area) but it’s very rare that it will outright tell you what a card can be used for; instead it prefers to give you a cryptic hint or two and then leave you to try and figure it out by plugging the card into different action boxes to try and get some sort of useful result. Levelling up attributes, for example, is done by putting one of the attribute cards into the Study box; this will yield an advancement card for that attribute (which in fairness are one of the minority that do tell you what they’re for), and once you have two you can plug both of those into the Study box to get a second attribute card back out again. The thing is there are a few other actions in the game that can sometimes yield advancement cards — Dreaming, Exploring with the Strange Streets In Moonlight card, some of the temporary event boxes that pop up — but none of them are guaranteed; it’s only Studying an attribute that has a 100% chance of yielding a corresponding attribute advancement card, and you’re not going to figure that out except through an extended period of fiddling with the various action boxes.
Until you do start to nail down the basic rules of the game your first attempts at Cultist Simulator are going to end rather prematurely. The first thing you should do in each run is build up your attributes, but if you don’t know how to do that — if, in fact, you instead spend your time “experimenting” like the game tells you to do and get overwhelmed by the baffling array of shit it throws at you — you’re going to be dead within thirty minutes. The reason for this is that every so often your character will contract Sickness; this sucks in a Health card and converts it into an Affliction card. An Affliction card, if left untended for three minutes, permanently converts into a Decrepitude card, depleting your Health. If you have no Health and you get another Sickness event, you die and the game is over. Since you start with only one Health you need to get that Affliction turned back into a Health card if you don’t want the next Sickness to kill you, but there are only two ways to do this. One is to cure it with medicine, but I’ve yet to figure out how to get a medicine card. The other way is to Dream with the Health advancement card, Vitality — but in order to generate one of those, you need to Study with a Health card first. Obviously you can’t do that if your single Health card is now an Affliction card, so if you get Sickness before obtaining a second Health card you’re effectively already dead.
(There’s another easy way to die by accruing too many Dread cards; these can be Dreamed away with Contentment, but until you figure that out you’re probably going to die several times by succumbing to Despair — and unlike Sickness, there’s no guaranteed way to generate the Contentment antidote.)
It’s this kind of unnecessarily punishing bullshit that really turns me off Cultist Simulator. It’s like somebody took the ‘90s adventure game approach of “use everything on everything else until you solve the puzzle” and turned it into a full game, complete with instadeath outcomes for doing the wrong thing. I did my best to play it the way the game wanted — like a text adventure, in fact, by writing down the effect the various cards had when combined with different actions to try and keep track, but I gave this up when I realised that most actions don’t have a guaranteed outcome, instead being dependent on a rather hefty dose of RNG. What exactly is Cultist Simulator supposed to be simulating with its irredeemably tedious dragging-cards-onto-things gameplay, anyway? The player’s slow descent into insanity? Well, they do say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, but that’s precisely Cultist Simulator’s problem. You do actually get different results from doing the same action, making it maddeningly difficult to get a handle on exactly what the hell the game wants you to do.
And again, to make things worse we circle back around to the game’s cryptic and at times wilfully misleading structure. Cultist Simulator does include a piece of helper functionality where you can click on an empty card input to highlight any cards on the table that could potentially fit into it, which in theory shrinks the event horizon of the trial-and-error black hole that most of your time spent playing it will disappear into. Unfortunately it is at best inaccurate as it appears to highlight cards based on card type rather than whether that specific card is actually eligible to be used — there are more than a few cards that glow with the purple highlight when you click on an input box, but you’ll find you’re unable to start the action once you’ve dragged them into it — and at worst tricks you into wasting your resources. Expeditions, for example, are complex actions requiring a Location card, two Follower cards and two Funds cards just to start them. As the Expedition progresses it’ll periodically ask for more cards to surmount various obstacles, and the text will say this can be either another Follower or another Funds card. The helper highlight will correspondingly indicate that, yes, Funds cards can be plugged into that slot to continue the expedition. Except, as far as I can tell, adding more Funds to an Expedition does absolutely nothing; on three Expeditions now it’s just wasted the Funds and sent the Expedition back around in a loop where it burns down a 30 second timer and then asks for more Funds. It’s only Followers that seem to impact Expeditions, so the game appears to be outright lying to me at this point.
Not coincidentally it was at this point that I decided to abandon Cultist Simulator to its lonely mansion of madness. I was on my fifth run of the game and I’d applied everything I’d learned so far to get to a point where I was relatively stable and could attempt an Expedition – except thanks to RNG I’d only managed to pick up one named Believer in four Follower recruitment attempts, with the other three being generic Pawns. Named Believers have their own stats in various attributes but Pawns have none; still, I assumed that doing a simple Expedition to an early-game location would not be particularly onerous and sent my Believer off with a Pawn and a couple of Funds to explore a derelict building in the city. Thirty seconds later it asked for more funds to surmount an obstacle. I plugged some in. Ten seconds later it told me they hadn’t been able to get around the obstacle. Ten seconds after that it told me that an expedition member had died. Another thirty seconds, and it asked for more help. I put in another Pawn this time, but it produced the same result: a dead expedition member. I tried one more time with Funds, and when that attempt failed I quit out of the game. I have no idea why the Expedition failed; the game doesn’t seem interested in surfacing that information, and the only information that it was forthcoming with was outright wrong.
My patience for trial-and-error games like this is very thin at the best of times, but I see absolutely nothing wrong with leaving a game in the mud if it a) lies to you about what you should be throwing into that process and b) can’t even guarantee consistent outcomes. That’s way too many layers of obfuscation to be any fun at all, and I strongly suspect that even if I did put in the hours required to get to the bottom of Cultist Simulator’s maddeningly backwards design I’d find that there’s very little strategy to it anyway beyond crossing your fingers and hoping the RNG doesn’t screw you over. The bizarre thing is that this is the second cult-themed game I’ve played in the past year that’s taken a promising concept and utterly failed to do anything interesting with it beyond creating some pretty visuals and above-average snippets of writing. Maybe there’s something about Lovecraftian horror that messes with game developers’ brains so that they’re unable to marry the idea with actually engaging mechanics, like they’re so distracted by the sounds of rats in the walls that they just throw a bunch of numbers and/or timers into a pot and call it a day. Whatever the reason, Cultist Simulator is a sorry mess of a game that, no matter how good the writing is, sorely lacks a meaningful underlying structure to hang it on and becomes increasingly frustrating to play as you peel back layer after layer of wilful obtuseness to reveal only more wilful obtuseness below. One to avoid if you haven’t bought it already.
- Unless the manual was at least 50% background fluff and detailed unit/building/technology descriptions, in which case you probably couldn’t pry me away with a crowbar. ↩
- Seriously. Four games and I’m still not sure what my character is trying to achieve. Cultist Simulator takes a lot of “inspiration” from the Delta Green sourcebook outlining the Cult of Transcendence so I assume the idea is to become a Transcendent Master equivalent, but — just like the rest of this damn game — it’s never actually explained. ↩
Probably the problem with Eldrich horror games is that you *have* to obfuscate mechanics or there’s little horror in what happens.
When Sunless Sea was announced I hoped it will be a Fallen London game but without a grind. What came out didn’t require me to read as many repeated stories as the original game but it added an extremely boring and challenging trial-and-error roguelike thing for some reason. Don’t get why you need a system like that in an essentially narrative game. It’s as if like Telltale games forcing you to start from the beginning of episode 1 if you miss quick time event. This game looks like the same kind of deal. Sad!
Which leads me to another game with complex mechanics and unique aesthetics and story: will there be a Slay the Spire review? Not that I’m not going to get it on release.
This pretty much lines up with my experience. I dropped 13 bucks on the Kickstarter in the hope that, divorced from Fallen London, I might get the writing without the grind. But I’ve come to the conclusion that this guy can’t figure out a way to present his content without obfuscating it and ruining whatever fun could be found in the premise. If anything, it makes me wonder if Sunless Skies will be better now that he’s no longer associate with Failbetter.
I don’t think Lovecraftian horror is impossible for developers to handle. Bloodborne did it quite well by just tweaking the systems that From was already using. Outside of the digital space, Fantasy Flight has explored Lovecraftian horror for many years. Arkham Horror: The Card Game is a slick co-op take on the idea that is fairly simple to grasp, clear in its mechanics, and still heavily weighted towards player failure, even altering the narratives of its campaigns to accommodate it. The important distinction is that both of these games would work just fine without the Lovecraftian veneer, something that too few Lovecraftian games seem to understand.