Monday, June 18, 2018

Yearning, Burning

This is a beautiful time of year. We're close to the summer solstice, so days are long, with bountiful sunshine filling the hours. And so, of course, I'm spending those long summer days hunched over a laptop, prying into forbidden secrets and raising an army of minions to subvert the natural order and plunge the world into its doom.

The game is Cultist Simulator. It was created by Alexis Kennedy, a founder of Failbetter Games and the creative force behind Fallen London (my longest running online gaming experience) and Sunless Sea (a wonderfully atmospheric and odd roguelike which I embraced). That's quite a pedigree, but I was a bit skeptical of Cultist Simulator when it was first announced. I don't really like playing as "bad people" in games, and while I was confident it would be well-designed, the subject matter didn't seem like it would speak to me. I passed on the Kickstarter and have mostly ignored its development, including a long and very transparent Early Access phase.

The response to the game has been positive, though, including in the Failbetter communities in which I participate, and so I took advantage of a launch-week promotion and picked it up. It proved to be shockingly addictive, and I've found the gameplay and lore occupying much of my waking life, even when I'm not actually playing.

The addictiveness is real. The overall experience of playing Cultist Simulator feels uncannily like playing a good game of Civilization: "just one more turn" has become "just one more minute", and it gets really hard to pull yourself away from it. In Civ, you might be about to log off for the night, and then realize that you're just two turns away from completing a Wonder that you've been working on for a while. So you stick around to finish that as a good stopping point. Except then France declares war on you the next turn. So now you need to marshal your army and order everyone to the front.

Likewise, in Cultist Simulator, you might be wrapping up an Expedition to unearth ancient monoliths and planning to log off once you uncover its arcane treasures. But then Inspector Wakefield shows up and starts prying. You're debriefing a patron on your latest eldritch studies, which will surely catch his attention; but as soon as that's done, you'll need to put a Heart Disciple to work to prepare for the Notoriety that will be produced by your expedition team.  So you do that, but then your research bears fruit and you uncover a new level of Edge that will allow you to perform a powerful Summon. And you need to do that summon now, before your Fleeting Memory fades. And now your Expedition is done, and you've uncovered a new Tool that will allow you to elevate a Disciple further, but only after you have finished the coverup...

And before you know it, your evening has vanished, as schemes and plans whirl and evolve in your head.

Before addressing gameplay, let's get the negatives out of the way first:

The text is really tiny and hard to read. Between this game and Sunless Sea, I'm kind of astonished that people put such effort into creating rich, word-dense narrative games, and seem to pay so little attention to making those words physically easy to read. And I'm lucky enough to have decent corrected vision; I'd hate to be someone with legitimately poor eyesight.

The mechanics feel needlessly obtuse. This is clearly by design and so I can excuse it, but that doesn't keep it from being extremely frustrating for the first hour or so of play. I do think it's much more in keeping with the theme than Sunless Sea; that game also had a steep learning curve, but since Cultist Simulator is all about flailing around and experimenting and unearthing secrets, the opaque gameplay definitely matches the narrative.

And, I think that's it for negatives! Do keep your expectations in check: the game is about 100MB large, with minimal art and no video or animation or 3D models. It's very much one of those games that plays out inside your head as opposed to in front of your eyes.


When I first read about this game, it sounded like it was influenced by Aleister Crowley, or maybe HP Lovecraft. Once I got into it, though, it reminded me a lot more of From Hell, Alan Moore's seminal graphic novel about William Gull. I got this most strongly in my interactions with the Mansus. I had stumbled into it in my first game, not knowing what I was doing, and couldn't remember how I had made it happen or how to go back. I went through a second game never reaching it, desperately trying one act after the other, muttering to myself "I must go back to that place! I have to know!" There is this desire for knowledge, for revelation, that pushes you forward, and can prompt you to do things you ordinarily would not consider.

I eventually won a victory with a Grail cult pursuing the Sensation goal. It's kind of squicky... I had intended to try for Heart or Knock or something, but got impatient while waiting for other lores to turn up in the very early game, and reasoned that I was probably going to lose soon anyways. As with Sunless Sea, though, the lessons you learn in your early failures significantly improve your survivability later.

There were some VERY close calls, though. There were three or so times where I would definitely have lost by going insane or succumbing to despair if I hadn't lucked out with a visit to the Mansus at the last second. (Sometimes literally: less than one second remaining before failure.) As I got further along, I grew more paranoid, and would more aggressively treat my Fascination or Dread as they appeared. Dreaming on these is a good strategy, but I also really like using them as Trappings for cult business or otherwise tossing them into slots where they can be consumed.

Lo-fi games like this are so fascinating because you get caught up in the mechanics of play, and then are abruptly reminded of what concepts and flavor those mechanics map back to. I started laughing as I was approaching the endgame as I realized just what I was doing: after a long period of being cautious, avoiding detection, minimizing potential harm, I was now shoving one prisoner after another into the Spider's Gate, hoping that their blood would reveal the Grail Influence I craved. Then, once I grew impatient at how long it was taking me to find hirelings to imprison, I started locking low-level pawns into my closet. "These anonymous fools will serve me in death as they never could in life!", I might have said.

And... it worked! The steady stream of prisoners kept my appetite fed and kept the Mansus open. I'd been distracting Ezeem in my parlor, nattering at him about inanities, and then sat bolt upright as an Imperative of Appetite came to me. We raced to the basement, recited the Devouring Mysteries, and boom: game over!

In keeping with the Civ parallel, the ending might feel a little deflating after such a long and challenging game, but I didn't begrudge it at all. The entire game has been text, so it's very appropriate to get more text here, and I definitely won't demand a rousing animatic from a tiny developer.

There are quite a few things I'll do differently if I play again:
  • Not sell the mirror.
  • Focus earlier on higher-level Expeditions. I'd assumed that the more obscure ones were more difficult, but as far as I can see, they are not.
  • Start doing Expeditions as soon as I can field Disciples. The Tools you get from here are incredibly helpful and accelerate all sorts of things.
  • Start summoning earlier. I'd been scared off by the warning of creatures escaping. They only can escape while being summoned, and the damage they cause is minor. Especially when using the Rite of the Map's Edge, they're more or less free and can help with all sorts of stuff.
  • Sell off most Spintria. I'd been stockpiling it throughout the game in the expectation that it would be needed in the endgame, but it's almost useless; I think I used it twice. It sells for a lot, and I now think that focusing on commissions is probably the best way to make money, if you can handle the Mystique. Anyways, I ended up with over 100 Funds just from cashing in most Spintria, and it's very nice to not live hand-to-mouth.
  • Aggressively recruit people with Talk. Again, I'd been worried about attracting attention, but it's totally fine, especially if you don't have Notoriety. In an earlier game, I'd done almost all my recruiting via Peculiar Rumours, but that's much worse, as you always get Notoriety.
  • Be more careful about subverting low-level lore and/or stockpiling Tier 6 Lore. I spent days stuck outside the Stag Door because I had subverted my Moth lore and couldn't answer the riddle, finally getting it only after I had retrieved a much higher-level Lore and breaking it down.
I think I might try for a Moth cult next time, as the ability to destroy evidence seems very useful. Heart would be thematically nice as well, though maybe not especially useful if I'm drowning in Mystique. I'm starting to think that it could be good to alternate between periods of high Mystique (recruiting members, fulfilling Commissions) and periods of low Notoriety (just Expeditions). Expeditions take long enough that most of your Mystique might burn off by the time one is done, and you should be able to time your Heart member to start dragging in Notoriety at the time you complete the mission.

I'm unsure about the best background. My victory came with the Bright Young Thing, who I had initially viewed as a throwaway run: you can't access any of the special jobs, and your initial inheritance is only a temporary boost. But, the BYT does get access to more Health, and I now think that might be a solid choice: you can earn a lot more Reason and Passion by studying books, and even though I started out without much of either I ended up with more of that than I could use. Health is a lot harder to come by. That said, the Doctor was one of my favorite runs, as you never need to worry about taking a break from Institute work to pursue your other goals. My one run as a Detective was also intriguing. You can earn a LOT from the top-level Investigating job, and will get plenty of Reason to always get the best income. It also has a much longer cooldown than clerical work, giving you more flexibility to alternate it with other tasks. But the mechanics of this would probably get annoying in the endgame, as you would end up with tons of useless Evidence. (This is an area that honestly feels a little buggy, and I wouldn't be surprised if the late stage of the Investigating job is patched in an update.) All that being said: like I said above, in the future I might just neglect the mundane job and instead focus on commissions.


Anyways! I'm definitely taking a break for now. Addictive games like this can be a lot of fun, but I also need to treat them with caution. It sounds like there are at least some expansions planned, and it'll be interesting to see where it goes next. There are already some elements like the headquarters and spintria that seem ripe for new functionality, and I'm sure there are more which I haven't even imagined yet.

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