Game Criticism,  Game Review

Cultist Ambitions and Card Game Seditions

 

I begin this life as an aspirant. I’m not thrilled with this beginning, but it will have to do. I take a breathe and head to my job, dreary desk work for an accounting firm. It is tedious, draining my passion and reason, as I dream of grander things. And then, it appears to me in a dream. I glimpse something more and just like that, my descent begins. I speak in whispers, then in shouts about the mysteries of this world, until someone points me in the direction of a bookstore that has the knowledge I seek. I read everything I can get my hands on, all the while toiling at my job. Sometimes I slip up, forget to go to work. I grovel to my boss and beg for my job back. I anxiously count my remaining funds, watching as dread mounts but unable to do anything about it. Then, a breakthrough. I find a way into the woods. I wander the streets at night, alone, trying to deepen my understanding. I gain a circle of acquaintances who are sympathetic to my cause (what is my cause at this point? Its hard to chose just one). Suddenly, my world comes crashing down. A weary detective has found evidence against me and I have failed to protect against his meddling. I am locked away, unable to continue my work. I sigh and begin again.

Plenty of games offer open world or sand box experiences. Often, these lovingly rendered games are immersive works of art that draw the player deeply into the world of the game. Cultist Simulator pulls off something far more impressive by outsourcing the resource heavy graphics into the mind of the player, and supplying the pieces of a story without actually laying down the plot. Moreover, it demands that the player be honest about their desires in order to proceed. Cultist Simulator’s use of time and mystery force players to face what it is they truly want in a game without levels, plot, or clear end goals.

Cultist Simulator is a 2018 game from Weather Factor, the brain child of  Fallen London creator Alexis Kennedy and Fallen London writer Lottie Bevan. The game is what happened when Kennedy took a break from the word heavy Fallen London to work on something lighter (he frequently jokes on Twitter about how his games have a higher word count than some novels). The game is a “card game”, which doesn’t really describe it. Cultist Simulator defies any sort of traditional classification. It is a simulator, but not in the way that a driving simulator or even something like Surgeon Simulator is. It is a narrative game, but there is no story, no through line that you can easily describe to summarize the experience. The game asks that you have enough money to feed yourself daily (ish), keep yourself happy enough so that you don’t give into despair, stay mostly free of disease and injury, and keep your nose clean (or a least keep your head down if you cause trouble). Beyond that, your course is up to you. The idea is that you read forgotten books, uncover forbidden knowledge, and found your own cult. But its easy to get distracted along the way.

First, let’s make this clear: this game is not for everyone. The Skinner box card mechanic that I find delightful may come off as tedious or predatory to others. There is grinding in this game, lots of it: grinding for skills, grinding for funds, grinding just to be able to read some damn books. Players who don’t care for narrative games won’t find the sprinkled prose as rewarding as I do. It is undeniable that the game is compelling, even if you don’t find it fun. Watching the clocks tick down around your board is anxiety inducing and exhilarating. Once you start moving pieces into place, it is difficult to stop. I keep coming back the word “compulsion” in thinking about this game. This game is not fun. It is tedious, it is frustratingly opaque. And yet. Cultist Simulator is compelling in a way that is completely unique. When it is working well, it drives you to the very brink of tedium and frustration then dangles something tantalizing in front of you. “It’d be a shame if  you quit,” the game says coyly. “You’ll never learn what else is out there.”

This time, I am a doctor with a position at a hospital. My work is steady, repetitive. I am in no danger if I forget to go. I come across a case file of a young aspirant who’s brush with the supernatural landed him in your care. He was brought down by a weary police man and spends his days behind bars. And yet. His story intrigues me. I dig deeper. I find a strange burlesque story. I meet fascinating people. I find a mysterious auction house and begin purchasing its wares. I still work at the hospital sometimes, but now I paint, fantastic things inspired by the dusty tomes from the auction house. My notoriety grows but art parlays that into mystique. I am eccentric but not suspicious. I bide my time.

Time is measured in clocks, in funds, in moments until your contentment disintegrates into dust. This is a game where seconds matter, though you won’t have to worry about quick time events or twitch reactions. Time limits put constraints of the choices the game gives you. Limited resources and limited time force the player to make concrete choices about their goals and desires within the game. While passion, health, funds, and reason can be increased through various methods, the “verbs” remain static, meaning that the player can only do so many tasks at one time. These limitations yield meaningful choices within the game. Do I translate this book, or do I increase my skills? Do I chance getting addicted to opium dreams or do I hope that my painting will yield the contentment I need? These choices have to be made within an appropriate time limit, and even with a pause button, the choices are illuminating.

Time passes. My collection of books grows. My work at the hospital is all but forgotten. I have founded a cult dedicated to Moth discipline, and my cultists desires are hidden even to me. We raid a mansion and come away giddy with the spoils of our conquest. Among the treasures: a foreign pigment. I add it to my paintings and the rest is breathtaking. I create a masterpiece, The Sister and Witch. The description of a painting I cannot see pulls me from the game and makes the hair on my neck stand on end. “She has been a pair of funeral birds, but here she is as she would wish to drown.” I am spellbound and momentarily pause my machinations.

The anxiety inducing time limits and the tedious grinding are not without their rewards of course. There are the obvious rewards, like progress through the game that happens in starts and stops (its hard to forget the moment when  you first glimpse the Mansus, as the table burns away and the music reaches a discordant crescendo). There are “happy” endings that one can find (though as a fellow player recently complained to me, “I retired and settled down and got a family! This isn’t what I wanted!). But what keeps me going is the glorious prose that I get with each new card, rationed and doled out like candy. I find myself trying new things, just to see what the results will be, hoping to get a scrap of new text.

My saving grace with this compelling game has been that I can only play it at home, on my desktop, where I have accidentally spent hours in marathon sessions playing, dying, and playing again. Today, April 2, 2019, the game comes out for Apple and Android devices. My search for the Mansus and Hours begins once more. I can’t wait to see what other masterpieces I create.

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