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When Does a Compelling Game Become Nefarious?

I'm addicted to 'Cultist Simulator' but I'm still not sure I like it, and that worries me.

by Rob Zacny
Jul 30 2018, 9:44pm

Screenshots courtesy of the Weather Factory

Open Thread is where Waypoint staff talk about games and other things we find interesting. This is where you'll see us chat about games, music, movies, TV, and even sports, and welcome you to participate in the discussion.

I spent a good portion of the last week playing Cultist Simulator, the debut game from the Weather Factory, and probably even more time thinking about Cultist Simulator. I still don’t really know what it is, or what I’m supposed to do with it. This is the whole point: It’s a game about discovery through failure and experiment. An occult puzzle box that yields its secrets and reveals its layers only gradually and after countless false starts.

I might hate it. I don’t know, which is why I’m sitting here talking to you in the hopes that together we might be able to reach some kind of verdict or resolution. An exit to this maze, or a release from this prison.

Cultist Simulator is about combining and recombining different types and groups of cards with different action spaces and seeing what the hell happens while hoping that your cult-leader doesn’t die from human sacrifice, despair, mania, or—far more common in my experience—poverty. But as you progress, you unlock more mysteries, more possibilities… and ultimately more action spaces and cards for you to combine and recombine in the hopes of eliciting some kind of reaction from the game.

A lot of great games operate according to similar logic. Text adventures expect and demand that your first job will be cartographic: Where am I, what is the terrain, what can happen where, and how? A lot of Twine and browser games operate the same way, and much of their meaning comes through the combination of exploration and failure.

That can be used to powerful effect. A game I think about a lot in my line of work, Michael Lutz’s The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo , might still have been an interesting short story but would it have been as interesting or meaningful? If it had unfolded as a linear narrative, a familiar but nonetheless compelling combination of internal monologue and external action, that you could read in 10 minutes? I don’t think so. That story and my reaction to it depended on deepening confusion and frustration as I raced through familiar choices, trying everything I could think of to cause the looping narrative just to change. And in that repetition, the change itself became more meaningful. It commanded more attention and became something I could feel and not just understand.

But after many hours with Cultist Simulator, I am not sure I’ve had the moment of realization or discovery that pays off the mystery. I have extended my map of the game quite a bit, and am getting increasingly fast at completing the opening stages after a character’s death forces me to restart… but I’m also starting to feel like an old greyhound that just wants to stop chasing that fucking rabbit.

With each step I take through the game, and up the ladder of occult mysteries that I’m climbing, I get more uncertain about my motivations. Is there anything I want to discover and understand about this game, really? Or is it just there on my PC, infuriating in its inscrutable fussiness, and teasing in its occasional concessions to persistence where it finally deigns to make something new happen...something that ultimately turns out to be the same as before?

I don’t know where mystery ends and manipulation begins, or on which side of that line I find myself with Cultist Simulator. I suspect that line does exist, and I think there’s something about Cultist Simulator that made me want to find it in a way that games like Michael Townsend’s A Dark Room never did. I’m not alone in this. Joel Goodwin got much further with the game but, as his superb video illustrates, he still remains comically ambivalent about it overall.

Even by entertaining these thoughts, I suspect I’m still playing the game, or being played by it. Early in my time with it, I got what might be the best ending in the game: A life of quiet success, comfort, peace, and finally obscurity. The life of someone who contemplates pursuit of endless mysteries and asks, “But what if we didn’t?”

My question here is twofold. First, if you’ve played it, what do you make of Cultist Simulator? Second, what do you make of the puzzle box approach to games in general? What are examples of good, satisfying mysteries you’ve solved, and what games left you feeling like you were the one getting played?

Let me know in today’s open thread!