#187: Cultist Simulator
Initial release: May 31, 2018
Platform: PC, mobile, Nintendo Switch
Developer: Weather Factory
Imagine you wanted to start a cult. What would that look like? Would you be a Jimmy Buffet knockoff, or would you emulate Jim Jones? Or perhaps L. Ron Hubbard? Regardless, I don’t think it would involve a lot of cards, and yet Weather Factory’s Cultist Simulator is nothing but.
Created by Alexis Kennedy, one of the minds behind the excellent browser game Fallen London and its more traditional sequel, Sunless Sea, Cultist Simulator uses a similar card-based system to string together a player-driven narrative wherein you found a cult and achieve enlightenment. What this boils down to is each card represents some aspect of your life and the world around you. You need money, so you go to work — you can get a dreary day job, or try to earn a living selling paintings, for example. but you’re also exploring the margins of reality itself. As you progress, you can pull other people into it, and from there build a gathering of followers as you try to work out what kind of cult you want to found and what it’s about. All the while, though, there are people whose job it is to stop you, and they must be dealt with.
All of this, of course, is represented by cards. You have a couple of buttons representing actions, and you can place cards onto these actions to tell the game what you want to do: go to work, talk to someone, etc. — and some require multiple cards, or specific cards. Certain actions are automatic and will draw from your pool of existing cards, with consequences, good or bad, if the cards they need aren’t there. In any case, all actions, and many cards, have timers — usually cooldowns, but certain cards will disintegrate over time.
None of this is actually explained to you in the game, by the way. You’re thrown in the deep end with no idea what to do or how to play. Even the basic mechanics — place card here, click the thing, drag over the guy — go unexplained. It was a bold decision, but one that I think takes away from the value of the game. Card-based games like this are increasingly common, which is actually something of a turn-off; it’s essentially boiling down gameplay to disparate, abstract concepts, devoid of any real context. It can be a difficult transition for some people. Even Fallen London, for all its manipulative elements, had more to go on, being primarily menu-based. Cultist Simulator demands a few failures before success; this is codified by the choices of background you get when you start over after your first failure.
For all the game’s obtuseness, the writing is on par with Fallen London or Sunless Sea — dark, mysterious, sometimes funny, with a faintly sinister cosmic undertone, true to its implied setting of London in the late 1920s/early 30s. If only the game were less impenetrable.
I’ll confess: I didn’t get very far in the game. I got a game over or two and then called it a day. the sheer abstraction of the game makes it fairly opaque to me; a purely card-based game simply doesn’t resonate with me in the way that a more traditional simulation would. There’s also the fact that I am somewhat ill at ease playing anything by Alexis Kennedy, who in 2019 was accused of sexual misconduct by several people as part of a larger round of accusations that included Jeremy Soule and Alec Holowka.
While he has denied the allegations, the fact remains that several people have told of their experiences of him (and company records at Failbetter seem to directly contradict his denial that he was dating someone while at the same time serving as their manager.) I believe people of any gender who claim abuse by any gender as a general rule, and even if multiple allegations against someone turn out to be untrue or embellishments, that’s not something I can know in the moment, and so I choose to err on the side of empathy of victims, knowing how hard it is to get abusers to face consequences.
Which makes it a bit of a problem for me to play this game, because while at the same time I believe that if we avoided anything whose creator was imperfect we’d never do anything, I do have some standards. Perhaps I would be less uncomfortable playing this game if I liked it more (hypocrisy be damned), but perhaps not. In any case, unless you really like card games, this game will not be for you. Play Fallen London instead, which Kennedy has not been a part of for years. Or play Shrouded Isle, which operates on similar themes to Cultist Simulator but is a much more accessible management game with a unique visual style. (And if the OG Game Boy color scheme doesn’t do it for you, there’s alternatives you can pick.) Or you could even play Cult of the Lamb — provided it doesn’t get deleted over Unity’s controversial runtime fee policy.
Ultimately, though, Kennedy’s alleged misconduct doesn’t really add or take away from my view of the game. Even if he was a perfect saint, I’d still find the game obtuse, opaque and aggressively inaccessible, which is a shame because the writing promised to be so much more.