The Joy of ignorance in Cultist Simulator

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I am a lowly aspirant with nothing but my name and my failing body. I am uninitiated. I am a worm in the dark, crawling through the pages of the secret histories of the world.

I’m playing Cultist Simulator.

This is “a game of apocalypse and yearning”, in which players attempt to direct eldritch forces and hidden gods without the faintest idea of what they’re doing. Yearning and apocalypse, certainly, but it is also a game of ignorance. This is the essential magic of the game.

Elsewhere on RPS, Matt notes that, stripped of story,  it “simply boils down to plopping cards in slots, waiting out timers”, and of course he’s right. But it is very adept at harnessing that machinery to its tale of an obsessive, addictive pursuit of forbidden knowledge. In the same way, the remarked-upon lack of tutorial – the enforcement of ignorance – is entirely necessary. Just like the simulated cultist, the player is lost in the woods, groping their way slowly to enlightenment one occult scrap at a time.

There’s no denying it’s frustrating when you lose because you’re not sure what’s happening. With no tutorial and the hints often rather subtle, I missed some important aspects of the game. It took me several playthroughs, including most of the way through one ultimately successful cult, to realise I could perform rituals and summon inhuman Things from beyond the veil without plopping a card in the Desire slot (the fifth and final slot for all spells). And I only figured out you could buy things from the auction house, as opposed to just selling old tat, while I was working on this article. I lost many poor naïve acolytes to bungled raids on the houses of rival occultists before I grasped that the Threat icons that appear during a mission will tell you, with very little obfuscation, how best to counter them.

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However, that’s the key thing in nearly all my catastrophes: they came from my ignorance, not from the game screwing me. It’s far more common that I get greedy and attract too much attention from the authorities, or miss Despair or deadly Fascination (cards that accrue naturally from your activities but end the game if you collect too many without dispelling them) all because my attention is elsewhere. Often, through trial and error, I learned that most of my ends were preventable. Most threats have at least one counter. Some have more. And, crucially, discovering what I don’t know is a joy.

As with Sunless Sea,  it follows roughly rogue-like rules. While there’s no tutorial, the player isn’t without help. Cultist Simulator, like the negotiator of any good Faustian bargain, is up front about its terms. “Explore. Take risks,” suggests the loading screen. “You won’t always know what to do next. Keep experimenting, and you’ll master it.” Ignorance is expected. Failure is normal. For me, being told point blank I wasn’t supposed to know what I was doing let me relax and accept the mystery.

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And, again, there are hints; there are always hints. They may not make sense at first. A card marked “Grail” may tell you little, except that it “honours both the birth and the feast”. But then while raiding one of the game’s many secret locations (one of the best ways to acquire new and useful items) perhaps you encounter a monster that yields to “the Mother’s power”, and you realise your Grail can counter it. The more you know, the clearer the hints are. The more you fail, the more you know.

The game is also pretty good about giving you chances to escape disaster, invariably by sacrificing something valuable, like your health, or your disciples. In the early game, before you have a cult of your own and a follower or two, you’re vulnerable. But the more your cult grows, and the more you discover, the more you have on hand to sacrifice when your back’s against the wall. Again, the journey from ignorance to enlightenment sells the fiction. And goes some way to offsetting sudden catastrophic losses, which is vital to keeping the game fun later in a run when the player has more to lose.

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Just as its card-collecting and tile-plopping support a fantasy of obsession and order as you forge a successful cult (or not) from the chaotic fragments of this world, the initial ignorance of the player puts you in the same place as your character. Figuring out how the pieces connect, realising how to pass a gate in your dreams or new uses for a ritual makes me feel like I’m uncovering something hidden. I can’t remember playing another game where magic feels so much like actual magic.

In most games, even most roguelikes, it’s the environment that’s hidden and your abilities which are known (or soon imparted). You have ignorance of what will come, but not what you can do. The result is that magic in most games is systematic and reliable to the point where it feels like engineering or, worse, little more than a bedazzled gun.

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Cultist Simulator reverses this: you have a rough idea of the terrain, but your potential is hidden from you. Magic is still a system (by necessity — it’s a videogame) but it is intentionally mystified. The result is a system of magic that still feels wild, dangerous, seductive. And when I’m throwing things together based on intuition and hints, scribbling down indecipherable notes to make sense of what I think I know, I don’t just feel like a magician; I am a magician. Magic, after all, is the nothing more than the knowledge of secrets. With each life and each sad, strange death my characters suffer, I gain more of that knowledge. No mind is ever wasted, even the ones devoured by the terrible light of the Mansus. Especially the ones devoured.

This lack of tutorial won’t please everyone, but if you can embrace the mystery, the maddening course of enlightenment will make it a joy. Ignorance may not be bliss, but it’s an essential part of what makes Cultist Simulator so enticing.

Cultist Simulator is out on Steam, GOG, Humble and itch.io for £14.99/$19.99/€19.99.

31 Comments

  1. zontax says:

    I want to like this game. I really should enjoy this game. Oh I wish I could love this game. I’m about 8 hours in and have nothing to show for it. It feels so slow. I don’t know if it is because I’m not a native english speaker but the sort of vague connections don’t click in my head. Maybe I’m just not meant to be a master of the occult arts.

    • airmikee99 says:

      I think it’s more like a solo version of Magic The Gathering for people into Occultish things, it’s a narrative-free card game to pass the time but with references to Occultish things. Having a card called ‘Forgotten Mithraeum’ and another called ‘Ecdysis Club’ are vague references to the Occult, and most people that would get those references right away area already ‘Believers’.

      • Vacuity729 says:

        Ftfy: Most *native English speakers* into Occultish things would get those references right away.
        The OP has a fair point that the cryptic, vague language adds a fairly impenetrable layer of obfuscation for any non-native speaker trying to deal with the English.

        Good luck to the OP; kudos to you for your effort to play this game in English!

        • airmikee99 says:

          Most native English speakers aren’t going to immediately pick up on the vague references found in this game either. Mithraeum is from ancient Rome dating back 2500 years. Ecdysis is New Latin, from ancient Greek. These are vague occult references that anyone into the occult is going to understand more than an English speaker that isn’t into the occult.

      • lordcooper says:

        It’s the exact opposite of what you’ve just described.

  2. aexia says:

    I think the UI needs work. One thing that’s driven me nuts is there’s no easy way to look at cards. Hovering over a card should display it automatically. Instead you have to double-click and scrutinize the tiny icons on the window that pops up. Or if you’re dragging a card somewhere, highlight the valid targets rather than, again, opening up each card one at a time to see if it is.

    • basilisk says:

      The last thing you mention is in the game. If you grab a card, valid targets sparkle.

      • dirtrobot says:

        Iirc sometimes card sparkle and they’re not actually usable in the consumption slot. I recall a lot of trial and error to figure out what is usable. Could be wrong as I haven’t played in a few weeks.

        • April March says:

          If a card sparkles, it fits the slot. It might not be useful immediately, but it has a use that might fit. For instance, you can put a lot of things in the Trappings slot to promote believers, but you need something with matches your cult’s aspect, to a certain intensity, to actually promote them. But the card can go there, because it has a relevant aspect.

          The only entry that seems to actually be in error is Fleeting Memory being possible to be placed in the Explore slot, which happens because of its Secret Histories aspect, even though it never does anything.

  3. fuzzyfuzzyfungus says:

    I think that they made the right decision in keeping things on a things-man-was-not-meant-to-know basis; but must admit that I’ve found the sense of magic to be dulled at points by the fairly click-heavy and not terribly QoL-friendly aspects.

    The process of buying out all the readily buyable books, say, is pretty low risk: but involves a lot of Farmville-timer-clicker juggling: punch the clock at the office every 60-ish seconds; drag bookshop and funds onto explore pad and click to collect on a slightly different tempo(auction house is worse because it’s place, wait 5 seconds, then add funds, which adds the extra friction).

    I’ve heard it suggested to just do all that(along with the “talk about forbidden secrets to attract followers at the, basically painless, cost of mystique accumulation); but hold off on any firm commitments like actually founding your cult; and stashing that as your baseline save.

    And that’s good advice; but the fact that it’s good advice isn’t good.

    There are times when the table-of-timers mechanic gels a lot better; and it’s a tense excercise in planning and improv to make sure that what you have lines up with that you need; and you feel the probably-frenetic-and-intense effects of trying to hold down a job and delve into darkest Sanskrit tomes at the same time; but there are also a lot of places where you use a not-terribly ergonomic interface to do the same thing over and over.

    I can understand why they might have shied away from some improvements: nothing makes “probe the Eldritch lore in dreams” seem less magical than “use shift-click and the dream queue interface like you were honing an RTS build order”; but the problem is that; if you actually are dreaming on Way to The Woods with Passion 20 times in a row to farm secret history; the fact that the UI doesn’t do a “here’s a build queue, sorry if that spoiled the surprise about how you’ll need one” won’t conceal the fact that you do need one.

    The fact that you can’t easily sort cultists by aspect and level is similarly “love the feel, don’t so much love the QoL when I know that I need my best moth-aspect dude and the only mystery is where he is”. Replacing the lovely art and acquaintance flavor text with “here’s the knife pile, the heart pile, the lantern pile…” would be brutal; but it’s hard to keep the mystery suspended when you’ve already read everyone’s bio multiple times and you just need some lantern for that exploration.

    None of this is to say that I’ve disliked the game; nor do I have a good answer for the problem of prosaic interfaces loaded with good QoL feel deeply unmagical; but once you’ve discovered at least part of the system you’ll wish you had one; but it is an issue.

    And, unfortunately, it’s one that(unlike the initial confusion) deepens over time. Experience and tinkering will improve your understanding; but improving your understanding reveals more of the ‘mechanical’ in ‘game mechanics’; which makes having an interface artfully really not good for readily mechanized tasks galling.

  4. mgardner says:

    I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve spent with it, but oh man the UI drives me crazy sometimes. I want to be able to pin the UI elements to the screen but they keep popping up in different locations and displacing cards I have spent time sorting and organizing. It would be lovely if you could stack similar cards like “all cultists” and have an easy interface to see the whole stack at once (currently you can only stack cards that are an exact match). It’s not so bad early in the game when you don’t have very much to track, but soon it becomes an unorganized pile of chaos (and not the good kind with tentacles).

    • kalzekdor says:

      To a degree, that might be more or less intentional. As time goes on, things grow more complex, having to juggle so many distinct scraps and pieces parallels your character’s descent into obsession and madness. Obsessively organizing the cards, sorting through scraps of lore, managing collections of arcane artifacts, and deploying the ranks of devoted followers, all while keeping track of hunter activity, all feels very meta to me. I mapped out the relationships between all the types of lore based on which lore can be converted into other types. Apart from Secret Histories and Knock, they’re actually in a cycle, Lantern -> Forge -> Edge -> Winter -> Heart -> Grail -> Moth -> Lantern, so I organize everything in that order.

      On the other hand, I do wish that exhausted resources (Health, Passion, Reason) stacked with ready resources, and that cards with expiration timers stacked. 90% of the time, I only need to know when the earliest one expires, and the rest of the time a stack interaction dialog would resolve it. Just click on a stack and it expands in a little window to display all the cards in the stack. Would eliminate a lot of the clutter and new cards pushing old cards to unexpected locations. If it also remembered the last location of certain cards, e.g., Notoriety goes here, even if there is no current Notoriety on the board, and they eliminate new cards moving old cards around (just find an open slot for the new card, or just add an incoming card stack or something), it would eliminate a lot of the ongoing micro-managing, but still have the same feel of shuffling through a cluttered desk full of arcane scraps.

  5. M0dusPwnens says:

    I love the idea. I think the core concept is great, and so are a lot of the aesthetics. But it’s like a great book desperately in need of an editor.

    I think I would have less of a problem with the lack of a tutorial if it actually lacked a tutorial. But it doesn’t. At the very start, it methodically introduces you to the basic concepts, and it builds complexity in bit by bit. It does have a tutorial and it doesn’t just throw you into the deep end. But then it just stops. Which is fine for some things – it’s absolutely fine that the esoteric stuff remains a mystery – but for other things like simply understanding the interface, I don’t think it’s fine. It’s not fine that I played for 3 hours baffled as to why sometimes slotted cards disappeared and sometimes they didn’t. It’s a problem when basic actions can rely on tenuous logic – the way to get rid of an illness makes sense if you take “dream” to mean “sleep”, so it kinda sorta works once you know it, but it’s very difficult to figure out at the time without just randomly slotting illness in everywhere. And I cannot imagine someone figuring out how to get rid of Restlessness without simple trial and error (and that one seemed silly even in hindsight).

    The fact that some cards are optional is probably the worst offender and I don’t really understand how this could be construed as an example of “my ignorance, not…the game screwing me”. Curing a sickness is again a pretty good example: you need to fill one of the two slots, but that is not at all obvious, nor is it obvious that the slots are interchangeable. Nor do I understand how trial and error excuses unintuitive design – requiring too much trial and error is normally a criticism, not a justification. The fact that remedying your ignorance is sometimes only possible through trial and error significantly weakens the point that the game’s punishments can be justified because they stem from your own ignorance.

    But those problems are at least problems that go away once you learn the specific things. I do wish the designers had thought to leverage the internet a little more though. Because getting stuck on something unintuitive is frustrating, but the intent is clearly that you’ll avoid looking things up and having them spoiled, and it’s very easy to have things spoiled. I wish the designers had leaned into this thematic idea of consulting other cultists and simultaneously instructed players to only give minimal, cryptic answers to seekers’ questions like good cultists. Obviously not all would follow those rules, but with a niche game like this you could easily see most online communities following them (a lot of puzzle-game subreddits are very, very good about spoilers for instance).

    The bigger problems are the interface.

    The freedom to lay out your cards however you want is great, except that the game will fight with you constantly as it churns cards onto the table in ways that do not at all fit your organization strategy. This is especially noticeable with the basic card types if you sensibly try to keep them organized by cooldown. And once you have a lot of cards, it can be hard to even visually find a card that gets spit out, and you can even miss cards if you’re not pausing frequently. It would be so nice if there were a way to actually dictate where cards went – perhaps card ghosts or some form of table “zoning”. It could even be a part of the game – there are mechanics for cards to automatically suck up other cards, and that could be used to give eventual access to cards that exist solely for organization.

    The biggest problem though is that it also gets impossibly tiring slotting certain things in over and over. The game desperately needs some way to set an action to repeat. Particularly with the Work card, you end up slotting it over and over again, and because there’s the time component, you’re basically rewarded for pausing every single time a clock ticks down so you can immediately slot a card, which makes the game very start-stop.

    • April March says:

      The fact that some cards are optional is probably the worst offender and I don’t really understand how this could be construed as an example of “my ignorance, not…the game screwing me”.

      This is kind of true. The moment I realized that for many things (promoting followers, performing rituals) the important thing wasn’t that all slot were filled, but simply that a certain “intensity” of each aspect was filled, that was when the game opened up to me. The language is very obtuse, promoting followers isn’t always clear and rituals are not only rare but also confusing because of the Desire slot.

      But…

      Curing a sickness is again a pretty good example: you need to fill one of the two slots, but that is not at all obvious, nor is it obvious that the slots are interchangeable.

      This is actually the worst example, because it is the only instance in the game where it actually tells you that you need medicine or vitality.

  6. Emperor Norton I says:

    I absolutely loved this game. The thing I loved most was exactly what was described in the article – the mystery of it. I may be in the minority, but I was able to follow most of the clues pretty quickly to figure out the importance formulae and menace strategies necessary.
    I did look a few things up. I looked into ways to generate Dread, because it turns out that it becomes hard to get in the midgame. I looked into the doors a bit, because it turns out your lore can be TOO HIGH to use on particular doors.
    I didn’t mind the UI, but I seem to be the sort of player who is never really bothered by UI and is more annoyed by QOL concessions than pleased by them. It would be nice if you were able to draw corrals on the table, where card types would automatically be placed. Let it throw them there randomly – fine – but at least put all the things back in the right general area. However, I dealt with the UI by just setting up a rigorous system, and sticking to it. Cultists HERE, lore THERE, artifacts up THERE, etc. I didn’t really mind.

  7. Killy_V says:

    I tried, but I don’t like this game. It’s not fun. UI is terrible. I don’t get what to do, I don’t get the condition of loosing or wining, very often I’m in a situation I have no health and I suddenly loose because of blooming red timer with no way of preventing death, or I have no money so I can’t do things to gain health or progressing. Very often trapped in those loop. Since the game doesn’t tell you how to get away from these loops, it’s not fair nor fun.

  8. BaaBaa says:

    This is a game that I would fondly describe as a failed experiment in abstract storytelling. I love the concept, I love the writing, but as a game it just never came together for me.

    • dirtrobot says:

      I’m of the same vein. I loved the idea of everything this offered and really this ticks a lot of my boxes for a game that suits me. But by god, the UI, the opaque nature of how to really do anything to further your magical exploration, the weirdly deflating grindyness of trying to stay solvent and alive, the bookstore randomness, the fact the excitement never really seems to build and the mood is pretty steadily dull made me put it away.
      I actually question if cards were the ideal interface for exploring this idea of building a cult and exploring forbidden knowledge. I think it would have fared much better as a pseudo boardgame with proper meters and other means of indicating and feeding back on progress.
      I don’t argue its merits with anyone who likes it, it’s def a polarizing experience and I hope that team continues along this line!

    • April March says:

      To each its own; I’d describe it as an incredibly succesful experiment in storytelling, and the only interactive fiction (as in ‘text adventure’, because that’s what it is) that comes close to the deep systemic complexity of an immersive sim.

  9. second_hand_virgin says:

    Tried to love it – it’s not hard, writing and idea are lovely – but UI is a nightmare, barely readable on any screen (tried on 10″, 15″ and 50″ and in any usable resolution, nothing works except puting my face into a screen). So yeah, love, but waiting for playable version.

  10. croucrouic says:

    Tiny UI “trick” I found : don’t stack health/passion/reason, put them in a column and cards will go there when they return from a slot. Form a line with your slots with a big space under them for popping rep and influence. You’ll still have to move them a lot but you gain some clicks and lower frustration a bit. That way, cards won’t be moved that much by the game. (sorry, not english speaker)

  11. Rubel says:

    I’m surprised at all the people who came here to complain. I loved this game’s evocation of weirdness and obsession. I stubbed my toes on a couple of the UI issues people describe, but it hardly got in the way of the feeling of scrabbling together my big psychopath’s wall of newspaper clippings and strings, always moments away from the big picture.

  12. pookie191 says:

    It honestly felt more like you were constantly banging your head against a brick wall until you found a weak point

  13. frymaster says:

    A card marked “Grail” may tell you little, except that it “honours both the birth and the feast”. But then while raiding one of the game’s many secret locations (one of the best ways to acquire new and useful items) perhaps you encounter a monster that yields to “the Mother’s power”, and you realise your Grail can counter it.

    This is why I’ll never play this game. From those two descriptions I’ve literally no idea how I’m supposed to realise that the Grail counters that monster.

    • April March says:

      When you go on an expedition it’s usually way more straightforward than that – “We need Lantern to find our way, or Forge to make our own.” The more esoteric hints only come around way later, when you should have figured it out anyway.

      Also, I’m somewhat sure that the Mother’s power is actually Knock, which is connect to the Hour known as the Mother of Ants.

    • hungrycookpot says:

      Once you understand the concept of that though, you quickly realize how the system works and that different lores/influences counter different challenges, and it’s quite obvious which one when you see the challenge. It’s just a matter of deciphering that this is possible. I’m really glad this is the case, because I love games where things like this are left up to me to discover.

  14. Shiloh says:

    It’s not a particularly good “game” – it’s a very good “hey look at us we’re quite edgy and you know, not knowing what you’re doing is cool and if we offer only the most oblique of hints during your first 15 run throughs you’ll probably pass the 2 hour refund limit on Steam and be stuck with it…”

    I didn’t enjoy it, I’ll not be replaying it, and I’m stuck with it. Caveat emptor.

    • April March says:

      I can’t see how it’s edgy. It doesn’t throw blood and gore in your face. It’s quite cavalier actually.

      I’m sorry you didn’t like it and can’t refund it, but I played it to completion over some two weeks, needing outside help only once or twice, and will be coming back shortly to complete another ascension before the announced DLC drops, since it’s supposed to make expeditions more difficult. It is a very hard and confusing game, but it’s my personal choice for game of the year.

  15. hungrycookpot says:

    It’s definitely not a game for everyone, as many commenters on roguelike discussions have heard before, and that’s just dandy with me. Imagine if this game had none of this mystery and everything was explained right off the bat for you? “Followers and summoned monsters (which are created like so) have an aspect which can be used to directly counter challenges on expeditions. All challenges have a direct counter”

    How boring of a game would that be? It’d basically just be an idle card game. The whole joy of the game is discovering how things work and unlocking new parts of the story that others may not have been able to find, and that’s not going to resonate with everyone. For those people, other games exist.

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