This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.
Is solving a mystery inherently rewarding or is it a trick to catch your attention? That’s the question I asked myself while playing through Cultist Simulator. A game shrouded in mystery, where the rewards are doled out by your ability to uncover what the game has to offer. There was a point in my life where pursuing mysteries was rewarding for me. It wasn’t while playing Cultist Simulator or another game like it. It was when I was a kid and full of wonder. I’d feel a sense of discovery while traveling to new places or when I was confined to my room I’d delve into the large worlds found in games like Grand Theft Auto or Elder Scrolls. I’d be amazed by what I found and questioned where else I could go. Asking those questions was rewarding because it didn’t take long to answer them. In a game like Elder Scrolls, I’d wonder “what’s in that house?” and with some lock picking or looking around I’d manage to get inside and find out. Or I’d drive down the San Andreas highway and ask “can I get on top of that mountain?” and with a small time commitment I would find out I could. As a kid I was followed my curiosity on my own terms and frequently saw my efforts rewarded. Cultist Simulator is not like those other games. It’s a game with a rigid structure, where success is clearly defined by the game but vaguely conveyed to the player. You have to work persistently to uncover how you’re supposed to play the game, and invest even more time to figure out why anyone would enjoy this experience. Unless you’re a masochist or driven by mysteries, the more likely result is total exhaustion in the face of confusing mechanics and frustrating failures that feel unpreventable.
Why did I play it?
Cultist Simulator was gifted to me. To be frank, if it hadn’t been a gift, I likely would never have given it a shot. The description of the game didn’t sound like something I would enjoy and the first impressions didn’t hook me. The idea of the game is you’re a ordinary person who delves into the world of the occult. Initially studying strange texts and having odd dreams, you eventually start your own cult and lead followers to go out on missions and expand your influence while anti-cult detectives — known as the “suppression bureau” — seek out your demise.
The mechanics of the game are represented as a series of cards played on a table. Many of the cards represent concepts such as “health” or “money” or “dread,” and these cards are fed into “verbs” such as “work” or “study” or “sleep.” Combining the conceptual cards with the verb cards leads to your main interaction with the game. For example, one of my playthroughs started me as a physician at a hospital. I had a “hospital” card, which when I fed into the “work” verb, which would result in two “money” cards. It doesn’t require much of an imagination to figure out what that interaction represented. Other cards combinations are not as clear. Such as feeding an occult card into “speak,” which leads to your character delivering a sermon on a street corner about a particular cult subject to whoever will listen. The game has some UI tips that suggest what cards can be fed into verbs, but much of the game is discovering what can go where and the subsequent effects. Experimentation and discovery are a core component of the game, to the extent that there is no tutorial or any function that leads the player into the world of the mechanics, it’s all experimentation from the start.
How was it?
Like any human being, I was intrigued by the mystery of Cultist Simulator. We’re all driven by curiosity, so the presence of a mystery is inherently interesting. I played around with cards for a while and found I was making quick progress to starting my own cult.
Where Cultist Simulator falls apart is when you hit a hard wall once you get close to discovering the main appeal of the game. Just as you’re getting familiar with cult machinations, the game throws a series of obstacles at you, none of which give a lot of feedback on how to avoid them. Your character can fail in a number of ways. You can run out of money, get sick, be discovered by the suppression bureau, or accrue too much “dread.” That last one was the most common form of failure I faced and despite playing over a dozen characters across 10 hours, I never found a reliable defense against my dreadful fate. Let’s walk through how that might happen.
A “dread” failure means you have generated three dread cards that have been fed into a verb called “bleak thoughts.” Once you’ve fed that verb three dread cards, you have a limited amount of time to feed it a “contentment” card or else the playthrough is over. However, dread is one of the most common cards in the game. Reading about the occult, having a bad dream, some types of work and countless other random events all produce dread. Since dread exists everywhere in the game, you can’t adopt a strategy of “avoid dread,” because it’s inherent to the game. The secondary strategy might be “produce contentment whenever you can.” As far as I can tell, there is one reliable source of contentment with zero drawbacks, which is feeding the “health” card into the “sleep” verb. This can produce a good night’s rest and you feel content. However, there are four possible outcomes to feeding “health” into “sleep.” You can have a nightmare, you can have a decent night’s rest (no “contentment” card), or you can have a vision of the occult. Which means if you feed the health card into the sleep verb continuously the entire game, you’re only pulling contentment 25 percent of the time, which isn’t enough to combat dread whenever it appears. You can also obtain contentment by using “money” on sleep, which pays for a therapist or results in drug use. This is a more reliable function for combating dread but it also inherently leads to other fail states such as going broke or getting sick.
The issue with the failure states of Cultist Simulator is there’s little feedback on how to prevent these untimely demises and in a game about stacking successive knowledge over a long period of time it’s incredibly deflating to have all your progress wiped by a mechanic you don’t understand. Each playthrough is framed as a new character taking their own dive into the world of cults. Which means any progress you made in a previous playthrough isn’t carried over into the new one. Which means if you spent some time buying books that teach you Latin or Arabic, that ability isn’t available to your next character. You’ll become very well acquainted with the starting moves of the game because you’ll have to do it every single time you start a new character.
The game gets around this repetition by making many of the actions keyed off of randomness. For example, a core component of Cultist Simulator is your character going to a bookstore with strange books that act as a window to the occult (in other playthroughs you bid on books by attending an auction). You can buy an unlimited number of books, but you never get to choose what book you’re buying. So in one playthrough you may get a book that teaches you Latin, and a series of books written in Latin, and in another you’ll get a bunch of books in Greek without ever stumbling across the primer that teaches you how to translate them. In addition to the core randomness, each playthrough gives the opportunity for you to play as a different character. For example, after failing as a physician, I had the opportunity to play as a police investigator who was assigned to the case looking into my physician character’s occult practices. This is a bit of fun storytelling through mechanics where you can see the story of your cult continuing across multiple characters. In this instance, a police investigator gets so wrapped up in his work that he abandons his job and starts a cult of his own. From a mechanics perspective the randomness of each character succeeds at making every playthrough different and reduces the fatigue of repetition, but it actually makes the game more frustrating because you can’t always use your prior failures to ensure success in new playthroughs.
Pacing in the game is dictated by a constant state of time that passes continuously unless the player hits pause, but you can also speed up the game if you want things to move by more quickly. Most of the verb functions take 60 seconds to complete, so the amount of time it takes to run through the opening moves isn’t an immense amount of time, but it’s still a lot of time dedicated to doing the same thing over and over. Additionally, the limited time window allowed for verbs to complete can create frustrating situations. Some occult rituals require certain cards like “glimmering” or “erudition” to be played into them. When these requirements appear, you’re often given 30 seconds or less to feed those cards into the ritual or else the moment has passed. Of course, obtaining “glimmering” or “erudition” requires feeding “passion” or “reason” cards into the “study” verb — an action that takes a full 60 seconds which is obviously less time than the 30 seconds you’re allowed. If you’re thinking “study the cards before the ritual then you’ll have them ready.” Well guess what? “Glimmering” and “erudition” only last 180 seconds. There’s no way to know if the ritual you’re doing will require them, so unless you want to take up an essential verb with repeatedly studying “passion” and “reason” — when that verb has a billion other necessary functions — it’s likely you’ll miss out on some ritual requirements.
I eventually got to the point where I opened an Excel document every time I played Cultist Simulator and created hundreds of “If X then Y” statements to help me get through the game. I found some reliable ways to gain cards I needed frequently and I managed to write down descriptions for cards that seemed to evade my understanding. This document assisted my playthrough of the game but after assembling this document over a few hours I realized that nothing about this process was rewarding. I was actively wasting my time by trying to salvage some modicum of enjoyment from a game that had effectively given me a series of errands to do.
Mysteries can be a powerful tool for hooking a viewer’s attention, but they can’t act as the main attraction. Unless you’re a magician, you need something else going on to please the audience. My motivation to dig into games like Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, Grand Theft Auto or Fez may be based in a desire to solve a mystery, but my enjoyment of those games are the other mechanics. Elder Scrolls’ deep RPG mechanics and storytelling, Grand Theft Auto’s inventive open-ended mission design and Fez’s tightly constructed puzzles. All of those games have a series of reward systems that keep you interested in playing them. Cultist Simulator is a game that dumps thousands of questions on you from the start and requires hours of commitment to answer any of them. The few answers you do find are supplanted by even more questions. I’m sure there are some people out there who love this type of structure, and they’re probably a huge fan of the later seasons of Lost, but I don’t find mysteries to be inherently rewarding. They can be powerful for catching your interest, but there needs to be something else going on. My question to Cultist Simulator was “what reason do I have to care about this game?” and I never found an answer.