Video Games

Log: Cultist Simulator – The dissatisfaction of unanswered questions

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.

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Your table begins relatively sparse, but Cards and Verbs stack up very quickly.

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.

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Organizing your table is an ongoing annoyance. Temporary cards cannot be stacked and the game has a habit of spitting new cards at you without any consistency of where they’ll show up. Examples: the “Fascination” card in the center is plopped on top of another card or the various “Mystique” cards are never placed near one another.

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.

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This particular book was written in Greek and requires translation, but acquiring the necessary dictionaries isn’t straightforward.

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.

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Dread cards are a source of frustration and frequently lead to your demise.

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.

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With persistence you can uncover strange occult interactions with the game, which can be rewarding, but often times how you got there isn’t clear and what to do next is even more vague.

Final Thoughts

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.

2/5

Time: 10 hours played

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Video Games

Log: Valkyria Chronicles – A sleeper hit with more potential than substance

This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.

There’s a mission in Valkyria Chronicles, a turn-based strategy game released in 2008 that has since developed a cult following, that encapsulates my feelings on the game. Main characters Welkin and Alicia, are lost in a forest. Alicia is injured in a cut scene which translates into gameplay with her receiving reduced movement speed. Welkin suggests he scouts ahead since he is more equipped to deal with problems, then Alicia can follow behind him after he’s cleared a path. Along the way, Welkin discovers special blue plants he can use to heal Alicia’s wounds. However, the player is only given three moves per turn. Meaning the player can move Alicia twice and Welkin once, or Welkin twice and Alicia once. The mechanics around the blue plant require Alicia — the injured character — to find the plant first. Then Welkin can use the plant on her. This means it benefits the player most to move Alicia twice and Welkin once. Which also means that the only way the player can progress in the level without wasting turns is for Alicia to limp ahead, scout the area and kill all the enemies then have Welkin follow behind her. Once you understand the reality of the mechanics, success is easy, but the rules around Valkyria Chronicles and its various challenges are neither intuitive nor rewarding to solve.

Why did I play it?

I remember purchasing Valkyria Chronicles the week it came out back in 2008. It was pitched as a strategy game, similar to grid-based tactics games popularized in the 1990s but without the grid. It was a modern take on a beloved genre that had gotten stale over the years. I liked the idea of the game but found myself bouncing off of it consistently. I never finished it, but remembered in fondly without really knowing why I liked it or why I stopped playing it. Since Valkyria Chronicles 4 is coming out later this year — and because Valkyria Chronicles 1 was re-released on Steam last year — I decided to finally complete my time with the original game.

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A typical level in Valkyria Chronicles has your squad attempting to capture base camps while navigating terrain and enemy positioning

How was it?

Valkyria Chronicles makes an excellent first impression. It’s design is slick and intuitive, the characters are original and full of life and the context of the game’s events are uniquely thought out for a video game setting. The game takes place in a stand-in for Europe, known as “Europa.” The continent suffered a world war a few years prior to the game’s events and now the continent is at the precipice of a second Europa War. The allegories to World War II are obvious, but the similarities stop there. The player takes command of Squad 7, a militia squad serving the country of Gallia’s military. Gallia is a smaller country getting dwarfed by an aggressor empire hoping to secure their resources. The political motivations of these countries are complicated. Gallia has access to a rare resource that can be used to build stronger weapons, but they’re typically a neutral nation with plentiful farmlands. They stayed out of the first Europan War while the Imperial Alliance in the east fought with the Atlantic Alliance in the west. Of course, now that they’re thrusted into conflict, the Gallian government is split between allowing the nation to be enveloped into the Empire or maintaining a hopeless struggle against an enemy with superior force.

Internally, Gallia has its own problems. The country is home to Darcsens, an ethnic group identified by their dark hair color, who are treated as second-class citizens. The country maintains ancient lore that suggests Darcsens are responsible for a century-old calamity that brought deserts to Gallia’s otherwise green and prosperous lands. With all this in mind, the characters of Squad 7 aren’t your typical Disney-inspired regular Joes fighting for a good cause. They’re a collection of misfits who know their country can’t realistically win the war, and many of them hold resentment for their fellow countrymen as the cause of their current misfortune.

The politics of Valkyria Chronicles makes the world feel real. It has a level of sophistication and thought that most video game stories neglect. Other than the main characters, Welkin and Alicia, most of the characters are not painted as true-blooded heroes. One of the central fights of Squad 7 is a bartender named Rosie. She’s easily the most capable fighter and loyal to the Gallian cause, but she holds deep resentment for Darcsens. Valkyria Chronicles imbues these personality traits into the gameplay through a system referred to as “potential.”

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Many of the “good guys” on the Gallian side are unlikable opportunists, while some of the “bad guys” on the empire have personal motivations that are easy to empathize with.

One of the best snipers I had on my squad had the attribute “Darcsen Hater,” which meant that their stats would decrease whenever I put them on a mission with a Darcsen squad member. This character had voice over quips about their prejudice, and they generally acted like an asshole the entire game, but the reality was they were one of the most vital assets to my strategies. That character, and others like him, made me reflect on the historical books I’ve read about presidents looking the other way when their generals were dismal moral deviants because their skill was necessary to win the war. Playing as the captain of a squad of misfits, you may find yourself making the same tough decisions between choosing morale allies or effective ones. Much of Valkyria Chronicles narrative story (told through cut scenes) and emergent story (told through gameplay) reflect the reality of armed conflicts in the modern era.

As much as I enjoyed the setting of Valkyria Chronicles, the strategy behind the game was repeatedly unintuitive for bizarre reasons. The game was designed by SEGA, a japanese studio that took obvious influence from anime story telling that directly impacts the gameplay. There is a big focus on throwing curve balls at the player. While one might suspect a traditional curve ball in a military-style game would be an ambush, or reduced supplies, or a pincer attack — Valkyria Chronicles deals in anime tropes. One of the earlier missions had my enemy assisted by a bloodline goddess who could shoot blue lasers out of a spear from across the map. This character could not be killed or damaged, it was something I had to deal with by avoiding her. Sure enough, my first playthrough of that mission resulted in failure. Once I knew to expect the curve ball and plan around it, the second playthrough became very simple. The entire game has these types of out of left field nonsense.

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Some tactics have inconsistent results, such as this plume of smoke that failed to prevent a Heavy Tank Gun from shooting with perfect accuracy.

These curve balls have become a bit of trope for many Japanese games, where the odds are stacked unfairly against the player and their best recourse for success is to adopt an even more unfair playstyle (consider a series like Dark Souls where cheesing bosses is part of the game). I quickly learned that viewing Valkyria Chronicles as a captain in charge of a realistic tactical battle was a fool’s errand. Rather than clearing out battles slowly and safely, it benefited me more to run past enemies and capture their camp — ending the mission successfully within one or two turns. I learned this lesson best from the enemy AI, who would frequently run past my troops to my empty camp and force my failure. Additionally, the game ranks each mission performance with a letter grade. The only metric for success is completing the mission in the fewest turns possible, regardless of if your characters were horrifically murdered along the way or if half the enemy force remains after you complete your objective.

Final Thoughts

Valkyria Chronicles is one of those games where the more you know about it, the less you like it. It’s a game with a lot of promise and intriguing concepts, but it’s lackluster design gets revealed with the smallest amount of scrutiny. The setting of Gallia and the complicated character motivations held my interest, but as someone who’s not a fan of anime, the narrative went in a whacky direction I felt betrayed the intelligence of its premise. Silly anime tropes could have been made up for with higher quality design, but as I got more adept at gaming the systems, I enjoyed the game less and less even though I found success more and more.

Even with my complaints it’s easy to see how Valkyria Chronicles developed a following. It offered something unique and rejuvenated turn-based tactics in a way that held promise for the future of the franchise. Unfortunately, the series has been plagued by poor management decisions since the first game was released ten years ago. A forgettable portable sequel and a low-budget follow-up were largely ignored by the press and public for valid reasons. Luckily, Valkyria Chronicles 4 will be released later this year, which looks like a proper full-budget sequel. I was happy to refresh my memory on the series and remind myself of the potential it possesses, even if its first entry wasn’t all it could have been. As it stands, Valkyria Chronicles is an interesting game to remember and exciting series to follow, but the original game might not live up to your expectations for it.

3/5

Time: 40 hours played

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Musings

How I spend my time

Earlier this year I had a life-altering revelation: my time is limited. It seems obvious. You may already be mindful of how you spend your time, but doing the numbers for myself revealed the value of how I spend my time. There are 52 weeks in a year, each with 168 hours to allot your time. Ideally, 70 of those hours you should be sleeping (although it’s probably closer to 60). If you have a full-time job than another 40 hours go to your job. On top of that you have to commute there and back which optimistically is another hour every day but for many people it’s closer to 2 or 3 hours daily. Off that alone you have maybe 45 hours left of your week to do other things but you also have to eat and do mundane things like put some clothes on before you go out into the world. Maybe you forgot to do laundry for a while and now you have to deviate your time to that task as well. In fact you usually find time sinking into miscellaneous tasks you didn’t plan. You meet up with a coworker, or you go on a date, maybe you see a movie or attend an event in your neighborhood. These don’t have set schedules but they happen frequently enough you have to account for another 10 hours a week doing other things. Which means you’ve got 35 hours or fewer in a week to do other things. Maybe you’re really busy and it’s more like 10 or 20.  Let’s go with 30 hours. Over a year, those 30 weekly hours would amount to 1,560 hours in a year. This is where I would usually say “1,500 hours? That’s plenty of time to do everything I want in a year.”

A few years ago I got big into The Witcher 3 and I ended up playing over 200 hours of it in a single year. I love the idea of delving into something for the long-haul and squeezing everything there is to get out of that commitment. I remember playing through The Witcher 3 and feeling compelled to finish every side quest, see every plot of land and talk to every character. It was an incredible world and every second spent exploring it felt like it benefited my time. I’ve also dove deep into historical nonfiction books. I took several months reading a 900 page biography about Dwight Eisenhower, much to the groans and moans of my friends who discovered I could plant a fun fact about our former President in pretty much any conversation. These commitments were a huge time sink but they’ve had a noticeable effect on my life. I have a deeper appreciation for how fictional worlds are created from playing Witcher 3 and I have an immense amount of knowledge about one of the more relevant presidents in our nation’s history. This is the ideal of how to spend your time. The process is engaging and you get something out of it. Keeping this ideal in mind — 100 to 200 hours of commitment to truly understand something — 1,500 hours start to look a lot shorter. 

Fear of wasting time has kept me from committing to this ideal for most of my life. I’m sure many can relate to the feeling of restlessness. Not interested in any particular hobby and dissatisfied with whichever one you end up settling on. I’ve ping-ponged between interests and ended up dumping more time into doing nothing than applying that time to something useful. That’s how I end up playing three hours of a dozen different games and never finish any of them or how I’m 100 pages into seven different books and have forgotten about them for so long I’d have to start over if I wanted to finish them. You’re always second guessing your initial interest. Is this really what I want to be doing right now? Is this the best use of my time? It’s easy to say no to those questions and do something else, only for the same concerns to plague you again. It’s not productive or rewarding. 

Well now, I say no more.

I’ve started to guide my time with more direction. I’ve decided to commit myself to pairs of interests. Two books, two games, two television shows and two alternative hobbies (I’ve been ‘learning to play the piano’ for over a decade and can’t play anything other than Where is My Mind). With this format, I can reasonably expect to finish each of these two things within a month’s worth of time. Not many games are over 30 hours, not many books take longer than 100 hours to read and television shows are easy to chip away at gradually. Rather than idly stare at my options and fuss about what I’d be most satisfied with, I’m committing to things. There are days where I want to do something more or less than usual, and my think with pairing off each media group is if I’m not feeling one thing I have another option in the same field. Even with that second option available, the commitment keeps me vigilant when I’d otherwise give up.

I came across this concept of time allotment from my dad of all people. My dad started playing video games a few years ago and he plays games in a way I thought was bizarre. He plays one game, continuously, over and over, until he is completely done with it. Then he puts it down and never thinks about it again. He understands its entirety and it is now dead. It seemed like a great way to burn out on something and not have any fun but I see now that he may have been onto something with that approach.

There’s immense satisfaction knowing you have truly completed something. Not in a way where you’re flipping through the pages just to get to the end, but you actually understand the content of a creation and everything about its existence is known to you. It’s a deeper relationship and more meaningful than a flurry of half-remembered experiences.

Most importantly, as a writer, I feel it’s necessary to have some sort of log of my commitments. I’ve already dabbled with this a bit with my 52 Albums in 52 Weeks experiment back in 2016. I’m going to resurrect the concept of that approach with this new philosophy. I’ll be posting short reflections on the things I do and complete, mostly for myself, but you may find them worth reading as well. I’ll be taking a more informal approach to these log entries. I tend to get hung up on writing something truly terrific, something that flows and has importance. This is how this website has less than five entries over the past year. My standards ensure I never write anything. The logs will be less ambitious, less formal and more frequent.

I hope these logs explain my thoughts more effectively and allow for some good recommendations or critiques on how I spend my time. Maybe now I will finally finish Blood Meridian.

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