The seconds tick away, rushing ever closer towards the end. Can Reason save you? Your passions? Do the cadre of initiates you have gathered to your cause see the Dread that eats at your very soul? Will time run out before you can fulfill your purpose?
Cultist Simulator is the newest game from designer Alexis Kennedy, creator of Fallen London, and game company, Weather Factory. Taking place in a vague, 1920s-esque, undefined place, you assume the role of a character swept up in the occult, through your own doing or through the influence of others. Where it leads is up to you and your experimentation, exploration, and study. While the design is clearly based on tabletop card games, the mechanics all rely on the huge amount of possibilities available.
I spoke over e-mail to Lottie Bevan, Director at Weather Factory about the game, its inception, lore, and future.
Brian: What inspired the game for you? (in terms of both the content and the gameplay)
Lottie: Lovecraft has always been a big influence on Alexis’s games. He leant away from it in Fallen London and Sunless Sea, as describing something as ‘Lovecraftian’ often obscures the originality of the work, and Alexis is nothing if not original! But Cultist Simulator seemed like such a good fit, we wanted to lean into it for the first time – and we’ve been told this is the first ‘Lovecraftian’ game that feels true to the original fiction/world, which is a wonderful thing to hear!
As for the inspiration for gameplay, it was games like Doodle God and Fallen London (are you allowed to cite your own work? Fallen London is very flawed, but the ideas are still interesting to us).
Brian: While this will be compared to Lovecraftian horror, why have you stayed away from the darker, more monstrous weird horror in favor of the more cerebral/personal?
Lottie: Alexis’s approach to narrative design – which he’s previously called ‘fires in the desert’, or ‘apophenic design’ – deliberately leaves spaces for the player to project their own personalty and motives onto the game itself. We don’t want to lead people through a story, here, the game’s set up to let players write their own Lovecraftian demise. So while Lovecraft’s mythos is a brilliant work of fiction, it might feel a bit flat if it were just laid on top of an interactive experience like a game. A more personal approach – deciding specifically what you’re going to do today, surrounded by the half-glimpsed snippets of this occult world around you – is a much more emotive experience for the player than ‘There is a big tentacle monster! Now you are mad!’
Brian: I think one of my favorite bits is that occasionally weird pictures appear and disappear on the tabletop. The art for that is also drastically different from the cards. Are there plans for more of those moments?
Lottie: There is! They’re burn images which are meant to mark particularly significant moments in a player’s game – the first time they Dream of Passion, for example, which is the first step on the road to the Mansus. We want to make sure the game remains spacious enough for people to breathe, as the late game in particularly results in a very crowded tabletop at times, but as we add more content, there’ll definitely be more important moments in the game we’d like to mark in this way.
Brian: When I realized that my second character, a doctor, had been treating my first character, lost to DREAD, I was startled. How deep are the connections between one player’s characters?
Lottie: I’m glad it had that effect! Previous characters’ experiences bleed into new characters’ games, but this is another bit of apophenic design: there are a few mechanical bits and pieces, like your dead character’s diary turning up in your new character’s game, which connect them, as well as some deaths opening up new legacies entirely (e.g. try getting arrested, and see what role your next character’s offered!). But a lot of experience is passed on in the player’s mind: partly, they know better how to play the game, what recipes are available to them, what strategies work well, but they’re also compiling a bigger picture of the Mansus and its world than you ever get in one isolated playthrough.
Brian: Do you think that the difficulty of the game – and the lack of a tutorial or even a recipe list – could be a turn off for more casual gamers or those with less interest in the plot? Are there plans for modes that include discovered combinations (ie Study two Vitality to create a new Health, etc)
Lottie: This has been probably the biggest question for us during development. On the one hand, we work hard to make Cultist Simulator inclusive: you never have to define your gender or sexuality, there’re lots of ethnicities and genders among the NPCs, the game itself runs on very low-power machines… On the other, we really wanted people to think, and to play the game with a constant sense of trepidation and mystery. So we couldn’t make it too easy without removing that important theme.
We’ve added a *lot* of breadcrumb text to lead the player to combinations which work, and to give them an idea of what they should be aiming for, but CS is first and foremost always going to be a game about experimentation. We’re not planning to implement recipe lists at this stage, unless we receive overwhelming calls for it once we’re live! One of the nice things about being an indie microstudio is that you don’t have to sell a million copies to be financially successful, so CS is definitely a Marmite game – we just hope enough people like Marmite on launch day. 🙂
Brian: What is the next step beyond release? Expansions? An analog version? Animation?
Lottie: We’ve always planned to release DLC after launch. It was one of our core promises to Kickstarter backers, and the main selling point of Perpetual Edition (a limited edition version of the game which grants free DLC for life). This DLC will be content-based and add new legacies to the game, primarily, along with all the associated content you’d expect from that.
We also have plans for localisation, and *p o s s i b l y* porting, though we’re keeping shtum on the details of that for now. 🙂
Brian: What is the planned release date? Steam/PC only?
Lottie: We’re launching in two weeks, on Thursday 31st May at 7PM BST / 11AM PDT! It’ll go out on Windows, Mac and Linux across Steam, Humble, GOG and itch.