Date: January 11, 2023
In this new series, we’re going to take a look at cult classic games, from the era of the Magnavox Odyssey to the era of Mario Odyssey. And there’s no better way to start a series on cult classics than with a game about cults.
A cult classic is a piece of media that doesn’t appeal to everyone, but has a small, passionate following. A lot of cult classics bombed with audiences and/or critics at the time they were released, but have stayed relevant in the media landscape thanks to their fanbase’s passion. But a cult classic isn’t necessarily a flop — many cult classics have stayed popular, and even relevant, through their long lifetime. Video games are basically tailor-made to produce cult classics: because gameplay is such an important part of the overall experience, not every game is going to appeal to everyone. A game with the exact perfect mix of gameplay and story elements for you might be a nightmare for someone else to play — these kinds of niche games are tailor-made to become cult classics.
Cultist Simulator is a literary horror RPG developed by Weather Factory and published in 2018. The developers, who also worked on Fallen London, Sunless Sea, and Stellaris: Horizon Signal, describe it as a game of “apocalypse and yearning”. You play as a “seeker after unholy mysteries” in a 1920s London that isn’t quite our own, chasing after esoteric truths. Using cards that symbolize the people, places, and things in the world around you, you study ancient mysteries and dive further and further into secrets you weren’t meant to know. Ultimately, you form a cult, exploit everything at your disposal to further your secret knowledge, and seek a terrible, yet beautiful ascension.
Cultist Simulator is the lovechild of the Lovecraftian Mythos, real-world esoterica, and a game of solitaire. It’s frustrating and fantastically addicting by turns. No matter how long you play the game, there will always be something new to discover.
And discovery is what makes or breaks Cultist Simulator. If what I’ve described sounds like something you want to play, pick up the game now and come back to this article once you’ve sunk your teeth into it. This is a game where you want to go in blind; the less you know about it, the more you’ll get out of the experience.
The Nature Of All Things
It’s hard to sum up a game like Cultist Simulator without ruining the fun of it for someone who’s never played. This is an extremely surface-level and spoiler-light overview, and won’t tell you anything you wouldn’t figure out after a few runs.
Like Alexis Kennedy’s other games (most notably, Fallen London), Cultist Simulator is a narrative-heavy game based around a deck of random events. Unlike Fallen London, you don’t draw cards from a visible deck. Some cards appear on the table at random, some cards appear on a cycle, and some cards you gather by performing certain activities. When you get a card, you lay it out on a virtual table. Endgame Cultist Simulator tables are as intricate as a well-crafted tarot spread, and just like tarot, they’re full of meaning for the initiated.
The large square markers are Actions. These represent actions you can take, and actions the world takes upon you. Many Actions require cards to execute, and almost all actions give you cards once completed. You have a variety of resources to manage, from concrete ones like Funds to more nebulous ones like Notoriety. Actions run on a timer, and a significant part of the gameplay loop is managing these timers — making sure you have the resources you need, when you need them. It’s a bit like juggling bombs, and every so often — usually at the most inconvenient moment possible — another bomb goes off.
You need Funds to continue living; if you run out of Funds, you’ll eventually starve to death. You also need Funds to go on Expeditions and smooth over some of life’s other little difficulties. (Like murder!) To gain Funds, you must work at a Profession– you can get a boring office job, become a painter, or do manual labour. Managing a day job while running an occult organization isn’t easy; miss too much work, and you’re out on the street again.
Lore is, appropriately, less concrete and more nebulous. When you start accumulating lore, you begin with tiny scraps; you must combine these scraps to piece together secret knowledge about the world beneath the world. The higher level lore you’ve gained, the more complicated rituals you can perform, the more eldritch creatures you can summon, and the more power you have.
Reading is ‘easy’, in the sense that you can begin doing it at the start of the game and it’s not particularly hazardous to your health. The simplest occult books are in English, but real knowledge isn’t; you’ll have to learn Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and stranger languages still. Each book card contains a small sample of the in-universe book’s text. These samples are fantastically well-written. Some will make you laugh; others will make your skin crawl. The book samples flesh out the secrets of Cultist Simulator’s world and give you an idea of what the abstract “lore scrap” cards you’re combining actually mean.
You’re not going to find the really juicy knowledge within London, though. There are only so many books to buy in the city, and ancient scrolls aren’t going to turn up in a bookshop. If you’re looking for forbidden knowledge, it’s more likely to be hidden in grim and foreboding places in the world outside. You can send followers to travel to these places — everywhere from haunted asylums to suspicious churches to dark carnivals — and bring back loot. Some of the loot is books, often in languages you must learn before you can get anything out of them. But some of the loot is artifacts, the items of power you can use in rituals. These artifacts are often worthless-looking trinkets: a broken mirror, an old doll, a stained pair of gloves — but they are incredibly useful in rituals.
The final place you can go to find occult secrets is… your bed! Or, more accurately, the world of dreams. Traveling within it, you can find paths to secret places. The Tricuspid Gate, the Ascent of the Knives, the Orchard of Lights… all of these places, and more, exist within the Mansus, the House without Walls that you can find by dreaming in certain ways, or doing certain rituals before bed. By finding roads within the dreamworld, you can visit more and more places within the Mansus. Reaching the Mansus’ highest level is the key to victory, so you will need to explore and take risks.
Over time, after discovering some of the secrets and meeting like-minded souls, you can form a cult. By recruiting followers and hangers-on, you gain willing pairs of hands to do the dirty work you don’t want to do. Need cash? Your followers can do a spot of burglary. Need more lore? Your followers can perform an expedition to an ancient shrine and steal the secrets within. In trouble with the law? Your followers can steal evidence that proves you’re dabbling with the occult, or just outright kill the detective chasing you.
And detectives aren’t the only threat to your health and safety. Cultist Simulator is a roguelite, and many different threats can end your run, from hunger and disease to madness and despair. Fail to manage any of the threats to your body, your sanity, or your freedom, and you’ll wind up on a Game Over screen (illustrated, like every end screen in the game, with a beautifully rendered tarot card). You’ll unlock the ability to play as a successor, someone who inherited your last cultist’s knowledge. Different successors have different traits; the Bright Young Thing starts with a sizeable inheritance; the Doctor has a well-paying but time-consuming job; the Detective can hunt cultists to keep the Suppression Bureau off their back.
The gameplay loop is a mix of taking care of your body and mind, gathering resources, lore, and followers, studying and discovering secrets, and preparing to perform rituals that can lead you towards your heart’s desire. Ultimately, you’ll discover — and seek out — one of a handful of victory conditions, each more of a spoiler than the last. You have to play the game perfectly at least three times to find the primary endings, and each of the DLCs adds more endings to discover — but honestly, you’ll likely play through the game many, many times before you reach even one ending.
Plunge Through the Twists of the Labyrinth
The wildest thing about Cultist Simulator is that it’s an accurate depiction of what occult research is like. (Other than the police trying to hunt you down, the otherworldly yet very real dreams, and the excessive levels of murder. That’s artistic license.) But in all seriousness, Cultist Simulator is a fantastic representation of studying esoteric subjects and falling deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of ancient mysteries. And this is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.
Each bit of knowledge must be eked out through careful study; the more knowledge you have, the more connections you can make between tiny scraps of information. Books you read in the early game take on a horrifying new significance in the mid-to-late game.
For example, there’s a play you can pick up early on in the game called The Humours of a Gentleman, which is a “satirical comedy” about a gentleman, his mistress, and her lovers. There are hints seeded all through the book’s description: veiled references to occult history and the dealings of the secret gods, and one of the first mentions you’ll see of a terrifying late-game enemy. When you pick up the book for the first time, you’ll likely have no idea how these hints fit together — but on a repeat playthrough, after you know what the playwright’s hinting at, you’ll understand the meaning of every word in the book’s description. They’re all carefully chosen to obliquely hint at things beyond your comprehension.
And as tempting as it is to compare the occult lore of Cultist Simulator to the Cthulhu Mythos — it’s part of the elevator pitch we gave in the first paragraphs — it’s inspired less by Lovecraft and more by real-world esoterica. Cultist Simulator draws heavily from early 20th century occultist movements like Theosophy and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, as well as Christian mysticism like the works of Jakob Boheme and Karl Eckartshausen. It’s a fictionalized version of the occult, with most of the Christian iconography minimized or repurposed to apply to the Hours. But because the lore of Cultist Simulator is grounded in things that actually exist — real-world new religious movements and real-world mysticism — it feels rich and deep and alive in a way that most Cthulhu stories just don’t.
This living lore is so deep that no matter how much you study, you will learn something new about the world every time you play. Unless you’ve seen literally everything the game has to offer– and that is an undertaking that will last hundreds of hours– you will always have some new secret to uncover, some new world to unfold. If you have seen everything the game has to offer, the extensive modding community can give you hundreds more hours of secrets to chew through. And the teasers for an upcoming sequel, Book of Hours, are meaty enough that you can spend even more time analyzing them.
In the world of Cultist Simulator, no matter where you go in your quest for knowledge, you uncover more and more truths about the way things really are. Whether you’re seeking the lore of Moth, Grail, or Winter, you learn the secrets of this world along with your character. As the character’s knowledge of the fictional occult grows, so does the player’s.
Yet, paradoxically, the thing that makes this game so appealing to the right kind of person makes it hair-tearingly frustrating for the wrong one. For one thing, it takes an eternity to figure out what’s going on with the lore — and with the mechanics. This is the RPG equivalent of a rage platformer. You will die, and die, and die, and sometimes, you will die thanks to something you seemingly have no control over. It can take you hours of game time to figure out how to manage Despair or Notoriety, and until you do, sometimes it can seem like the game’s kicking you while you’re down.
On top of that, sometimes you just can’t get the luck you need to get with the timers. You might have a resource you need vanish right before you were about to use it, or have a new threat drop onto the pile the second you start a complicated, multipart ritual. Sometimes you’ll die just as things are getting good because you forgot to account for a recurring threat.
Not everyone will want to put in the effort it takes to learn how the secret world works. Not everyone will want to put together the pieces and go down the rabbit hole. But no matter how many times you may die, no matter how many times you fail, no matter how many times you have to start again, there are always more mysteries to unravel. And the quest for occult knowledge is rewarding enough that the right kind of person will forgo food, sleep, and work to learn more about this world for its own sake.
And that is what makes Cultist Simulator a cult classic.
Next time on Cult Classics, we’ll be looking at a game that’s slowly been evolving for more than a decade. Until then, may you unravel all the mysteries of the universe… and may your game saves be spared from cat-related mayhem.