When Does a Compelling Game Become Nefarious?


#1

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/7xqwza/when-does-a-compelling-game-become-nefarious

#3

Uh, really nice to see my thoughts on a game echoed here. Cultist Simulator is lush and well written and mysterious in the most tantalizing ways.
And yet every time I play it, I feel like I’m just getting lost in a hedge maze and coming out the same way I walked in. Sure, there’s cool things on the other side. And I constantly see hints of greater depths with every try. But there is clearly something I am missing in order to fully appreciate this game, and I’m not sure whose problem that is.

In an odd way, I think UNDERTALE is a lot like this. Now, Undertale is one of my favorite games ever - but I respect the fact that many people can’t get into it because the bulk of the way you spend the game involves pretty fucking difficult bullet hell mechanics.
Undertale is amazing, lovely, scary, and hilarious. But what does that matter to someone who can’t get past the first boss fight? Or, much more, to someone who plays the whole game through and accidentally killed one monster and so has to replay the whole thing to get the “best” ending?

I think the reason Undertale worked for me was that it’s wrapped in this SNES-era RPG vernier and bullet hell games were some of my favorite as a kid.
Where Cultist Simulator has a lot more in common with text-based adventure games or Twine games, like the article mentions. For me, those sorts of games have rarely been more than a frustration to me. Having to try, and try, and try to get the exact right prompt to register with the parser is just a pain in the ass to me - and even when it works, I wonder why it couldn’t just be a choose-your-own-adventure style novel. Just tell me a story, don’t make me wrestle you for it.

Probably, what it comes down to, is that puzzle box games can be awesome. But you probably have to love the way you solve the box to enjoy the prize at the end.


#4

Had a similar experience, looked around on different discussion forums and found that it was kind of encouraged to edit the save file (the game even helpfully points you to where it lives), but it felt wrong to do it until I’d gotten a regular win. Looking in it there’s even stuff in there that expects you to do that, but I never know if I’m actually breaking something or doing something that’s intended, so it still doesn’t feel good. Overall I enjoyed playing it when I was using it as something to occupy time, and enjoyed it less when I got really into wanting to know what else there is to see, because it’s really easy to get stuck and feel like you’re just staying alive rather than making any progress.


#5

I keep returning to Cultist Simulator every week or two since its release, but I guess I don’t feel quite as grabbed by it as you do. In part, I think this is because I’ve hit a wall that I’m just not able to pass. (Specifically, though I don’t think this is an actual spoiler because it’s meaningless out of context, I’ve gotten past the Stag Door several times, but no further). I’ll jump in and play a few games, hoping I’ll make it further, only to die because I forgot to keep track of one of the half-dozen death states, or on a couple of occasions, actually win with one of the “lesser” victories.

I feel like I’m barely scratching the surface of the game, and it’s frustrating because I feel like I need to dramatically change up my strategy but I have no idea how. Still, the worldbuilding and thematics that I’ve seen so far are really cool, so I expect that’ll keep me coming back for a while still.


#6

A timely article with the release of La-Mulana 2. :wink:

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a game keeping its secrets close. If anything’s nefarious, it’s the standard expectation set by the industry at large that a game’s job is to spend 10-30 or so hours putting what it’s got in front of the player, and the player’s job is to pick up what’s put down. Nothing wrong with that alone, but as a standard it sands down edges and makes discovery a mundane transaction. There’s room for games that ask more from the player.


#7

Cultist Simulator is madenningly compelling, and I feel kinda lucky to have come out on the side where I understood (some of) the mysteries of its comsology, comprehended its mechanisms and achieved a regular victory. It absolutely eats time, and has done so with everyone I’ve introduced it to. They’ve not all had the same degree of satisfaction that I have, unfortunately. The process of starting out, building your stats and securing steady income changes very little from run to run but you have to go through it every time. It’s satisfying once you figure out how to best establish yourself, but if you keep dying then it becomes tedious repetition, which is where some of my friends found themselves at.

It is a very satisfying puzzle box to solve, however. Not just for the mysteries you piece together, but for how much power you can wield as a result. There’s two stages to discovering how to do something in the game; figuring out the basic principles required and obtaining the means and method to do it reliably. There was a clear point when I stopped being afraid of my unkillable, impossibly driven adversary because I became able to conjour things that would undo all of her hard work, and with little risk on my part.

I did feel like I’d escaped the grip of an obsession when I achieved a standard ending, but I also felt that was quite fitting.


#8

I think my example for a game that was a ton of fun that just turned evil on me is Bloodborne. I’m fine with difficulty, I can even stand a game that out-right trolls you to a point. But hunting for Blood Vials every damn time you lose, fuck that. If you get properly stuck on a boss fight you have like a twenty minute period of grind between each encounter, and who wants to do that shit?

So I gave up four bosses in and have happier for it. That game ruined my March.


#9

Reposted from here: Share your games writing/criticism!


Been running a monthly game review group at my office for a few years now. We played Cultist Simulator for June and it was a very split response. Ended up writing up something on my experience with the game.

Having played ‘Cultist Simulator’ for our monthly game review, our crowd was split on the game. A few loved it, many disliked it.

‘Cultist Simulator’ is a prime example of the creators choosing form over function at every development junction. Scoffing at what many modern ‘AAA’ games would consider basic quality of life elements. The way cards sloppily find homes on the play space, defiantly not returning to their stacks when their refresh timers restore the card. The choice to not include a tutorial or journal or cult-o-pedia or any internal tracking for game knowledge. We will give ‘Weather Factory’ the benefit of the doubt and assume all of this was intentional design and not forced limitations of a small indie studio.

All these choices shift the responsibility to the player to set their own goals while learning the mechanics of the game and simultaneously internalizing the secrets of the game’s world. This transfer of ownership of knowledge to out side of the game is an a tall ask for many players, while I can easily memorize spacial layouts of dungeons from 1980s RPGs, the names and formulas for cultist simulator wash over me without taking root. For most the requirement to progress in cultist simulator requires the physical act of note taking, scrawling down drops lore along side the threads to multiple mysteries, multiplied across varies sessions. This external requirement has a visceral element that delivers a more artisanal cult experience, to succeed in the simulation the player must bring the simulation off the screen and go through the motions of a potentially deranged cultist.

Had ‘Weather Factory’ built the game to address my individual needs the experience would have been intimately changed. Adding prefixed goals and objectives into the UX would have stolen player attention away from the story and redirecting it to just checking off a list of boxes. Providing a codex of known formulas would have the side effect of placing bounds on the mystery. Improving the level of automation for card organization would have removed the frantic experience of searching for a lost resource at a critical moment. Even the tedium of having to go to work regularly cements the narrative that keeping up a facade of normality is needed, despite the desire to concentrate on cult work instead.

This fervent focus on form does come at a heavy cost, the players who loved the game were completely swept away by it, but it was a fraction of our group. The game allows players to get stuck in a state where progress is no longer possible but a menial existence can be maintained forever. Another likely outcome for one perusing a dark path, but a tap on the shoulder by the game to move on would have been welcome. Using ‘spinning plates’ mechanics upped the feeling of the fractured self needed to juggle multiple lives. That choice slashed at the narrative cohesion by breaking stories lines into card size chunks that needed reassembly by the player to achieve impact.

A discussion of whether or not a game is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is generally meaningless, and for ‘Cultist Simulator’ it would be fundamentally futile. This game targeted a specific audience and crafted the ideal experience for them. Having gone into the game with the high hopes that quickly came crashing down I walk away from it knowing that it is a perfect game, just for someone else.


#10

A lot of the Cultist Simulator commentary in the article, and the thread above, is right on the money for my experience. Cracking some of the basic techniques via note-taking, landing a “mundane” ending, and figuring out pieces of the dreamscape were all very satisfying. Spending an hour essentially treading water with very little progress was much less so, and I haven’t returned to the game in weeks.

The best puzzle box I’ve ever cracked in a game has to be one of the Ages from the Uru: Path of the Shell expansion (the singleplayer release of the Myst MMO content). It was a journey that started at “this place is bewilderingly empty and pointless”, traveled through two separate “holy shit, everything I thought I knew about this place is completely wrong” permutations, and required me to demonstrate a thorough understanding of the invisible mechanisms at work before I could reach the last portion of it. The most satisfying moment, though, was at the very end, when the Age finally unveils its specific nature… a flourish that, in another game, might have been a Shocking Reveal, but in this game, functions instead as a congratulatory confirmation of the mental legwork you had to do to get here in the first place.


#11

I actually finally gave up Cultist Simulator more or less for good a couple weeks ago—I found a rite, finally, and a bunch of other things I’d never seen, but attempting to get past the Stag Door as a previous poster mentioned foiled me. So finally, having played the game for hours and hours with no luck, I looked up what it would take to get to the next step. The answer was so RNG-based that it was something I’d never come upon in my entire time playing, which was just super frustrating.

I want to love the game, really I do, but the intersection of heavy RNG, obscure mechanics, and repetition via spinning plates is just no fun for me. I love puzzle boxes; Myst, FEZ, and The Talos Principle are some of my favorite games, and FEZ is one of the few I’ve 100%ed. But I just don’t have countless hours to pour into something that’s going to end up screwing me over on RNG yet again, sadly.


#12

I absolutely loved Cultist Simulator, but I kinda get all the criticism and I think I understand the roots of my own somewhat unusual reaction. I’m the sort of gamer who really values immersion over just about everything else. For example - I like weight and space restrictions on inventory because it’s just stupid that my character should be able to carry everything, and I don’t mind the juggling that goes along with this because it’s what any real person would have to do.

Cultist Simulator captured the feeling of aimless NEED really well. You know that, somehow, something out there is calling to you, but you don’t even know what it is, let alone how to get there. I was motivated to pay attention and learn the game because I was able to put myself in that space and enjoy the sense of exploration. Also, I figured out most systems necessary to staying alive pretty quickly, and got a few hints on the forums for the rest.

However, having ascended as far as possible at this point in time, I have absolutely zero desire to play again. I saw what there was to see. Maybe when there’s some DLC …


#13

I wasn’t sure if I liked Cultist Simulator or if it was just compulsive for a pretty significant portion of my play time. I ultimately decided I really liked it, but if was right on the knife’s edge.

It reminded me a lot of Kingdom, which I started off liking a lot but wound up resenting. They both don’t give you any direction and have a big emphasis on figuring out the mechanics and how to progress as well as a very strong aesthetic (Kingdom has amazing visuals and music and Cultist Simulator has great writing and lore). This combination was super compelling for me in both cases. Unfortunately they also have a lot of plate spinning, which is where I start having issues.

The first couple hours of Kingdom were excellent, but then I reached a point where I basically understood how the game worked and what I needed to do to win, but it was very difficult to pull off and at that point all that was left was to tweak my strategy and then implement it, which essentially meant spinning plates for a couple hours. Between wanting to see if my strategies would work and the music I wound up playing for a long time, but in retrospect I wasn’t really having any fun after I got to the point where I understood what I had to do.

I wound up only playing a few rounds of Cultist Simulator, the first couple were short and more or less consisted of figuring out how to not get a game over. After that I was able to have a Cult reach escape velocity and become impossible to stop barring some serious screwup on my part. At that point it was basically plate spinning to keep my Cult going and get new books / artifacts etc. This phase of the game lasted for several hours, until I suddenly figured out how to win. Once I figured that out I wrapped the game up in about 15 minutes because I already had collected so much stuff in the plate spinning phase.

From a pure gameplay perspective that whole plate spinning phase was kinda garbage, but the actual experience was quite good because I was getting a steady drip feed of lore which was then being given time to breath by the downtime from the plate spinning. So I wound up enjoying my time with the game a lot, but I suspect if I lost close to the end I would have no interest in continuing because that drip feed of lore would have lost a lot of it’s novelty.


#14

I backed CS on kickstarter, I loved sunless sea and I was sure this was TOTALLY going to be my thing. I even wanted the abstraction and obtuse presentation. Heck, I was going to run the most debased cult ever!

But after 12 hours of clicking and dragging and clicking and dragging I started to really crave some kind of feedback, a kind of compass as to why I was stuck. I just kept going through the survival motions that were simply not engaging or satisfying. I was either building up resources or trying to push against the rut I was stuck in (which would usually put me back into building resources). At one point it took me 8 visits to the bookstore to get the book I thought I needed that would FINALLY break me out of this grind and … nope. It simply opened up a pointless avenue for me at the time. I reflected on this a moment and turned the game off forever.

For a game that was built to grind and considering the cheapness of text as an asset - I had become bitter at the re-reading of the same writing as it presented itself in my repeating tasks. I’m fairly certain this caused me to gloss over hints in the text but I was so beyond caring at that point. I had also become irritated by how the main interaction of clicking and dragging is one of the most physically demanding actions on a computer. I had also become irked by trying to organize cards and then the game would reorganize them ‘for me’. Like gaaaahhhh.

As a professional game designer, I will often evaluate game mechanics as to whether they are a chore or exciting (within proper context). There are some really cool aspirational ‘ideals’ in CS but it mostly makes me do the things that any movie or book about a wannabe cultist would skip over so as to get to the juicy bits. I still want to play the idea of what I thought this game would be in my head, but I am doubting if cards are the best medium through which to tell this dark tale of occult mastery.


#15

I actually had a slight feeling of nausea when I realized just how random the game was in certain aspects because it felt so unnecessary. Especially the bookstore - I had convinced myself that the bookstore was an aspect of the occult forces breadcrumbing me into the trap of cultist existence. Until I started drawing duplicates and books that were beyond my current needs. For example, I needed the sankrit translation skill and I got 3 other languages instead. At that moment I felt the immersion door slamming shut in my face and realized I was dealing with the most terrifying of demons: cynical design.


#16

This is a great summary and I agree with most of it.
That aspect of being stuck in a menial existence I think is really the bane of this game. Or even worse, you watch the timer countdown on your last heart with no obvious solutions available because all your other times are ticking down. The game designer’s responsibility is to keep the player in the game. Instead the game allows a player to basically experience all the worst the design has to offer. Kind of like a tour through san francisco that allows the group to wander through the tenderloin. So your idea of having the game tap you on the shoulder when you’re clearly stuck would have made a world of difference in my playthroughs of CS.

It reminds me a bit of a dungeon crawling card game I played where they had cards for the movement of your character and various attack/abilities. At some points in the game, simply by virtue of the deal, your hand would consist solely of movement cards and you had a roomful of monsters to defeat. So you’d play your movement cards desperately hoping one of your attack cards would show up in the next deal but often times you had moved yourself out of position to attack because it was basically suicidal to go toe-to-toe with an enemy with the lack of attack options. All the game had to do was ‘cheat’ the draw or find some other contrivance to allow you to always attack at least once per round.


#17

I really like Cultist Simulator. So much that I stopped playing it. Got a boring ending ,managed to get through most of the Masus except the Triscupid Gate and whats after(?) and got reasonably close to a sensation victory. All in about 18 hours of playtime. Figured out the Stag Door and belong by myself, but I did look up how expeditions and lore transforming works after about a dozen hours. I didn’t want to cheat I consider those UI issues more than anything. Just imagine if all traits and stats were laid out differently and not a line of icons.

I didn’t felt the game being nefarious aside from being a huge time sink. Luckily I was making decent progress, but I could see people not digging the clicker aspect. Especially wants it starts to break down into meatier mechanics. But the game is unique enough that it enthralls me instead.

Similarly La-Mulana 2 just came outs. A sort of unassuming rougelike that’s actually needlessly mean with traps and just filled to the brim with riddles. The traps are there to hinder you while the puzzles will just stop you completely. Its pretty great.(I never finished LM1(also LM2 seems pretty good so far)).

The overarching puzzle thing is something I really like. As long as the “base” game doesn’t get in the way. I’m also not above looking stuff up.Wish I did it more for LM1. When the game itself starts to get in the way, is when it breaks for. Which I guess is where people are falling off of Cultist Sim.


#18

Your experience was exactly the same as mine – I love Fallen London, Sunless Sea, and cosmic horror, so thought this would be way up my alley. Nope! I keep trying again and again, but just dying of starvation without accomplishing anything, and therefore bouncing off hard.

The Shrouded Isle seems, similarly, like a flawed cultist management game but I’m really curious how the two will compare, and so kinda want to try the other one as well.


#19

The Shrouded Isle is pretty damn solid, in my opinion. It’s not perfect, and I wish there was more flavor text or were more events to shake the game up. But I think the actual mechanics of the game are really interesting and engaging. Chris Franklin made a pretty good video on it. There’s a DLC that I think is really great for expanding the strategic depth of the game, but I think Franklin makes an interesting point about it. There’s an expectation with management and strategy games that the games have to be highly replayable and such, but sometimes this traditional view of “balance” can get in the way of the message a game can try to convey.

Psst: the full game is cheaper over here on itch and more of your money will go to the devs! :slight_smile: There’s also a prototype that was made for a game jam over on itch, if you want to to try out a stripped down version before picking it up!