Most of Alexis Kennedy’s games gaze into the crystal ball of madness, and Cultist Simulator is no different. He’s best known as the founder of the indie studio Failbetter Games, where he created and wrote text-heavy titles like Fallen London and Sunless Sea. A little over a year ago, he left Failbetter to form Weather Factory, and Cultist Simulator is this studio’s first game. It’s raising funds on Kickstarter now and met its goal in a little over 12 hours. It should debut in May 2018, and it will be available on PC, Mac, and Linux.
“I like making games where the player makes the kind of choices that game characters usually don’t get to make,” said Kennedy in an email. “There are plenty of horror games, but there aren’t many games where you get to establish the backstory. You’re always picking up after the rash occultist who summoned the thing. I thought: what if you were actually that occultist?”
Kennedy says he left Failbetter in order to work on more experimental projects without worrying about generating the revenue needed to pay a full-time team. Since leaving, he’s worked on the Horizon Signal DLC for Paradox Interactive’s Stellaris, along with projects in partnership with BioWare’s Dragon Age team and Telltale Games.
But Cultist Simulator will be the first full game that he’s releasing under the Weather Factory moniker.
“Cultist Simulator is experimental, alright — a timer-based Doodle God-inspired narrative crafting card-based quasi-Lovecraftian occult horror life simulator? What?” said Kennedy. “Although it looks increasingly like it might actually be a commercial success, my main aim was to try out some ideas I had about choice and narrative, with total creative freedom.”
I checked out a prototype of Cultist Simulator, which is free on Itch.io. The playing field is set up like digital card game version of a tarot reading. You have health, passion, reason, and funds, which are needed to execute certain actions. You can place the cards in different slots, such as Work, Dream, and Explore, and trying new combinations can effect different events.
“I’ve always loved cards as a game metaphor, and my previous work keeps coming back to them,” said Kennedy. “And tarot, of course, is the ur-deck, the original source of card games. There is something about expressing all that symbolism in a card and then just letting the player deal with it that allows the designer to be terse and poetic in a way that other metaphors don’t.”
As in Kennedy’s other games, atmosphere is paramount. You earn cards like Notoriety, Erudition, and Fleeting Memory, evoking abstract ideas that can be examined and somehow turned into actions. It’s replete with the sense that you’re dabbling with the unknown, and it encourages experimentation. You can choose whether you want to use reason or passion, though regardless of those decisions, you’ll still have to find a way to earn funds to stave off starvation. Even cultists have to eat, after all.
Unlike Fallen London, which also uses a card system though with a much different user interface, Cultist Simulator features timers. Every minute, your funds are used up, and sometimes you have to race against the clock to stay alive. It’s an interesting decision, because a main feature of Kennedy’s work is his text, and in his previous titles, I’ve enjoyed the chance to take my time reading. His worlds are steeped in lore, often with intriguing references to faraway places and mysterious figures.
Kennedy credits the final version of the interface to his freelance UI designer, Martin Nerurkar, who has a background in digital card games. He also says that the earliest prototype was actually an incremental idle game, similar to Adventure Capitalist.
“But I wanted to use story and choice design elements that just wouldn’t fit in that model, and I changed it,” said Kennedy. “So that’s how the timers came in, but once they were in, I liked the constant sense of menace they brought. There’s always something running down; there’s always something running out; there’s always an opportunity to say ‘Hell, no!‘ and change your mind.”
Though Cultist Simulator doesn’t take place in Failbetter’s world of the Underzee, it does draw from familiar symbols and themes. The art style, at least in the prototype, is also reminiscent of the Kennedy’s previous work with stark silhouettes and bold colors.
“It’s completely different lore. But a lot of my motifs and obsessions have come over from Fallen London, inevitably, so there are candles and labyrinths and abominable appetites and death by water,” said Kennedy. “I tried to weed that out to begin with, and to go in more of a different direction, but I thought, bugger it, that’s what people who know my work are here for.”
Unavoidably, comparisons to H.P. Lovecraft arise when discussing Kennedy’s games. After all, Fallen London is all about the horrors of the deep, prime Cthulhu stomping grounds as it were. To that end, Kennedy seems to have some mixed feelings.
“I wouldn’t say I’m a Lovecraft fan exactly — I spent years insisting Fallen London wasn’t Lovecraftian — but he’s a founding father of the nation of weird fiction and I’m a citizen of that nation,” said Kennedy. “Like many other founding fathers, he was a towering figure with an inescapable shadow and a deep well of talent and some odd quirks and some moments of horrifying racism.”
He says he’s been re-reading a lot of Lovecraft lately as he works on Cultist Simulator, but that’s not the only source of inspiration.
“I look to [Roger Zelazny] and [Lord Dunsany] and Mary Renault and Algernon Blackwood and Tanith Lee,” said Kennedy. “The setting and the story are perilous and monstrous, rather than just nihilistic and horrifying. The tagline is ‘apocalypse and yearning‘ — I want the player to feel that allure.”