To Play the Unwinnable Game: My 30-Hour Round of Cultist Simulator

WTF is Cultist Simulator?

Cultist Simulator is a puzzle game designed by Failbetter Games (of Fallen London and Sunless Sea) that combines time and resource management with riddles and blood sacrifice, all through the medium of digital cards. Players take on the role of an aspiring cult leader and feel their way through a series of unexplained game mechanics to reach an unspecified conclusion – figuring out WTF you’re supposed to do is the actual game.

Most of the gameplay involves farming and combine cards in order to unlock new content, and using your imagination to believe that you’re uncovering forgotten lore, recruiting cult followers, dodging the police, raiding off-screen dungeons, and sacrificing people to a spider that lives in your dreams.

Momentum is sustained through a series of timers – actions taken with cards consume a certain amount of time, cards decay over time, and the passage of time relentlessly triggers dangerous, potentially game-ending events like illness. There’s a lot of atmosphere and pressure, but the main thing players do is use trial and error to discover the victory condition.

Or else they google the solution after 30 hours.

30 hours is too long to play this game

My first three rounds of Cultist Simulator went the way I think the game is supposed to go. I experimented, I struggled, I died super fast, and then restarted with a new character, using the lessons I’d learned to advance a little bit farther. The problem came in the fourth round, where, through some combination of luck and caution, I ended up in a position where it was impossible to lose unless I made a deliberate mistake, but also impossible to win because, no matter how many cards I farmed, I couldn’t seem to figure out the victory condition.

Part of the point of Cultist Simulator is that the game gives you almost no instruction about what you’re meant to do. Early on, that makes everything feel like a discovery. By mid-game, it makes you feel like you’re aimlessly slapping cards onto actions for no real reason.

In my 30-hour round, I suspected that I was going to need to upgrade some of my cards by maxing out my lore, clearing dungeons, exploring the dream world, and levelling up my followers, but I didn’t really know why. I just kept progressing all of the progressables, hoping that that would point me in the right direction. After 25 hours, I googled to find out what the victory condition was, and, even knowing exactly what I had to do, it took another five hours of pure, repetitive grind to make it happen.

Along the way, I explored pretty much everything there was to explore except winning, and it felt kind of exhausting.

The main point of the game is risk-reward scenarios

The loading screen for Cultist Simulator actually tells you to take risks in order to enjoy the game, so adopting a cautious, methodical play style is probably 98% of the reason I didn’t have fun. Most of the excitement in the game is generated through the explosive combination of risky decisions with bad luck and, while I was objectively doing worse when my cultists were dropping like flies and detectives were breathing down my neck, the game was also a lot more interesting.

The difficulty is that, once you get past the hurdle of not knowing WTF is even going on, the mechanics aren’t very complicated and the challenges become predictable. There is a foolproof method to make the detective leave you alone, and a foolproof method to cure sickness, and a foolproof method to ward off madness, and, once you understand how to avoid the game-enders, the experience is less about dynamically reacting to new circumstances and more about whether you want to deliberately screw yourself over because you’re bored.

This is partly a problem with my play style, but it’s a problem Cultist Simulator could have worked harder to prevent, by including more varied and unpredictable challenges – things that would make it impossible to play a slow, cautious game in the first place.

That said, it seems like Cultist Simulator would be a lot more enjoyable for people oriented toward choosing the funniest option, or the option that has the most potential to cause mayhem, so it makes sense to me that it’s so popular.

The writing and sound design are both really good

Two of the things I really liked about this game were the flavour text and sound design. Everything strikes the right balance between being funny, creepy, steampunk, and timeless, and the whirring, clunking sound effects make you feel like you’re actually doing something when you drag your cards around the screen. The music disguises the fact that there’s not that much action by making it sound like you’re always in the “creepy revelation” stage of a thriller movie.

The writing also has all the whimsy I remember from Fallen London (which I was basically addicted to for a couple of months), though I wish the text were larger. The format of delivering snippets of information in card descriptions also works really well.

I don’t think I’ll ever play it again

Playing a 30-hour round of this game pretty much destroyed me. It was very nearly a completionist round, where I maxed out almost everything that could be maxed, uncovered almost every card, and went down almost every side street and dead end I could find. I feel like the discovery element is pretty much gone at this point.

That’s not a flaw in the game, though it’s something I definitely didn’t understand going in: Cultist Simulator is ultimately a puzzle box and you’re paying a fee to solve the puzzle once. Just like one of those wooden puzzle boxes people buy – it’s fun to shake it and move stuff around and figure out how it works, but once you know, you know. And, with that in mind, I kind of wish I hadn’t googled the solution, though I think, truthfully, all that would have happened otherwise is that I would have given up.

It’s not for everybody. It’s kind of not for me. But it’s still a cool puzzle.

Image: Cultist Simulator; Failbetter Games | November 22, 2019