‘Cultist Simulator’ shows there’s more to Lovecraft than tentacles

American horror writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft looms large in modern pop culture. Much like his peer, the scientist Nikola Tesla, HP Lovecraft was a weirdo outsider who died poor and largely unappreciated, but whose legacy we’ve come to recognize nearly a century later. His bizarre fiction – particularly, his “Cthulhu Mythos” — inspired countless writers to incorporate his sense of incomprehensible, cosmic horror into their own work, and you can see his influence in film and television from Alien to True Detective.

Games have latched onto Lovecraft with the greatest fervor. Popular titles like Dead Space, Bloodborne and Darkest Dungeon all wear a Lovecraftian influence on their sleeve. On closer examination, however, the substance of that influence has only a tenuous connection to the source material. Where Lovecraft’s writing explores the existential dread of living in a fundamentally alien, uncaring, and unknowable universe (he was also profoundly racist), “Lovecraftian” games have reduced that to Giger-esque tentacle monsters and a general flavor of madness.

Cultist Simulator, new from Fallen London and Sunless Sea’s Alexis Kennedy, is the first game we’ve encountered that strips away all that aesthetic baggage and digs into what it feels like to be a Lovecraftian hero.

Cards on the table

Cultist Simulator starts off deceptively mundane. You’re cast as a clerical functionary in the 1920s, struggling to get by while a dark temptation lurks on the fringes of perception. Your eventual goal is found through one of various potential cults, which task you with luring followers to your side in pursuit of sinister knowledge.

All the action takes place on a desk, however, because Cultist Simulator is a “roguelike narrative card game.”  Everything you have is represented by cards. Early on this is just your health, your reason, your passion, and your funds. The relentless passage of time periodically sucks up one of your money cards to cover your basic expenses, so you must somehow use those other resources to make a living for yourself. As the game goes on you’ll acquire new cards, which representing everything from ancient tomes to your character’s memories.

Your character is quite literally spread thin, and potentially torn apart, by the pursuit of power and knowledge.

Gameplay consists of dropping combinations of cards into verb slots—such as Work, Dream, or Study—and then waiting for a timer to tick down until it spits out your results. Your cards are generally spent (or at least temporarily exhausted) in the process. Since you don’t know the results ahead of time, the whole thing feels a bit like risky, alchemical experimentation. As the game proceeds your once-clean desk fills up with a blooming, buzzing confusion of overlapping timers, threatening to overwhelm you.

Madness is a frequent theme in Lovecraft’s work, and often appears in the games as well, such as in Darkest Dungeon or the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG. In those games, though, it’s generally reduced to a sort of alternate health meter and loss condition for your character.

Cultist Simulator frames everything as a sacrifice by turning your health, passion, and reason into currencies that you must give up to progress. These cards represent everything you have and are, so your character is quite literally spread thin, and potentially torn apart, by the pursuit of power and knowledge.

Forbidden knowledge

The game also keeps you on edge by failing to explain your precise goal. You feel in the dark, with only hints of what’s to come. Cards or verbs have a little dusting of flavor text to give you a sense of what they are about without explaining anything in full. You piece together a trail of incomplete, evocative scraps, leaving the implied blanks to your imagination.

cultist simulator gif

That emphasis on what’s not shown is one of the most crucial elements that’s missed in most Lovecraftian media. HP’s famously obtuse prose regularly describes the sights, sounds, and ideas that his protagonists encounter as “unimaginable,” or “defying description.” As a writing tactic, it’s a cop-out, but Lovecraft’s whole thing is that our minds are finite and fragile, and whole swathes of the universe are literally beyond our comprehension. Reducing that to a now-familiar aesthetic of slimy tentacles is antithetical to his themes.

That sort of familiarity is directly antithetical to the incomprehensible horror that it’s supposed to embody.

Cultist Simulator bypasses that problem by leaving the action where it properly belongs in a Lovecraft story — the theater of imagination. Cultist Simulator started with the theme and then built an esoteric card game to support it. The result is an enchanting, maddening spell that does Lovecraft right.

Cultist Simulator is available now for Mac and Windows PC.

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