Interview: Cultist Simulator, Speedrunning and Minimalistic Narrative

Read our interview while you await for its release date.

Cultist Simulator is a terrifying game that has already been showcasing the worse intentions from hundreds of Kickstarter backers when it comes to having so much power on your hands. Starting your own cult means sacrificing all that is important in your life, including losing your own well being and sanity in the process. Friends, townsfolk, people who suspect from you, anyone can become an ally or foe as the story unfolds.

Players start with only a handful of cards and a big table board. That’s all it takes for Weather Factory’s first game to engage a new victim in this wicked universe. After parting ways with Failbetter Games (Fallen London, Sunless Sea), Alexis Kennedy and Lottie Bevan started their own studio, and got Cultist Simulator funded in no time, even exceeding their initial goal.

Now, a bit over a month from the release for PC on May 31st, both the co-founders and contractors are working hard on adding the final touches and rebalancing the game. On top of that and the number of travels they did in the last two weeks, Into The Spine asked a few questions about their present and what’s next on the line for the studio.

Alexis: How do you see narrative in modern games? Is there something you wish more studios would experiment or based their work on?

Alexis: “Honestly… not really! Game narrative has come so far in the last ten years. Once I might have said, for instance, let’s have more games that aren’t about space marines, or more games with non-linear narrative, but nowadays chuck a rock and you’ll hit fifty.

I think we’re in a golden age. I think the next big thing is going to be better meshing narrative and mechanics better – a digital equivalent of the board-game renaissance -, and making more interesting co-operative multiplayer stories. I’m seeing good work there right now, but I think there’ll be more soon.”

Alexis: What are the challenges you encountered when thinking about the scope of Cultist Simulator, in terms of narrative? From what I’ve been able to see, players do tend to get absorbed almost immediately when a new run starts, but I imagine it must have taken a while to get the correct “feel” and pace.

Alexis: “I’m not there yet! I’m working mostly on tuning and balancing it right now. The basic concept was that the player would know that something interesting is about to happen about every ten seconds (six tokens, twenty seconds). Given that basic design choice, it’s proven, to my delight, to be quite immediately compelling.

The one big change I made – after I spent a year away from the project and came back – was the first five minutes of the game. In the alpha, you would begin the game and straight away you had six verbs to play with, one of which was already counting down. Tremendously unsettling experience, it made people panic. When I took our timers away and gave the player a short period of grace, it was immediately much more engaging. Sometimes time away from a project is what you need to see mistakes.”

Lottie: You have been a producer (and co-founder!) in Weather Factory for quite a few months now. How does it feel to manage both an emerging audience and, at the same time, a much smaller team than Failbetter’s?

Lottie: “I love managing a small team. We’ve a low burn-rate, we’re lean, we’re constrained enough by budget and resource that we have a clear idea of what’s necessary and what isn’t, but we’re not so small or penniless that we can’t occasionally go, you know what, fuck it, let’s pivot and do this new thing.

I can also get my hands dirty with development in ways you can’t when you’re producing a larger project. I have input on creative direction, I’m drawing icons, I am a FREE (and hopefully useful) WOMAN.”

You can also read – Let’s Talk About: Cultist Simulator

“Managing an emerging audience is terrifying, though! We’ve a core community of really engaged, delightful players, a larger group of around 5,000 Kickstarter backers who seem (!) to be very happy with the rate of development and how constantly we speak to them (one backer actually told me that we speak, er, a bit too much), and we have half a million Sunless Sea players who already know and like Alexis’s writing. We know Cultist Simulator resonates once it’s found its audience: my job’s to figure out a way to find all those people, and let them know about the game, without spending £250k on an ad on the side of a bus. Suggestions welcome on a postcard…”

Team: I’ve found many people who are experimenting with speedrunning. Is this something either of you ever thought that could happen? What do you think of it?

Alexis: “It hadn’t occurred to me at all. I suppose five years ago, I might have got a bit precious about the game being played in the ‘wrong’ way, but now, I just find it surprising and interesting. Especially since speedrun videos are a really good way to expose exploits I need to fix.”

Team: The board seems ecstatic at first, but it starts to display images on the long run depending on the player’s actions (along with some card animations). Is this something you would like to explore even further? For example, I think of Hearthstone’s table boards, which showcase small “islands” with things to fool around, but perhaps you’re aiming for a more  minimalistic approach in CS.

Lottie: “The tabletop’s empty for a reason! In the later game, you have a lot of cards, and you really do need all that space. But it’s also a design choice: Cultist Simulator is partly concerned with the spaces between things. The gap between the player character and their ambition; the time between committing resource to an action and waiting for the timer to tick down; the separation of our world of tedious clerical work and the world of Mansus, with all its Glory and dead things and depth.

I think if we filled up the tabletop with Hearthstone-esque animations and polish – even though those look wonderful, and are Blizzard doing their top-drawer dev thing – we’d pull players’ attention away from thinking about what’s going on in the game, what their story currently is and where it’s going, which cards to save and which to sacrifice, and would damage the slow Lovecraftian burn of a visually minimalist game where you can literally destroy the world.”

Team: I’m interested in knowing more about the Legacy System. Are you looking into exploring this as a way of dealing with rogue-lite elements to increase replayability value, or as a different approach?

Alexis: “Definitely the first. One of the mistakes I made in Sunless Sea was the metagame loop – there was a legacy system, but it didn’t provide much variation in the early part of the game. I wanted to fix that, this time round.

But the other reason was that I wanted to provide some alternative endings, and it’s very hard for alternative endings not to feel gimmicky. In Cultist Simulator if you decide you’re playing someone who really just wants a quiet life, and retires happy, you can do that… and it won’t just give you a Game Over and let you go off to look at YouTube videos of the other endings, it will give you access to a different opening for the next game, next time round. So it plays into your subsequent decisions.”

Team: I’m aware that there will be more content added for CS in the future, as long as projects such as the noir game you both always mention. But what would you think of taking your style into a FPS? Not fan of the term “Walking Simulator”, but I keep thinking in how an aesthetic such as Cultist Simulator’s would translate to, let’s say, Firewatch, Dear Esther or What Remains Of Edith Finch. Have you ever thought on experimenting with this “genre”?

Lottie: “We have a bigger project planned after Cultist Simulator, depending on how well it does at launch! But honestly I doubt it’d ever be a sensible decision for Weather Factory to develop a 3D walking sim. Apart from the fact that we’re small, don’t have an in-house artist and don’t have experience making 3D games (!), I wonder if we’d be able to do Alexis’s ‘fires in the desert’ concept so well in a fully-realised 3D world.

The concept boils down to the idea that we set a sparsely-populated trail of light for the player to follow in-game – the light can be specific events, or lore, or tutorial notes, or whatever – but allow them to travel between these lanterns their own way, without being watched by the game. We like leaving space for darkness, and for the player to connect the dots in lore and in mechanics in their own minds. The only 3D game that does something similar in my experience is The Witness, which is not a particularly Weather Factory type of game!”

Alexis: “What Lottie said. Except that I’ve been saying ‘fires in the desert’ for years and I like the image, but I’m thinking of changing to ‘apophenic design’ because it’s more fancy like.”

By Diego Nicolás Argüello

Founder and EIC of Into The Spine. Probably procrastinating on Twitter right now. Talk to him about pinballs, Persona, and The Darkness. @diegoarguello66

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