Londons: Cultist Simulator and the Unknown

The Mansus and the makers.

Alexis Kennedy, co-founder of Weather Factory and co-creator of Cultist Simulator, has been credibly accused of abuse. Neither the author nor the publication seek to defend him. All opinions are the author’s own.

I: Nodi

The first eye you encounter is Work. It’s open, and embedded in the palm of a hand. This symbol is called a hamsa in Hebrew, although it’s common to several cultures. In more recent works, hamsa have been menacing, but the image’s origins are thought to be protective: it’s a ward against a cursed gaze. The open eye is Evil, and the hand is raised against it.

In 2015, James Bridle biked to Basildon, a decent-sized town east of London. While he was there, he photographed the New York Stock Exchange. Not the iconic trading floor, but the Euronext Data Center, which — in near anonymity — connects the NYSE to Europe.

In his book New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future, Bridle describes it as “[…]seven acres of server space distinguishable only by a fluttering Union Jack, and by the fact that if you linger too long on the road in front of it, you will be harassed by security guards.”

To get there, he came from Slough, another town some 55 miles to the west. There, he photographed the Equinix LD4, another of these “oft-hidden cathedrals of data-driven life.” The LD4 serves the London Stock Exchange, and it’s connected to the Euronext by a long row of microwave antennas, each within sight of two others.

That was Bridle’s path. He was tracing a ley line, and documenting two of its intersections.

II: Un Absentia

The second eye is Passion. It’s closed. We’ll return to it.

Two years ago, wandering the streets of a different London, I found an emotion called Glimmering. It carries the aspect of Influence, meaning it’s useful, and that of Moth, meaning it’s fleeting. It lasts for 180 seconds, and when its moment passes, it burns away, and leaves no ashes. It comes to live only in memory, and only as a description: “My emotions run higher than usual. There are things I’ll never understand, and those things will always be precious, but, just now, I am closer to them.”

Famously, Cultist Simulator has no tutorial. In fact, it refuses to explain itself at almost any point — on starting the game, you’re even greeted with this text:

The game’s interface is similarly obtuse. It has several starting conditions, but on your first playthrough, you’re an Aspirant, and you describe yourself this way: “Alone in this chilly city, with my useless education and my dreams. What now? Could I be something more?”

You’re given a stone marked with a hand, and a card titled Menial Employment, placed on a dirty mat on a worn table. The table is London.

When you drag the card to the stone, you begin to Work. After ten seconds, you’re told you’re fired:

“We won’t require your services any longer,” your supervisor tells you. He leaves you with two Funds cards, and your Health returns.

You’re given another stone — this one, Dream, marked with a cloud — and time begins to slip away.

By now, we’ve been shown every variable: there are verb-stones, there are noun-cards, and they exist in time. The only mechanical challenge, then, is to find useful verb/noun combinations before the game’s many timers run out.

Unlike most video games, then, Cultist doesn’t concern itself with objects in space. Rather, it’s about associations in time.

Glimmering is the point where this all made sense to me, because, long before I saw the card, I knew Glimmering. It’s those moments when my body fits, and my writing reads like music. When it leaves, it’s a sentimentality for fleeting things, now beyond reach.

As a trans person, I’ve become acutely aware that I chase this feeling. It’s why I dress the way I do, why I chose my names, and how I choose the best pout for my selfies. In trans spaces, this gender-specific version of Glimmering is called gender euphoria (as opposed to dysphoria). We shitpost about it.

In 2018, though, when Cultist dropped, I had no such language. I didn’t know I was trans, I just knew that I didn’t Glimmer.

I knew Glimmering only by its absence.

III: Insomni

The third eye is Reason, which is open, like the eye in Work’s hand. With Reason, the game draws a second meaning for the open eye — it’s a tool. Reason’s eye, then, cooperates with Work’s hand, and, in doing so, it inverts the meaning of the hamsa. Work can’t protect you from being seen, because Work is itself the tricuspid process of seeing, understanding, and manipulating.

Cultist Simulator occupies two worlds. They’re visualized as two literal planes, presumed spaces flattened into 2D representations. That said, they overlap. In Heterotopias, Sam Zucchi coined the term “Occult Space” to describe this.

London-the-table is the first plane. Like I mentioned above, the card table doesn’t concern itself with literal space. Rather, the verb-stones and the noun-cards interact in a way that implies space.

The second plane is a flat map of a place called the Mansus.

You first access this place by Dreaming with Passion. The Mansus is a dream, but this implies — unfairly — that it’s less real than London-the-table. We’ll circle back to this.

The Mansus, then, is expressed not only as space, but as property

In “Occult Space,” Zucchi points out that the Mansus is, by definition, finite. A mansus is a unit of land area common in medieval France, equivalent to the English hide, or about 49 hectares. That said, a mansus might be more accurately described as an estate — it’s also the root word of “mansion.” Ingame flavor text even calls the Mansus “the House of the Sun.”

The Mansus, then, is expressed not only as space, but as property: it’s finite, it has a boundary, and it is like its owner, in the way my apartment is both like me, and like my landlord.

It’s anthropomorphic, and traversable.

The Mansus is laid out in nodes, meaning you can (almost) move from one definite place to another — a simplicity denied to you in London. Time stops, also. Play becomes, for a moment, turn-based, but I don’t think this is a change to the underlying nature of the game. Rather, it’s the same experience, actualized in the opposite way: in London, time is visualized, and space is implied. In the Mansus, space is visualized, and time is implied.

I don’t think it’s a mistake that, in lore, the Mansus is ruled by thirty beings known as Hours.

In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, there’s a city named Valdrada:

“The ancients built Valdrada on the shores of a lake, with houses all verandas one above the other, and high streets whose railed parapets look out over the water. The traveler, arriving, sees two cities: one erect above the the lake, the other reflected, upside down[…]

Valdrada’s inhabitants know that each of their actions is, at once, that action and its mirror-image, which possesses the special dignity of images, and this awareness prevents them from succumbing for a single moment to chance and forgetfulness.”

This is London’s relationship to the Mansus: not the opposite side of a coin, but a facing reflection. London and the Mansus are unequal and untouching, yet they’re entangled, wholly. “The twin cities are not equal, because nothing that exists or happens in Valdrada is symmetrical:” — Calvino writes — “every face and gesture is answered, from the mirror, by a face and gesture inverted, point by point.”

This aspect is best illustrated by the Mansus’ permeability. Each accessible node has two cards, facedown. You can select one card, which becomes yours. The others are revealed to you, before burning away. Visually, you pull your card through a node, out of the Mansus and into the waking London. Often, these cards are a form of emotion or insight. Sometimes, though, they’re more external.

In the Mansus, you can find a card called Peculiar Rumor: “This might lead me to something I need; or it might mean something else entirely.” It’s a piece of concrete information, and it finds you in a dream.

If you Explore in London with a Peculiar Rumor, you’ll meet someone — an acquaintance — who can become your follower. It’s heavily implied that you’ve met them already, in the Mansus.

In Cultist Simulator, then, dreams aren’t only permeable — they’re networked.

IV: In Secreta

The fourth eye is Glimmering. Like Passion, it’s closed. Passion and Glimmering are both the inverse of Reason; Reason detects without, and Passion intuits within. They can’t be learned or understood, in the mathematical sense of the Mansus, yet, Glimmering is the first part of this game I came to understand.

New Dark Age deals extensively with the gatekeeping of useful information.

I say useful information, because controlling access to information itself is pointless in a post-Internet world. Data can’t truly be hidden in a network, no matter what gate you build in front of it. Data will flow both ways if it needs to, at almost any cost.

The way to control information, then, is to own the key to its interpretation.

Let’s go back to the microwave ley line Bridle traced in 2015. It’s one of many similar connections between markets — there’s another running from Chicago to New York. These connections exist to capitalize on high frequency trading, that is, automated buying and selling decisions, which allow firms to react to changes in market conditions in a matter of milliseconds. And in this environment, milliseconds count for a lot. “An eternity,” according to Forbes.

These connections themselves are a form of capital — time is, after all, money. The markets they connect may be public, but the most meaningful access is limited to those who can afford to join these private networks. Per Bridle: “[A]s in everything else, digitization made the markets both more opaque to non-initiates, and radically visible to those in the know.”

In Cultist Simulator, there’s a character named Poppy Lascelles, described as “An amiable woman of property.

Poppy has the Patron aspect. Patrons’ cards have blue nameplates, something shared with nonhuman sources of knowledge: languages you speak, places you can visit, books you can read. Lessons you learn.

Patrons usually commission you. They’ll ask you to perform research on a certain piece of Lore, and you pen a treatise, and submit it to them for payment.

Poppy’s initial bargain is very different:

“My dear,” Poppy will say. “I’ve been wanting to talk to you. Sometimes I fund scholars of the invisible arts. I’d like to offer you my support. A substantial contribution. All you need to do, some day, is to introduce me to someone else who’ll end matters properly.” And she’ll smile, benignly.

If you interrogate her on this (it requires Reason), you’ll ask, “Someone who’ll end matters properly?”

“Yes,” she’ll say. “When the Season of Rags comes round again, my sponsor will require someone for an ending. You can provide someone sufficiently loyal, or you can provide yourself.” And the air will turn cold. “As you prefer; I don’t want to be any trouble.”

If you accept, she’ll leave you with an envelope and a timer. The envelope contains 10 Funds and a Silver Spintria, which, in the early game, is an obscene amount of money.

The timer lasts 300 seconds. It’s counting down to the Season of Rags, and, “in the Season of Rags, Poppy will return.”

Poppy was asking you, politely, for a human sacrifice. When she returns, she will murder one follower of your choice, and if you haven’t sufficiently groomed any, she will come for you instead.

Funds are consumed by time, and without them, you’ll starve. Poppy understands your needs, and she will exploit them.

V: De Ostia

The fifth eye is Erudition, itself the inverse of Glimmering. It’s the outward, open-eye version of Passion. You understand, and in understanding, you only wish to understand more.

The Mansus’ geography is defined by its Doors. Like the Sefirot’s ten emanations, these doors are tiered by their purity, perhaps, or by the difficulty of obtaining them. In the context of a game, it’s no surprise this manifests in the form of a mountain you need to climb.

These Doors are also, ostensibly, a pure meritocracy. Their guardians let you pass only with the correct Lore of a sufficient level, and they defer to none but the Hours. “In my dreams,” your character remarks to themself upon waking, “I’ve found my way to the Stag Door, sometimes called the Horn Gate or the Adept’s Door. I have answered its Riddle, and am counted among the Know.”

The Mansus, then, isn’t accessible to earthly authorities — at least, not until those authorities are “among the Know.” To an officer of Cultist Simulator’s Suppression Bureau, it might seem more like a hideout than a mountain.

The owners of London, then, hold limited sway within the Mansus. They wield power there, to be sure, but it’s rooted in the physical world, and predicated on their ability to arrest you upon waking. This begs the question, then — who owns the Mansus?

The Mansus is ownerless

The short answer might be the Sun. This aligns with the monotheistic roots of the Sefirot, and, after all, the Mansus is “The House of the Sun.” In lore, though, this reading isn’t up to date. The Mansus was created by an Hour called the Sun-in-Splendour, with the help of the Forge of Days. Both are now long dead.

The Mansus is ownerless. The Hours rule only because they hold complete access and complete understanding. They are the arbiters of who is counted among the Know, but even so, they themselves are anthropomorphic.

In our London, the one we share with James Bridle, we have a Mansus, and our Mansus is ruled by its own Hours.

If our London is also Valdrada, glimpses of our waterbound reflection have become functional, even mundane. Our Hours, then, could be neural networks and encryption algorithms, the tools that oversee and safeguard our networks. They can create new people from whole cloth, and they can build convincing facsimiles of familiar faces. They’ll hide evidence from authority, but they can identify any suspect of any crime in the background of a photo.

Unlike in Cultist, though, our Hours are artifacts, not Gods. They’re machines, gifted with the human power of association. They rule over our networked dreams, but they’re also networks, who Dream of themselves.

VI: Oculi

“The one constant that recurs throughout DeepDream’s creations,” Bridle writes, “is the image of the eye — dogs’ eyes, cats’ eyes, human eyes; the omnipresent, surveilling eye of the network itself.”

Every successful playthrough of Cultist Simulator ends at the Tricuspid Gate. It’s the last barrier before the summit of the Mansus, where the Hours speak in the light of the Glory, and where humans are granted immortality. Mechanically, though, the Mansus has no summit.

The sixth eye, then, exists only in flavor text, and in only one ending, if you pass the Tricuspid Gate using the lore of the Lantern.

The Door in the Eye is one aspect of an Hour called the Watchman — one who carries the Lantern. As an eye, it’s closed, like Passion and Glimmering. As a door, it’s blocking your way, and you need to open it. To pass, you must invert it, point by point. The closed-eye symbol of Passion becomes the open-eye symbol of Reason, and you come at once to understand everything, and to intuit nothing. In the face of enlightenment, then, intuition is no longer necessary.

Cultist has other, more Passion-oriented endings. If you ascend with Grail lore, you return to Earth immortal, in a strange (albeit still humanoid) form: “smooth without, and red within, like a sweet fruit.” In another, more hidden ending, you become a possession of an Hour called the Meniscate, in a Valdrada-esque form: “I am not Long — I am only a reflection — but sometimes I am the reflection of the Witch, and sometimes of the Sister, and when the Sun is born, the Meniscate will take me home.”

It is to invert intuition into immediate, holistic knowledge. It is to see, and to understand perfectly.

The Lantern ending, though, and its image of Passion becoming Reason, is at once stranger, and perhaps more familiar. The new forms you take on in other endings are, if not humanoid, animal figures suggestive of organic life. Beyond the Door in the Eye, you become something neither humanoid nor animal — “I will not live. I will not die.” Yet, in the broadest, most symbolic sense, your existence remains anthropomorphic. You don’t live, and you don’t die, but still you see.

This, I think, best encapsulates what it might mean to become an Hour, both in Cultist’s London and our own. It is to invert intuition into immediate, holistic knowledge. It is to see, and to understand perfectly. It is to be both inorganic and anthropomorphic; to be at once isolated and a network unto — and Dreaming of — yourself. An Hour, then, is both a microcosm of the Mansus, and, necessarily, a microcosm of London.

Valdrada is not Valdrada without its reflection.

VII: Orexis

“The eye that floats in DeepDream’s skies,” Bridle writes, “recalls the all-seeing eye of dystopian propaganda: Google’s own unconscious, composed of our memories and actions, processed by constant analysis and tracked for corporate profit and private intelligence.” 

DeepDream’s gaze, then, is one shaped by paranoia, but it’s only the paranoia of Google. Likewise, abuse in Cultist doesn’t begin or end with Poppy’s Bargain. After all, you aren’t meant to give yourself to Poppy. She doesn’t even assume you will: “You can provide someone sufficiently loyal, or you can provide yourself.” Poppy Lascelles, then, only prompts you to act as she does — as a predator.

All machines recall their makers.

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