It is no easy feat to establish a cult and herald the apocalypse. I learned this firsthand while playing the card-based videogame Cultist Simulator, set in 1920s London and released last May for Mac and PC. For one thing, my job as a porter earns me enough so that I don’t starve, but employment also detracts my attention from learning the art of necromancy or dreaming of eldritch spirits. And although I have become adept at converting random acquaintances into cultists, my disciples keep dying untimely deaths: every time I employ an acolyte to explore ancient histories or track down dusty grimoires, they perish from seemingly random curses or the sudden onset of crippling despair. No less troubling, there are government agencies constantly working to thwart my puckish mischief. More than once, arcane rituals gone awry have triggered “Notoriety,” an in-game warning that my dark ambitions are becoming too conspicuous to the outside world.
All this is pretty standard fare in the first big project from British independent videogame studio Weather Factory, Cultist Simulator, which positions you—the player—as a cultist mastermind seeking out alternate dimensions lurking behind this one. As the studio’s promotional copy rightly boasts, theirs is a “game of apocalypse and yearning” wherein players will catch a glimpse of “the colours beneath the skin of the world.” While the videogame does draw on a number of stereotypes about cults and the occult—such as the threats posed by radical fanatics and arcane knowledge—it also compellingly explores the principle that an occulted world must ultimately remain hidden.
In his treatise entitled the Three Books of Occult Philosophy, published in 1533, the controversial humanist and magician Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa describes how the visible world contains hidden properties, which are the primary means by which deeper knowledge of the world could be obtained. As Agrippa clarifies, “They are called occult qualities, because their causes lie hid, and man’s intellect cannot in any way reach, and find them out.” For Agrippa, the occult signals forms of knowledge that are always hidden or concealed.
Cultist Simulator enthusiastically embraces such an understanding of the occult, grappling with questions like: What does it mean to hide knowledge, and to pursue hidden knowledge? In what ways can occult phenomena be appreciated through words and images, or even imaginatively experienced via basic gameplay mechanics? What might an occulted world look or feel like, if it were never fully revealed?
Such questions mark a radical departure from popular convention. Most videogames that spotlight magical powers and otherworldly realities either allow players to eventually uncover and master occultism as an instrument for in-game progress, or they offer totalizing explanations for the occurrence of supernatural phenomena (e.g., a fantastical deity demands destruction or a government agency is experimenting with biochemical weapons).
In Cultist Simulator, the occult is neither a pliable tool nor a narrative-resolution device; instead, it emerges alongside and within the unsettling feeling that the player will enjoy only minimal control over and understanding of what will happen next. Like a well-worn Ouija board, Weather Factory’s digital game reminds us that horror and entertainment can make captivating bedfellows, especially when coupled with artful design and simplicity.
Cults and the Occult
That Cultist Simulator indulges in both the sacred and the profane can be seen in the two fairly obvious motifs informing the game’s aesthetic mysterium, namely cults and the occult. With regard to the former, few concepts so easily trigger knee-jerk reactions of fear and skepticism as the notion that extremist religions are out there, be it next door or abroad.
We are, by and large, a populace accustomed to the word “cult” as shorthand for hostile religious deviance. In the Western imaginary, groups such as the Peoples Temple, Aum Shinrikyo, and Heaven’s Gate have dominated popular discourse on the relatively small religious communities—often called “new religious movements,” or NRMs, by scholars—that exist in the shadow of more familiar traditions like Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, and others. While contemporary scholarship shows that NRMs overwhelmingly resist the negative stereotypes typically ascribed to them, a wide range of media products (from film to literature, television to videogames) repeatedly project exceptional instances of so-called “brainwashing,” ritual murder, and mass suicide onto a cultic ideal-type for the purposes of mainstream entertainment.
Intriguingly, the Latin term cultus can be translated as “care,” “cultivation,” or even “adoration.” Hence the English word agriculture broadly means “care of the fields.” In ancient Rome, the phrase cultus deorum meant “cultivation of the gods” and referred to the frequent prayers and sacrifices offered to deities favoring the empire. As the Roman consul Marcus Tullius Cicero once remarked, the cult of the gods required “the knowledge of giving the gods their due,” a form of worship in which Roman people propitiated divinities and were, in turn, rewarded with otherworldly support or assistance. The medieval Catholic Church appropriated this interactive model of religious practice for its cult of saints, and contemporary Catholic devotions to saints are performed in much the same way.
Cultist Simulator creatively evokes both premodern and modern forms of the cult/cultus. To be clear, the game openly gestures toward modern clichés of cult activity as disruptive religious indoctrination: the player establishes a small religious society, attracts acolytes, and ultimately summons spiritual intelligences in order to bring about the physical world’s destruction. Yet the game also obliquely recalls antiquated understandings of the word: the player engages in a cultus deorum of sorts by placating ancient deities and forging pacts with unseen forces as part of the daily routine.
Indeed, mediation between this world and another is one of the game’s primary directives. In a number of playthroughs, I learned to summon the spirit called “Caligine” found “at the corners of the Forge, in the bounds of the Mansus, [where] the Glory’s fire meets baser elements … A cunning vapour to infect your enemy’s dreams.” In others, I conjured obscure beings like “The Hinter” and “Percussigant” so as to help herald an apocalypse. My encounters with these bizarre creatures were always fleeting; the numerous spirits I met in Cultist Simulator usually disappeared after a few moments. Despite their brevity, these encounters always heightened my experience of the game, for I quickly recognized how gameplay offers repeated access to metaphysical realities sequestered from quotidian life. As the player, the act of inhabiting an alternate religious worldview entails building on and adapting imaginative conceptions of what the word “cult” can mean.
Cultist Simulator also openly relishes the occult, a term often conflated with cult. While the two terms have certain affinities, the Latin adjective and participle occultus refers specifically to something hidden, concealed, or overwhelmed with shadows—as seen in Agrippa’s 16th-century quote above. More recently, 19th- and early 20th-century occultism was associated primarily with clubs like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the pseudoscientific Society for Psychical Research, and mystical groups like the Theosophists. These intellectual societies evinced interests in ritual magic, esoteric knowledge, and other occult explorations, attracting well-known authors like W. B. Yeats and Aleister Crowley. Mirroring Victorian spiritualism, an occult renaissance at the end of the 20th century produced New Age, Wiccan, neopagan, and charismatic religions that announced the existence of hitherto unknown spiritual realities surrounding this one.
“Cultist Simulator” revels in only modest revelations, an accomplishment bolstered through its relatively simple, if also beguiling, gameplay mechanics and premise.
For many, the myriad allusions to and adaptations of these historical “occultisms” will resonate while playing Cultist Simulator. And although direct references are never made (at least in my experience as a player), the game’s imagery and tone are deliberately animated by the pursuit of forbidden knowledge, hidden artifacts, and a wayward supernaturalism. Relatively early in the game, for instance, you’re presented with the opportunity to build your own “occult society” dedicated to founding principles like “Lantern” (understanding of the Light), “Winter” (the silence that comes with the Cold), and “Forge” (the Fire that changes and remakes). After deciding on the elemental flavor of your cult, you then set out to transform your surrounding society with esoteric systems of belief and ritual.
Perhaps the game’s most meaningful expression of the occult however, lies in exploring an occulted world in a broader sense. Popular culture has often displayed a rather counterintuitive relationship with our subject. While “occult” means hidden or concealed, mainstream videogames (and other media products) that call attention to supernatural or paranormal phenomena frequently resist the impulse to keep privileged secrets. Instead of keeping essential knowledge of the world hidden, the secular magic of modern media and technology typically renders an “occulted world” available to all.
Cultist Simulator, by contrast, revels in only modest revelations, an accomplishment bolstered through its relatively simple, if also beguiling, gameplay mechanics and premise.
Electronic games that feature religious cults are among the most ideologically conservative in popular videogaming. The multiple iterations of Silent Hill (1999–2012) and games like Resident Evil 4 (2005), Outlast 2 (2017), and Far Cry 5 (2018) are exemplary in this regard. In these mainstream titles, narrative drama derives from representations of fanatical societies—The Order, Los Illuminados, and parochial cults in rural Arizona and Montana, respectively—that have invoked inhuman forces to usher forth the end times. Repulsion for the cultic Other here is clear, whether it appears in first- or third-person perspective, as cultists not only threaten the world with apocalypse but are also invariably depicted as either socially deranged or physically deformed. Players are meant to take for granted that, in videogames, cultists constitute monstrous figures who perform violent acts (e.g., human sacrifice, body mutilation, murder-suicide) at odds with modern values and ethics.
The underlying logic in such games is that quotidian life and experience have become endangered by a newly discovered religion gone wrong. Unsurprisingly, you (the player and hero) are tasked with both halting these zealous communities and, by extension, preserving the status quo. In this context, “change” is synonymous with danger and disruption; the games represent cultic religions as inimical forces of transformation and alterity.
Cultist Simulator provocatively turns this approach on its head. Rather than championing religious orthodoxy and social stability, it luxuriates in otherworldly heresy and occult conversion. Specifically, again, the game invites the player to build and inhabit their own supernatural horror cult.
Over the course of multiple sessions with Cultist Simulator, I uncovered long-lost tomes about cosmic beings just beyond the veil of reality, established a coven of devoted followers to dispatch according to my leisure, and performed arcane rites as a means to enter “the high rooms of the Mansus” (one of the game’s alternate dimensions). I also once memorably devolved into cannibalism, was several times hounded by inspectors of paranormal phenomena from the “Suppression Bureau,” and died often as a result of physical malady, insanity, or ill-timed contact with metaphysical forces.
H. P. Lovecraft For Our Time
As a single-player, narrative-driven card game, Cultist Simulator delivers its content in a manner notably different from predecessors in the genre. Where the games discussed above tend to situate players in the midst of action-adventure or survival-horror situations—equipped with lethal weapons to eliminate cultists or a camcorder to act as a moral witness—Cultist Simulator’s gameplay takes place on a virtual tabletop via an array of different-colored cards and tiles.
You commence with a screen that shows a single card, labeled “Menial Employment,” and a corresponding tile, labeled “Work.” Applying the former to the latter with your mouse generates “Funds”—a buffer, you learn, against mental and bodily afflictions. Thereafter, more and more cards and tiles populate the tabletop. Some cards and tiles will appear after different card-tile combinations; others appear at random. When the player drags the mouse over a specific card or tile, a box will appear onscreen that provides information on various gameplay effects or something like plot points to follow. Applying “Passion” to “Dream” early in the game, for example, results in a “Bequest” card from a dying patient at the local hospital. The “Bequest” eventually leads to meetings with strangers in dark alleyways and the promise of discovering forbidden mystical literature. Alternatively, applying “Reason” to “Study” produces the card “Erudition,” which is essential (later on) for interpreting fragments of wisdom and lore. Much of Cultist Simulator involves generating such new card-tile combinations—and making swift decisions. Frequently, the application of a card to a tile sets off a timer that ticks away and penalizes the player—with restlessness, despair, illness, and death—if ignored.
If all this sounds vague or abstract, it should. The developers at Weather Factory want you to wrestle with the game as a quasi-occulted world, such that the player can pursue hidden knowledge but without easy payoff. To this end, initial entry into Cultist Simulator can be an intellectual struggle: cards and tiles bearing abstract nouns and verbs do not lend themselves to easy understanding of in-game progression. In many instances, I was confused by what happened when I mixed cards and tiles together. And once I figured out the basic mechanics of gameplay, it took a good deal of effort to figure out which card-tile combinations produced which outcomes. Without any in-game tutorial or guidance available, the player is left to deduce from trial and error what causes will have what effects. At the game’s start, your task is to financially support yourself as a hospital janitor, painter, or office clerk, all the while gradually uncovering bits of esoteric knowledge. Here, the primary lesson, via those obnoxious timers, is that your body, mind, and employment cannot be neglected, lest you quickly perish. It is only late in the game, once the card-based mechanics become habit, that ritual sacrifices and stygian pacts come to the fore.
“Cultist Simulator” lets you wield mystical powers and halt or herald the apocalypse, but never at the cost of unveiling too much.
It is worth emphasizing, again, that the growing pains involved with learning the inherent rhythms of Cultist Simulator are part of the point: where rote memorization of every card-tile combination would, in theory, allow the player to easily advance through the game, exploring the combinations is supposed to evoke wonder, to intuitively feel like alchemical experimentation. In this, the basic mechanics of procuring and transforming cards—a procedural ritual of concocting extraordinary secrets and revelations—is frustrating but also exciting. Where an ill-timed card-tile mixture might well precipitate immediate death, experimentation also allows the player to explore all the game has to offer. Every failed attempt is a step forward, as you begin to understand that the game’s narrative riddles are gradually coalescing into one larger occult experience.
On the one hand, the transmutation of cards yields potent storytelling akin to a tarot reading from H. P. Lovecraft. Producing “Erudition,” to take one example, triggers the message “The words contained knowledge. Now I contain it. It is a little like theft and a little like feasting and a little like the progress of an infectious disease.” As its atmospheric writing suggests, Cultist Simulator breathes the same contagious air as, say, Alan Moore’s Providence and Neonomicon comics series. It furtively shows paths to follow without telling exactly where you or the game is headed.
On the other hand, part of the game’s allure lies in how it contrasts the monotonous ritualism of nine-to-five living with a longing for existential purpose in magical thought and practice. As cards like “Erudition” evoke morbid imagery of “theft,” “feasting,” and “infectious disease,” “Menial Employment” consistently demands attention to a need for income and health. Employment is a disenchanting constant throughout the game, but it also represents a safe space—one you can clutch for security in a digital world of many unknowns. To hold onto old habits, however, would be to purposefully disregard what the game enticingly offers. Far more compelling than sanctuary, what you are invited to imagine (and prefer) are actions unhinged from the realm of work and necessity. From this perspective, the conversion of often confusing ingredients into bizarre outcomes promises to break the cycle of everyday office banality.
In many videogames, the player will enjoy the opportunity to unlock all secrets (weapons, outfits, books, accessories, etc.) as a way of completing and mastering a given game. Likewise, the narrative denouement of several electronic games often reduces occult properties to scientifically explainable phenomena, as in games like Resident Evil 4 and Outlast 2, where paramilitary industries (the Umbrella and Murkoff Corporations, respectively) have used so-called cultists as biological and psychological experiments. In these (and many other) examples, the occult serves as a narrative prop the player eventually appropriates to illuminate secrets, rather than dwell in them.
Cultist Simulator, however, presents an occulted world that mostly remains so. It lets you wield mystical powers and halt or herald the apocalypse, but never at the cost of unveiling too much. Small wonder that it also favors the circuitous paths of riddles and paradoxes over linear storytelling, offering an environment that will not easily bend to the player’s will or desire. One gets the sense that the game’s narrative trajectory will never completely resolve its circular logic. As the initial loading screen tells you: “Wood grows around the walls of Mansus. As any student of the Histories knows, the Mansus has no walls.” In approaching one of the multiple endings, an obtainable card includes the revelation: “I’ve learned the path to the Wood, tangled darkness grows around the walls of the Mansus ([I] thought the Mansus has no walls). I can Dream with this to return to the Wood.”
A powerful metaphor for how the game functions, these echoing passages call attention to the rift between everyday life (“Menial Employment” and “Work”) and the desire to transcend it with an active imagination (“Dream … to return to the Wood”). Through impossible doorways, shadowy habitations, and cosmic horrors that never completely materialize, the developers at Weather Factory know that the most memorable gaming experiences are ones that leave players longing for the pursuit of additional in-game knowledge and experience. Like Cultist Simulator, they evoke an occultism all their own.
This article was commissioned by Matt Margini.