In 2016, Failbetter Games founder Alexis Kennedy left his role as CEO to pursue freelance writing opportunities. This was a major move for the founder of a studio responsible for games including Sunless Sea and Fallen London, and one that led his life in a number of new directions.
He was somewhat worried about what the future looked like. He had worked with enough freelance writers to know the challenges of negotiating deals and what rates looked like, and he knew that while his studio had enjoyed some success, it didn’t have the same level of name recognition as other indies when he met with industry executives.
Despite his initial worry about what life would look like working for others for the first time in over seven years, opportunities did ultimately come along. Kennedy soon found himself with an offer from Paradox Interactive to write a guest story pack for Stellaris, and BioWare reached out asking him to write a faction in a new Dragon Age game – the first time BioWare had ever hired a guest writer. However, major studios don’t move as fast as independent ones operating with small staffs, and the development cycles for these projects were slow to the point that though the offers existed, the work was a minimum of three months away. This meant that Alexis had plenty of downtime for the first time in his life, which he planned to spend catching up on long-overdue reading.
Then he got restless. Instead of going on holiday or taking time to himself, he began digging deep into a new project from scratch: a solo operation called Cultist Simulator. He wrote all of the first version of the game’s code himself, which he hadn’t done in years, and which led to weeks of mistakes he used to know not to make; he also started exploring game mechanics that simply hadn’t manifested themselves in his work at Failbetter.
For one, Kennedy wanted to dig deep into the concept of loose choices, which make a game more interesting and relevant when compared to tight choices (which effectively require players to make decisions that drive the story along in immediately clear, concrete ways). A loose choice is more like a move in chess than an answer in a multiple-choice questionnaire, and he was certain that loose choices made a game more engaging, especially when they included an element of uncertainty and mystery.
He also wanted to inspire players to experiment. He spent some time playing a mobile game called Doodle God and became increasingly interested in digging into the metaphorical and abstract after trying to make sense of the sometimes-surprising effects of combining resources in it. This led him to want to create a game where players had to combine objects to create scarce resources, and he wanted to use this as a way to explore concepts of prophecies and truths in order to ultimately complete a larger, more ambiguous objective.
To address his own inability to make a game visually elegant on his own or easy to learn inside and out (and stop this period of potential frustration from driving players away), Kennedy cleverly tied the obscurity and confusion of the player’s first experiences with the game into the narrative of the game itself, so that being in the dark, literally or figuratively, was part of the story and not a problem. Finally, he aimed to create a new setting for his game, with a new mythology and a new world, revisiting some of the ideas that powered Fallen London in a different context and creating elaborate, surprising puzzles for players to dig deep into.
Ultimately, this led Kennedy to the idea that the game is about a student of the “invisible arts” – a citizen in a society where their actions have the potential to lead them to build a cult following.
This all manifested itself in a game that Kennedy described as “instantly compelling.” In Cultist Simulator, players work with a series of traditional interactive fiction-style commands. After giving one command, the player then has thirty seconds to try different combinations of commands before being allowed to see the outcome. By creating what Kennedy calls a game loop and adding the element of delayed gratification, the game effectively leaves players always waiting for something to happen and constantly engaged.
By keeping all in-game resources scarce and valuable, players were forced to make sense of a mysterious series of elements and interactions in order to survive. Players had to maintain Health and Sanity to avoid ending the game early and must have had shillings in order to purchase food to keep their Health high, meaning that the game’s core resources were all immediately interlinked. They were also constantly left wondering what might happen if they try a new combination or attempt to use an object in a new way, and each activity was accompanied by a breadcrumb trail of information that may or may not help them.
This effectively told a story in pieces without an elaborate UI – and gave players something to hold onto immediately.
After an early prototype got an enthusiastic response, Kennedy began building the game in Unity. At the same time, his work with both Paradox and Bioware was finally ready to start moving, which meant that he had a limited time period to work on Cultist Simulator before he would be forced to move it to the backburner. This left him with a tight turnaround time of about two months to bring the game to life, so he partnered with freelancers to create art and develop a UI that would hold the game together in the style of a board or card game.
Soon, his passion project would develop from a solo venture to one by a small team that would inform the next several months of his life as a writer and developer – and achieve a surprising amount of success for what could simply have been a way to fill a few months of downtime.
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