Cultist Simulator and the Rite of Initiation

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Explore. Take risks,” from the opening of Cultist Simulator

…It was the knowledge of this secret which bound initiates one to another and distinguished them from non-initiates…” from The Roman Cult of Mithras: The God and His Mysteries by Manfred Clauss

Cultist Simulator is two things: a roguelike card game that challenges the player to learn and master its core mechanics, and a story generator, one which creates an individual narrative while revealing a greater one through gameplay. In truth, it feels at times like a collection of a lunatic’s madlibs, stacked about his padded cell. Where many games offer gentleness and hand-holding, Cultist Simulator offers only a mysterious clarion call of the void.

The Origin of Initiation in Cultist Simulator

The root word of the English “Cult” is the Latin colere, which means alternately to inhabit, to cultivate (as in agriculture) and to worship. This word evolved into the Latin cultus, which became culte in French, before as so many do, anglicizing when it found a new homeland.. In English there are two prevailing definitions for the word cult, which are:

  1. A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.
  2. A system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object (a saint, a totem, etc.)

In Cultist Simulator both definitions are applicable, as the player builds their cult from the ground up, cavorts with the seemingly supernatural dancers of the Ecdysis Club, uses brawn and bombs to assassinate troublemakers and do-gooders, and imprisons innocents for the purpose of human sacrifice.

Societies With Secrets

The most interesting detail of Cultist Simulator is not the gameplay mechanics or even the underlying narrative: The ancient mystery societies which inspired Cultist Simulator also serve as its pattern.

Manfred Clauss explains these societies in one of the seminal treatises on Mithraism, “The Roman Cult of Mithras: The God and His Mysteries.” From page 14:

In the ancient world, the term ‘mysteries’ was used to refer to secret cults throughout the period from the seventh century BC to the fourth century AD. All shared two basic features: the injunction to silence, intended to prohibit ritual details from reaching the outside world and the promise of salvation to initiates…

Candidates in most of these societies discovered secret knowledge through a series of ranks or grades. As an example, Mithraism had seven grades from Raven (or Corax, in Latin) to Father (Pater), with additional ceremonies and revelations accompanying each grade. Specifically, Clauss mentions signs of recognition, pass phrases, symbols, and emblems among them.

Mirroring Mechanics

An introduction to the narrative.

Cultist Simulator alludes to the aforementioned structure by allowing you to recruit, initiate, and pass followers on to greater levels of knowledge, but imitates it with the player functioning as the initiate. In the beginning, the player may use a limited number of cards (nouns such as reason, passion, and funds) to act upon verbs (actions), such as work and dream. Through experimentation and combination, they may discover new cards.

The only way to unlock additional mechanics and progress the narrative is to progress through the metaphorical grades of initiation. In this way you move from a clerical drone with no magic to speak of, to a demon summoning magus of great and terrible power. This then is a clear imitation of the mystery cult structure, offering salvation (victory) through initiation.

If the player fails to progress, either through lack of imagination or reaching a fail state, a corollary arises. Further exploration of the narrative and mechanics are locked away until the player returns and succeeds. Much like in mystery societies of old, or even their more modern counterparts, such as the Freemasons or the O.T.O., the candidate must meet certain requirements in order to progress and achieve enlightenment.

Giving up Magic to Become Magic

It is worth noting that while the player can discover all the secrets the game has to hold with a quick overview of the game’s wiki, Cultist Simulator still contains the final element of the mystery society: an implicit injunction to silence. The game holds secrets, and does so intentionally. Secrecy and revelation are paramount. Without those elements the game loses much of its magic. It seems then that we can take one lesson from the game’s design:

The magic of initiation is possible only when the secret is kept.

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