Alright, let me pitch you a game. You run a cult, and you have to keep all your villagers in line, and you do that by cultivating in them certain virtues – or vices, rather – ignorance, fervour, discipline, penitence, and obedience. Every season you can investigate different villagers, root out people who might be disloyal or disruptive to the cult’s agenda – and then at the end of each season, you pick someone to sacrifice. You deploy strategic violence, getting rid of difficult people who would undermine your authority. Now, you’re a savvy reader. You can tell that this game is criticising cults. It’s a very basic reversal of values: all of the qualities that you’re striving towards are bad, meaning that the character you’re playing is also bad. The game is encouraging you to plumb the depths of that bad-ness. Ignorance is bad, and penitence is when you go round whipping yourself, so that’s bad. The other qualities aren’t necessarily bad in and of themselves, but you can tell that they’re used in a derogatory way. Religious fervour is one of those terms you associate with zealots or extremists. Obedience means staying in line and not questioning the cult leader, and discipline in this context is punitive – just another mechanism for maintaining authority. Clearly, this is a game criticising the ways in which cult leaders exercise coercive control over their followers. So I was a bit confused when The Shrouded Isle took that premise and turned it into a game about pleasing people.
The Shrouded Isle is a 2017 game from Kitfox Games. It follows the leader of a cult as he tries to maintain control over his people. There are the five vices listed above, all of which must be kept above a certain level, and there are also five key families. Each family is responsible for one of the vices, and can bolster the village stats in their respective areas. Different family members will also have secondary characteristics, adding to and taking away from two other qualities, as in the screenshot above. Sagan Blackborn is part of the Blackborn family, which is set over Obedience. Sagan also has a secondary effect that bolsters Penitence, and one that detracts from Discipline. You don’t necessarily know what those secondary effects are at the start of the game, so there’s some work that goes into figuring it out. And then on top of all of this, whenever you sacrifice a villager (which you must do at the end of each season), you anger their family. If you sacrifice someone from the same family two seasons in a row, you anger the family. If you sacrifice someone for a so-called minor sin, you anger the family. Even if you catch someone with a major sin, and everybody agrees that they need to die, that person’s family will still be angry at you – but because it’s a major sin, the anger will be about 40% less than usual. Yay?
So on top of the stress of promoting all the different qualities that you need to keep control of the village, you also have to make sure that you’re appeasing all the different houses. It’s a really compelling type of gameplay, in that you have to balance all these different factors against each other. It’d be great for a game about playing a mayor, where you have to keep all your supporters happy and build a strong city. But is it really appropriate for a game about a cult? Instead of this one charismatic leader imposing his will through manipulation and coercion, it’s – well, almost democratic. The leader is bound by the whims of his people, and – crucially – cannot use the different vices to break their power. If you get Obedience up to the maximum score of 100, the families don’t magically fall in line. You can’t cow the families with extreme Discipline. You need their direct approval in order to keep governing – so you have to do things that they like.
And that raises some uncomfortable questions – ones I’m not sure this game is able to answer. Who are these families, anyway? Who comes into a cult, and accepts that sinners have to be murdered every season to appease the dark god Chernobog, but is also outraged by the idea that their family has sinners? Even when someone’s outed as having a major sin – the game calls it a ‘Just Sacrifice’ – you’re still hauled over the coals. There’s just not a consistent psychology at play here. It’s the selflessness of the committed cultist crossed with the self-interest of a faction in a democracy. They’re fucking Nimby cultists. ‘I know the dark lord requires a sacrifice, but I’m running a barbecue fundraiser this weekend, and if that’s disrupted I swear to Chernobog I will write to the mayor.’
I dunno. I do like this game, by the way, I just think it’s a bit weird in how it’s simultaneously a democracy simulator and a cult simulator. They’re contradictory impulses. Centripetal and centrifugal forces. One pulls people inwards, towards a center. It drags them out of place and into a position where they can be manipulated and controlled. Obedience, discipline, penitence. The other has a bunch of people all pulling on a central elected figure. It’s approval ratings, polls to measure satisfaction. At the end of the game, if you play well, you can raise Chernobog and begin a terrible new age. And if you manage it, you’re sort of left thinking – you know, guys, if you’d just been a little less self-interested, and thought a little bit more about raising this eldritch demon god, I just think we could’ve had an easier ride. That’s a weird thought to end a game with.