The Emergence of Iris

Cultist Simulator‘s emblem, mascot and herald – nicknamed Iris – has proven really good shorthand for the feel of the game, and inspired fan art in her turn.

Here’s some behind-the-scenes on how I worked with Catherine Unger to get to the serene, or possbly implacable, Iris we know today.

AK: “The core theme of CS is the gradual revelation of the sublimely monstrous beneath the safely mundane.

This is an internal creative direction statement, not a tagline! The tagline is currently BEHOLD OUR END. But I’m making a game where the player is working on ingenious means to peel back the skin of the world or chip away its carapace, piece by piece, in pursuit of temptingly destructive truths.
So in terms of the game icon, the brand image, the title screen, I’m looking for a strong, simple image that expresses these concepts. Ideally I’d like something like the Sunless Sea buoy that will scale nicely from context to context. The two thoughts I’d been weighing so far are
(a) a book, with a corner raised to expose searing coloured light from within, or cracks in the books surface – probably red-gold light like lava.
(b) a face or building with skin or stone peeled back to reveal boiling light, or chaotic bubbles, or roiling tentacles, or intricate shadows, underneath.
The first of these sounds to me like it would be much more readable; the second more distinctive but I don’t know how it would work as an icon. I guess, because of the general heuristic that faces work well as icons, I lean most towards the face. If you have any thoughts about things that express the theme more simply or effectively, please do say!”

CU: “I tried to capture the essence of 1920’s movie posters and graphic design. The colours are completely temporary and are not indicative of the final colour choice, but if you do particularly like any let me know.
Here are some notes about each:
1. Seemingly normal person in a crowd, but she’s concealing a sinister secret under her hat.
2. 1920’s man in a dapper suit, seemingly normal except for the cracked face and light spilling out. Good negative space for a logo to fit.
3. Face on woman, rune like symbols and light pouring out one side of her face.
4. Monstrous things escaping in streams from the cracks in a book.
5. Some sort tentacle horror trying to break out of the book.
If you’d like to combine any of the ideas or if they trigger a new picture in your head let me know, looking forward to hearing what you think!”

AK: “OKAY I have many thoughts and feelings.
I am immediately convinced about that the faces work better than the books: nuff said, there.
I prefer the first of the three face treatments:
(a) it says 1920s in the way the others don’t
(b) the composition of the larger image is very striking (I like the sensation of motion and the Dutch tilt effect), and
(c) there’s room to do something more than just a crowd with the rest of it if need be (though I like the crowd)
(d) it is (my gf points out) immediately more unusual to suggest a female cultist – the immediate obvious stereotype is male
What I’d like more of – and I don’t think I did a good job of clarifying this in the initial brief – is a more visceral treatment of the exposed face – really the sense that the skin has been peeled back in a way that is dangerous, menacing and/or painful. If it could also be grotesquely beautiful – perhaps because there is light streaming from crevices or cracks, even if the exposure looks like flaying or burning or swelling –  that would be perfect.
If I was going to pick a reference to aim for it would be Guillermo del Toro – grotesque but compelling, with an antique, early C20 feel. I would also add Cronenberg and Clive Barker (Hellraiser, Nightbreed) as points of orientation, but not all the way – I am looking for ‘disturbing and eerie’ rather than aggressively gory or body-horror.  A journo once said about my work that they enjoyed the feeling of uncovering something disturbing, and what you find is unpleasant but you can’t stop picking away at it, and that it remains genteel throughout – I guess I’d like to match that visually.
I like the bright red / dark blue / white combo – I have no desire to change it unless you think of something better. It’s sombre, it’s striking, it looks like a good base for being genteel but revolting. I also like the movie poster / graphic design effect; if you can keep that while also suggesting something more tangible and biological, that would be great.
Please let me know how clear/unclear all this is, and how useful or not it is as art direction! I am groping towards intention here, as always.”

CU “Great! Glad to hear you like that one, I felt like it had the most atmosphere.
Thanks for the feedback, I’ve had a few of very quick doodles at what you are describing to see if I’ve got the right idea.
1st one: wide gashes in skin

2nd one: Skin blistering off, reveals sinister face (maybe multiple eyes)


3rd one: Skin literally peeled off, revealing other worldly visuals.

I would want the style to lean towards simplistic, much like C20 graphic design, so ultimately this detail will rendered as minimal as possible without losing the feel.
If none of these fit, I can keep sketching until we get the right look and feel 🙂 It doesn’t take too long.”

AK: “Hello!

1 is fine, but says ‘attacked by a werewolf’ rather than ‘gateway to another reality’.

Eyes are I think the way forward. Peeling, rather than blistering, is closer to the revelation theme of the game. Is it possible to have her actually peeling the skin away with her hand, or will that be too busy?

I am also interested in how it would look if the eyes were a strikingly different colour, although I guess the answer might just be ‘much less cool than the current clean colours.”

So I’ve made some progress, I just wanted to share you in on the key part of the image, before I finish the rest of the image.
I’ve looked into making the face look more peeled off, adding the hand makes emphasised that a lot.
My aim for the face interior to hint at something other worldly and spectral escaping.
Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!”

2 comments on The Emergence of Iris
  1. I’m really enjoying this behind-the-scenes, back-and-forth look at how the distinctive game artwork was created. And I love Catherine Unger’s artwork! My monitor wallpapers are currently cycling through the images she made for the locations in A House of Many Doors.

on The Emergence of Iris

Post a Comment