The Mansus Has No Walls

“In the Mansus, the Hours strive one against another. As the struggles are resolved, they iron out the impossible, exalt the possible, tie the fraying braids of what has been into one golden ribbon of future. Everything is resolved. History becomes the past…”


“…There are, however, exceptions.” It’s Cultist Simulator‘s sixth birthday today, so let’s make an exception for her. This quote is from a high-level Secret Histories fragment called ‘Unresolved Ambiguity’, and it could absolutely be a metaphor for game development in general. Cultist could have been a hundred different games, but it ended up consolidated in the one it became (and the one it evolved into, after years of post-lauch DLC and updates). You may remember that we made Cultist Simulator in 11 months, with a budget of around £150,000. It’s now reached somewhere between 850,000 to a million people, making some serious allowances for chaotic data like Humble Bundles and Amazon Prime. So in honour of her birthday here’s a whirlwind tour of just under a year’s game development, starting with the most important part of all: the What Even Is This Javascript Greybox Prototype. (Click for larger images!)

People who’ve played Cultist Simulator will recognise a surprising amount in these early prototypes. The art direction isn’t there – AK is definitely theme and mechanics first, ‘colours’ second – but the game’s Cookie Clicker influence is particularly apparent, as are important other factes of the final game like verbs (Study, Dream, Work…), timers (45s countdown for ‘The body has its needs…’) and resource-based storytelling (Secret Histories 1 + Occult Scrap 1 = Recruit an Aficionado of Conspiracies). I’ve worked with AK since 2015, when we met at his previous studio, and he always has a weirdly clear idea of what the game will be at the start. It’s just difficult for him to explain it and for anyone else to see inside his head. I’m now well-versed in the two to six months of trust where I have no idea what this game is that we’re apparently making, before it all falls into place. That moment for Cultist was this updated prototype, where you could first see the basic card interface:

I get it now! I see what all those grey buttons on their grey backgrounds represented! This gives me a lot to work with – I can now see what needs to be artified – while being flexible enough for AK to still be able to play with basic mechanics and the all-important recipes at the heart of the final game. Looks recognisable now, right? But where it really comes to life is when AK and Catherine Unger, our brilliant freelance artist, settled on a suitable art style:

It now looks so much like the real Cultist Simulator, but with enough difference, to trigger a bit of sense of the uncanny valley. I still mourn those stick-timers on the verb tokens, for instance! But this was where people really started to sit up and take notice of the game we were about four months out from completing. So with a bunch of hard game dev, which looks in real terms like this…

Cultist Simulator, as we know and love her, was born. HAPPY BIRTHDAY, GAME ABOUT PEELING BACK THE SKIN OF THE WORLD! We really love you.

Over to AK, and the expansion he’s been focused on.

HOUSE OF LIGHT melds with the existing game like the Witch-Twin or half a diphthong. So we’re taking the unusual step of adding actual meta information to the menu when you buy it:

Squint and you might notice an incongruous presence behind the window. The HOUSE OF LIGHT menu icon won’t actually be a tiny photo of the Tourlitis lighthouse – that was just a reference I gave Lottie for art. Similarly, any and all of the text in this window might change. But this is roughly how the expansion is shaping up, and you can see now some more of what I meant by ‘the foot bone’s connected to the leg bone’.

There are probably just two bullet points yet unilluminated: FURTHER STORIES and LIGHTHOUSE INSTITUTE. These are at least 30% of the expansion, though. FURTHER STORIES is ‘what happens in each of the non-Numa visitor stories’ . Why just the non-Numa stories? Because Numa visitors were really hard to fit into the other points (FOOD, SALONS, etc) above. Does Coseley have an address? Is Bancroft actually alive? Can you invite Aunt Mopsy to dinner? I know that when I say ‘no’ to that last one there’ll be a chorus of AW NO FUN, but I’m saving you from yourselves. Anyway there are a couple of dozen of even the non-Numa stories, so adding even a modest bit of variant-outcome (‘branching’ if you want to use That Word) to each of them is quite a lot of work.

BOOK OF HOURS is 100%* backwards-compatible with existing saves. That * means ‘it’s a bug if it’s not’. This also means that to some limited extent your choices about who you helped and who you didn’t will carry over – for example, if you helped Coquille or Zachary with the Messenger’s Casket then its occupant is loose, if you helped Dagmar then its occupant is locked up tight, and if you helped both sides then the seals are cracking. Again, the branching variant-outcome effect is quite gentle, not least because I calibrated most of the original visitor stories so that you could conceivably help several people and never know the difference. But just this once I had the foresight to track effects for the future. So that’ll make a difference, at least for the 3% of players who both buy HOUSE OF LIGHT and don’t immediately begin a new run.

The Further Stories work is most of what’s left to do on House of Light, along with the coda which the Lighthouse Institute provides. Once I’ve completed three or  four of the Furthers, we’ll begin the closed beta… which you might have heard about on the grapevine… to which we’ve already invited about twenty players randomly selected from people who’ve been noticeably helpful with bug reporting. We have another randomly-selected twenty ready to go on the final beta before launch, so if you’ve been both helpful and lucky you might hear from us. I’m talking about this here mainly so we don’t get plaintive request emails – sorry folks, this one’s quite small – and I guess also to make the point that being helpful with bug reports gives you a small notional chance of being invited to future betas. If they happen. If we decide not to stop making games and turn Weather Factory into an artisanal custard distillery. I won’t promise we won’t. Hey Lottie, is this marketing? Am I helping?

Back to Lottie.

I actually don’t have A Marketing to bark at you, for once – though I thought you might be interested in the weirdness of translation that I’ve been working on recently. BOOK OF HOURS had a great launch (in large part to you, the people reading this blog post – so thank you extremely much if you were one of our early adopters, especially if you left a nice review). But it also highlighted one of our real weaknesses as a team: with just the two of us, cramming as much game into the game as we can before launching in a sensible indie-budget timeframe, we simply can’t localise the game in time for launch.

I remember some of the other games that launched at the same time as us – Shadow Gambit: the Cursed Crew, for example – came ready packaged with thirteen languages. THIRTEEN. We initially kept up with them until our plucky lil game (4Chan nominated us for ‘Best Game Nobody Played’, you know 💅) slowly but surely fell behind while translated games kept up their momentum. Loc really isn’t the sexiest part of post-launch development – that’s starygazy pie, obviously – but it can profoundly affect a studio’s fortunes, as well as bringing a world you’ve laboured over for years to a new audience, who may love it!

ANYWAY, all this is to say that Simplified Chinese and Russian is coming this August, so I’ve spent several days producing translated assets for several hundred books. This highlights some interesting challenges, like ‘how do pictographic languages deal with initials as short-hand for the full title’? (You try and fit In The Mountains As Upon The Plain There May Not Be A Path Where None Has Passed on a 194px spine. Initials are my friends.) But there are other, weirder challenges too, especially when they enter the ‘does it look like a bum’ area of art direction. What I mean by this is every time an artist draws something, there is always the chance that people look at it and do not see the gorgeously-realised impressionistic image of two mountains at dawn, they see ladyboobs, and you have to redraw them so they are definitely not light-soaked erotic mountain breasts anymore. This becomes important with initials on books, because every so often AK will create a book called something like Semi-Esoeteric Xenophon Youths and we have to rename it. In loc terms, you get to Debate of Seven Cups: ‘DoSC’ in English, no problem, and in Russian of course it’s

…………………………Well. Does this matter? Will it be noticeable to Russian players, playing in Russian? Will it keep me awake at night knowing that there is a book in my serious, beautiful game about life and history and magic with a big rude word down the spine? Yes and yes, I think. So of course I have cunningly changed it to incorporate Roman numerals for ‘seven’, and await the Russian beta with interest.

On a more positive note, loc also makes our books look really cool in other languages. Check out this Chinese selection, for instance –

Points if you can identify them without cheating! Assuming you don’t actually speak Chinese, which is, in this instance, also cheating.

Thank you for coming to my TED Talk. I’ll leave you with a loreful snippet from HOUSE OF LIGHT to infect you with Fascination while you’re waiting for it to actually come out. Are the gods-from-stone ever gentle? The Wheel, perhaps – but Flint? The Seven-Coils? Darest thou trust…. the Egg???


“Yvette and Ehsan speak wistfully of what they have read of the lost Hour called Tide. Yvette recalls that when the Sister withdraws, other Hours sometimes fill the space left by her withdrawal, and wonders whether the Tide is gentle enough to remain afterwards… but Ehsan politely insists that the gods-who-were-stone are never gentle.”
2 comments on The Mansus Has No Walls
  1. “Once I’ve completed three or four of the Furthers, we’ll begin the closed beta… which you might have heard about on the grapevine… to which we’ve already invited about twenty players randomly selected from people who’ve been noticeably helpful with bug reporting.”

    Oh wow, that is a much smaller number than I’d assumed. I feel all special now. It’s enough to make up for not being able to force Aunt Mopsy and Douglas to socialize.

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