Sheeple

I played through Cult of the Lamb a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been meaning to write about for a little while but got derailed by a general failure to write anything. Cult of the Lamb is a roguelite with town-building elements, or perhaps a town-builder with roguelite elements. You control The Lamb, unnamed, the only such lamb left alive after a purge by a group of demigods in order to prevent a prophecy, etc etc, video games. Your task, given to you by some sort of satan, is to build your own cult to acquire power to face the bishops, those aforementioned demigods. The flow is simple: You go into a dungeon that belongs to one of the bishops, kick as much ass as you can manage, bring back a bunch of stuff and maybe rescue a hapless villager or two and return to your cult village to develop it by adding farms, shrines, mines, and so forth. When you’re done managing all that, you go into another harder dungeon and do it again.

As a basic game flow, this works very well. The actual combat of the roguelike segment is unremarkable but acceptable. Enemy patterns tend to be very predictable, but so much visual chaos accrues that it’s easy to end up taking damage anyway, and for reasons I discussed in my earlier piece on the dodge roll as it is implemented in 2d games, the actual engagements tend to be very flat, largely alternating between spamming attack and timing dodge rolls. The overall effect is unfortunately one of a dime-store Hades – unremarkable and unsatisfying, but not actually unpleasant. What makes the experience compelling and enjoyable, however, is the sensation of bringing whatever bounty you find back to your village of cultists and investing in upgrades making everything a little bit better, a little bit nicer, a little more robust.

This loop reminded me of, appropriately enough, Loop Hero – another roguelite with light town-building elements, though significantly more minimalistic in that case. First in playing Loop Hero and again in Cult of the Lamb, I noticed an innate human joy in working to build and enrich your community, one that I think many games, particularly roguelites, would be well-served by theming themselves around. This sensation of communal contribution persists through the first half-to-two-thirds of the game, but begins to sharply diminish as it progresses. In the early game you are personally responsible for all of the core functionality of your little cult – scavenging and cooking food, assembling buildings, finding grass and lumber and stone to work with, and so forth. As you develop your village it begins to become by degrees more self-sufficient, growing its own food supplies and accruing materials to build bigger nicer structures. You can build and upgrade farms to let the villagers harvest their own food, you can create mines and lumberyards to keep indefinite supplies of wood and stone and workshops to allow these to be processed and upgraded. Though you are, in terms of power, effectively a dictator, you can at least try to work towards some sort of communal good that benefits all involved. The dream of making a perfect little town, one that doesn’t need you any more, one that can stand under its own strength, stands just out of reach for so much of the game.

Eventually, it becomes clear that this dream is impossible. Even the most advanced mines and lumberyards collapse and must be manually rebuilt, crops don’t return enough seeds to sustain themselves – and, most painfully and confusingly, though your cultists can grow and harvest crops, they can never cook them. All meals must be prepared manually by The Lamb. This becomes particularly strange and onerous in the late game: On the difficulty I was playing on I could hardly leave on a dungeon mission without my villagers starting to starve and turn resentful by the time I got back a day later.

The reasons why this all works this way are obvious. The developers didn’t want set-and-forget solutions, didn’t want the player to make a self-sustaining cult which they could then ignore if they wished – that would be avoiding engaging with half the game, after all. Many builder games avoid this outcome by having disasters that require special attention to deal with: Earthquakes, plagues, floods, and so forth. However, the simple systems of the cult town simulation don’t really allow for any very robust version of these, so instead it’s simply… impossible for your villagers to cook.

This is one of many places where the game as it was conceived seems to conflict with the game as it actually came to be. The seeming intent of the developers, going by the marketing material, is for the player to be a ruthless tyrant using hapless cultists to further their own goals. Yet we’re never really given any goals to want to further beyond doing whatever our satan tells us to, so the real goal ends up being building the nicest village possible, and part of making a nice village is not being needlessly cruel to the people who live in it. Now, of course, sometimes a sacrifice has to be made or a rebel has to be imprisoned, but these are all in service of The Greater Good… maybe. But, anyway, you don’t seem to have much of a choice to not do those things, so… I guess you might as well do them as nicely as possible. Many of these forced decisions though, the mandated tutorial sacrifices and brainwashings, seem like holdovers of an older game design, one more pointlessly edgy and cynical, one that is inherently at odds with the actual finished game’s motive structure of really just trying to build a nice town.

The resulting experience is odd, and ultimately somewhat disappointing – though Cult of the Lamb is very fun to play for the first 10 hours or so, the resolution ended up feeling hollow. I’m going to spoil the ending, so SPOILER WARNING: You defeat the bishops, naturally end up quarreling with your satan and fighting him too, and then you win and… everything continues on basically exactly the way it was. Your cult continues needing your input for every decision, your help to cook every meal. You exist in perpetuity, the new bishop, the new tyrant. Nothing is changed, nothing is gained – nothing is even really lost.

Listen. I get it. People don’t play for the plot. It’s just set dressing. The lore is just present enough to excuse the action, the characters just distinctive enough to have flavor without adding any distracting motivation or action. It is, I suppose, intended to be disposable. Still, I can’t help but find it frustrating. It feels like it’s almost about something, but never really decides what that is. You can marry your villagers but it makes no real difference, sacrifice them but it makes no real difference, rule by fear or by love or by brainwashing, makes no difference. Everything is flat.

Here’s the ending I want. I want to renounce my crown and live in the village as just another villager. Or I want to leave with the crown and find other gods to slay and villages to create. I want to teach just one of these motherfuckers to cook a bowl of cauliflower. Unfortunately, that is not their role in the story: Their role is to be stupid pain-in-the-ass resources to be used and discarded and resurrected and used and discarded again. This is the only allowed engagement with your village. It is a sadly cynical resolution – a gameplay argument that the populace is suited only to be used. Of course, I’m not saying the developers are intentionally arguing this or believe this – but as with most games, the mechanics tend to convey certain very unpleasant ideas about how the world works, and the lack of awareness of these implications makes the whole experience feel just a little gross.

I found it hard not to come to the conclusion, halfway through Cult of the Lamb, that this was a world that would be better off without me, without The Lamb, in it. Perhaps I could be of service by slaying the greater and more dangerous monsters who surrounded my little village – but, that done, what could I offer the world except to leave it behind? I suppose I did leave it behind, anyway, when I stopped playing and uninstalled it.

True ending unlocked. At least I married satan before I left.

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