By Neil Merrett
Cult of the Lamb, released on Nintendo Switch on 2022, developed by Massive Monster
In a prime example of the way videogames use choice and consequences as a way to immerse players in their story, Cult of the Lamb gives the player an almost open-ended means of how to view their actions in the game. As such, is it delusion, or a fair choice for the player to determine that their so-called ‘cult’ is actually a functioning and somewhat symbiotic community of individuals working and thriving together? There’s no harm in that, so long as they do what the player tells them!
John Boorman’s 1981 epic Arthurian movie ‘Excalibur’ posits that the true Holy Grail is less a fancy cup, and more a simple and vital truth. This is namely, that a monarch or leader are one with the land they rule or oversee.
A healthy and successful nation, or a people that can aspire for better at least, requires a leader that can demonstrate those very same traits. As a metaphor, it’s a bit on the nose.
Political realities, of course are often too complex to be boiled down to simple binary statements. Yet at the heart of all legends, there can be important lessons about the people and societies that have told them.
It is interesting that this very same concept about healthy leaders seems to underpin the videogame Cult of the Lamb.
Granted, this is a game where a player can opt to create a semi-functioning society of cannibals to worship them as their ruler and deity. The devotion and labour shown by your cult’s followers is vital to support the player in a bloody campaign to bring down several gods for one of their own kind.
Cult of the Lamb opts for a story that offers a slightly different take on the fantasy quest. Unlike the more straight forward ‘chosen one’ narratives of the Legend of the Zelda series, it is possible to play the game as either a more clear-cut saviour figure, or as a more authoritarian tyrant – most may find themselves functioning as being somewhere in the middle.
It is implied that this other worldly being that the player-controlled Lamb fights for, may be no better – and is perhaps worse – than the siblings he seeks to destroy. Still, all is fair in the name of revenge for your own cruel sacrifice, right?
The player’s revenge is carried out as part of a game that combines a Rouge-like hack and slash, dungeon crawling adventure with an agriculture/town management sim.
Building a community of happy and well-fed followers is vital to overall progress in the game to ensure that you can build an ever-growing community that doesn’t starve, succumb to disease or lose faith and run away with some of your money in the middle of a battle.
Plumbing and powers
As the player undertakes more quests, and learns how to build a semi-functioning toilet, it is theoretically easier to take on a growing number of followers that in turn can allow you to gain more devotion and resources. This allows you to level-up your town and capacity to delve out brutal violence.
It is also entirely possible to build a fairly self-sufficient cult of followers that uphold fine agricultural standards and express their devotion via bonfires and dinner parties to serve you with the devotion that can be converted into more devastating attacks and abilities.
You can also accede to your followers’ whims with sub-quests such as feeding poop to their fellow citizens made up of cutesy and creatures essentially for ‘bantz’.
It is a game, at its heart, that is often more political than might be suggested by the game’s cartoonish aesthetic design and satirical concept.
Players that harvest enough mushrooms can perform rituals to leave their followers for a drug included haze for several in-game days, while the player seeks to go on a major campaign to slay the gods that oppose the being that gives you power.
Should the player fall in battle after receiving weapons of temporary tarot card upgrades that are less suited or useful to their playstyle, your drugged up followers will not see their faith shaken.
Likewise, it is possible to frequently sacrifice one of your followers as a means to punish disobedience and gain quick and important experience to help level up your abilities. This will see your community losing some faith in their leader, with some followers more concerned than others about the practice.
It is also possible to unlock abilities to let followers ‘ascend’ to an unspecified tranquil form of afterlife. This is essentially the same thing as sacrifice, but the heavenly subtext serves to actually build faith in a group of followers with the promise of a ‘happy ending’ after days of toil in the name of your cause.
It can later become possible to resurrect the occasional deceased follower – either out of a sense of bond to a cutesy animal creature, or to ensure that they can continue to be levelled up as an important resource for giving the player extra devotion and improved combat abilities.
Doing as told
This heightened form of carrot or stick choices is a central dynamic to trying to keep followers and maintain a functioning community.
Yes, these followers are pawns in a possibly endless cycle of vengeance and retribution; stuck between a squabbling and myopic group of all powerful siblings. It is still possible to make sure they are fed and even have the occasional holiday where they are given an in-game day off from working and toiling on your farms or mines.
Is a functioning cult with a set of defined beliefs or structures such a bad thing if it means the player can provide a happy and functioning society?
This is arguably the key tension of a game where the unjustness of being sacrificed to a higher power puts the player on a path of sacrificing and manipulating others to set things ‘right’
So long as followers do as their told, and do not question the leader that commands them and their violent quests, what is so bad about doing what you’re told?
These themes are hidden beyond a colourful and often tongue in cheek game upgrade system that asks the player to determine the right balance of faith, discipline and individual choice.
The basic concept of playing through the game as a cutesy axe carrying lamb, albeit it one spared and empowered by a seemingly a deity, is a hugely entertaining basis for a game about hitting and collecting things/
Yet as the player progresses and is tasked to build a society with which to wage its war against another group of gods, the question of whether you are operating a cult or a functioning society becomes a little more blurred.
A cult or not?
The latter stages of the game begin encouraging the player to question what exactly they want to achieve through their conquest.
Success for some players may eventually involve building a semi functioning and happy species, if not out of a sense of moral obligation, bur in trying to make playing through the game easier.
The player is often incentivised to ensure the contentment and continued existence of certain followers that they can become attached to and perhaps even marry some or all of them. This attachment might be sentimental but is also practical for high level followers that can be converted via a ‘summoning circle’ that, once unlocked, can be used to convert them into familiars. These can be taken into battle to make a player’s stronger and more deadly, or perhaps able to take more damage.
Towards the latter stages of the game. There is a subtle, yet important choice to be made about what the player is or believes themselves to be.
Are they an otherwise powerless lamb given temporary monster smashing power monstrous powers in the aim of helping a different kind of monster and returning their powers? Perhaps they are now seek to usurp these strange higher powers to create a brand-new, cuter lord and master for the game’s cutesy creatures. The lamb has done all the killing and conquest after all – he evens dishes out gifts and formal dinners/
Another choice is the decision to fight to retain your powers and opt to continue to run your community indefinitely – at least until new DLC is released. From this point of view, your followers are preserved in a form of symbiotic relationship as they strive to try to live out their lives well-fed and contented – protected or perhaps constrained – by the comfort afford by your commune (cult).
These are all options in the game, the right ending is arguably down to a player’s interpretation of their actions.
Some may justify argue that keeping their demon powers for ‘the greater good’ is the fairest means of ensuring your followers can continue to live, work and occasionally take mushrooms.
In this case, it might be helpful to abandon the use of the word ‘cult’ to describe the community the player has built.
It might be preferable to see your followers as existing in a symbiotic or co-dependent relationship where the strength of a lamb is synonymous with the strength of the community. Even the game’s main ‘villain’ is able to join the community, or rather are made to by the end of the main campaign.
All they must do is never question or undermine your progress as the game’s hero, and perhaps occasionally sacrifice themselves to keep you fighting after a ‘death’.
You don’t hear a bottled fairy complain about the same fate in the Legend of Zelda.