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How Cult of the Lamb's cute aesthetic allowed its developers to explore darker themes

Massive Monster digs into the design of Cult of the Lamb, discussing how its deceptively cute art aids design goals and how two games were essentially combined into one satisfying roguelike.

Joel Couture, Contributor

September 7, 2022

9 Min Read

Cult of the Lamb sees the player battling their way through dungeons, but also managing a cult of adorable animal friends. Cute as they are, perhaps they’re more valuable to you as a sacrifice to unlock some greater power. That duality led to some complex decisions, both for players taking Cult of the Lamb for a spin and for the developers tasked with creating the two complementary sides of the game.

Game Developer sat down with Jay Armstrong, director of game design at Massive Monster, to talk about how cuteness can be made to make unspeakable acts a lot easier to swallow, the thought process behind giving players greater rewards for sacrificing their most beloved followers, and how poo became an important piece of the game’s connected systems.

Game Developer: What inspired you to mix cult caretaking and roguelike dungeon crawling in Cult of the Lamb? What sparked the idea of combining the two?

Armstrong: The mix of base building and dungeon crawling was the starting point for the game, even before we settled on the theme of creating a cult. This came out of our experience with our previous game The Adventure Pals, which was very linear, which meant that, at best, you could play the game once, and, at worst, you could consume the game by watching a streamer play it and you’d never need to play it yourself at all!

At the same time, I noticed roguelike games such as Enter the Gungeon and Binding of Isaac, as well as colony sim games like Rimworld, were absolutely fantastic at creating unique stories every playthrough. They offered infinite replayability and emergent narratives - stories that sprung forth from the game’s mechanics - and I wondered why no one had thought of combining them before. It wasn’t until much later that we found the cult theme to be the perfect way to blend them together.

Getting Away With Murder

Managing the cult feels similar to managing a town of cute creatures in Animal Crossing, but with a sinister underbelly. What ideas went into balancing the cute nature with some of the gruesome things you can carry out?

The strength of the cute art is that it allows us to put horrendous things in the game without it ever feeling too horrible. You can do some truly dark things which, if we had a more realistic or darker art style, would have felt unpalatable. We really wanted to let players go down a dark path without them realizing how evil they were becoming until it was too late!

Moreover, when we decided on the cult theme, we knew we had certain expectations of what goes along with that and had an obligation to meet the promises we had made to the player. It would have been much easier to make a game about running a town, but we knew with a cult there were certain expectations that were implicit such as sermons, ritualistic sacrifices, etc. We actually made a list of 'what is a cult' and did our best to hit each of those points with the game design, but it was certainly an exciting challenge to integrate them as we hadn’t seen many things like it before.

The theme draws on the truth that power corrupts and we wanted the player’s journey to match that. So, we knew we needed to set up rewards and opportunities for the player to exploit their followers for their own gain. We are careful to never force you, but the mechanics are definitely set up to lead you down a dark path.

The strength of the cute art is that it allows us to put horrendous things in the game without it ever feeling too horrible.

What thoughts went into the cult caretaking elements in the game? What actions felt suitable to running a cult with such an adorable visual style? How did you translate those actions into gameplay elements?

We used to have a lot more busy work in the game (such as having to pull the weeds before you could build), but found that with a much more action-orientated game, it was more fun when we kept things more streamlined. Other systems, such as the follower’s poop, evolved naturally. After we introduced food, it was only natural that followers would need to poop and that poop could be used to increase farm yields as fertilizer. We always tried hard to connect the systems whenever possible.

Players can be kind or cruel in their management of the cult. What drew you to let players take different moral routes, and how did you create these paths?

We always wanted to allow people the choice to be the type of leader that they wanted to be, but we definitely set up temptations for going down a darker route. We felt it was important to provide a nicer alternative - even if it was just there to highlight what a monster you’ve become when you ignore the nice things in favor of the path of evil!

A good example of creating such a path is the sacrifice ritual. Not only do we make it front and center by having it gifted to you by the One Who Waits instead of unlocked as a choice like all the other rituals. Originally, you would only get gold from it, but we realized it wasn’t tempting enough for players. so at the last minute, we changed it so that it upgrades the player. We immediately found players using it much more often!

Additionally, we always try to make sure higher-loyalty followers are more valuable, so there is the constant temptation of killing your favorite followers for your own gain. Setting the player to exploit their followers was always central to the game’s design philosophy.

With the charming visuals but bleak subject matter, how did you find a careful balance between cute and horrific through the visuals and gameplay? What challenges did you face in maintaining that balance, and how did you overcome them?

A lot of the cuteness in the game came from the natural style of our artists James Pearmain and Julian Wilton. Whatever they draw is adorable, and there is nothing they can do about it. So, there was always an inevitability that no matter how dark we tried to make things, they would become adorable.

The other reason for leaning into the cuteness when it comes to the followers is that it helps endear them to you. You care for them, and so it creates a stronger emotional stake when you come to do horrible things to them, or even if your favorite follower eventually dies of old age.

Was anything cut in the interest of maintaining this balance? Tweaked in some way? Can you tell us about an element that may have been difficult or that you had to adjust?

Creating this game was a very iterative process. I’d say about 60 percent of the work we did ended up on the cutting room floor, simply because it was hard to balance all elements of the game and deliver on the promise of being a cult leader. It was also difficult to balance both sides of the game and keep them equally important.

One of the most difficult things was ensuring that each half of the game always fed into the other. We knew from the beginning that this would be a defining principle of the game, but in practice it was difficult to figure out. We finally got there though, but it took years of experimentation to crack it!

What ideas went into integrating cult activities into the roguelike play of the game? How did you design the connections between the two?

We always knew that the key to a successful genre mash is to have each side of the game feed into each other, but it proved tricky to get right for most of development. The earliest concept was always to go dungeon running to get resources, but having the base side of the game improve the combat side took a lot of iteration and experimentation.

It took us a surprisingly long time to decide how the player would get upgraded, but when we finally did, everything clicked into place. We tried a number of things such as having your followers come into the dungeon with you, but it really muddied the action. We found that whenever we streamlined the game, it became more compelling.

Two, Two, Two Games in One

What do you feel this connection between the two elements added to the game?

I think games like this, when done right, can become more than the sum of their parts. We love Moonlighter and that really proved to us that the concept was viable. With Cult of the Lamb, each side of the game had to be simpler than a game that only does one thing. For example, we often get comparisons to other roguelike games, but this can be an unfair comparison as those games do just one thing, while Cult of the Lamb is two games in one.

It was a constant balance of trying not to overcomplicate a game that could easily become quite unwieldy.

When we experimented with having the dungeon side be more complicated, it would take away from the cult-building side of the game and vice versa. It would also exclude people who are perhaps more interested in that side of the game. So, it was a constant balance of trying not to overcomplicate a game that could easily become quite unwieldy, but I think we struck a great balance in the end.

The cult can be connected to Twitch and a streamer's audience. What drew you to create this connection to the Twitch audience?

Twitch has become such an important part of the industry that we knew we wanted to find a way to connect with streamers and their audience. When this idea came up, none of us hesitated. We knew it was a fantastic opportunity and we couldn’t believe that it hadn’t been done to the same extent that we’ve done it in Cult of the Lamb. I have a feeling we will be seeing a lot more extensions like this in future games!

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