Q&A: Depicting administrative evil in The Shrouded Isle
The Shrouded Isle explores a different kind of evil than most games portray, one based on cruel decisions that affect and harm people. The title from Kitfox Games places players in the role of a high priest, it's up to them to choose sacrifices, suss out sinners, and keep a vicious god contented, doing so through merciless, cold choices.
With a new update bringing new personality traits to sinners, new events to trip up potential high priests, and new purification rituals, we spoke with Jongwoo Kim, designer and the programmer for The Shrouded Isle, to learn a bit more about maintaining power at the expense of others, and conveying that, as well as the experience of running a cult, through gameplay.
What drew you to explore the idea of running a cult in a game?
Jongwoo Kim, designer and the programmer for The Shrouded Isle: The Shrouded Isle began as a game jam project for Ludum Dare 33, the theme of which was "You are the monster". Instead of making a game about a physical or literal monster, we wanted it to be about a moral or administrative monster - someone who makes callous decisions for reasons far beyond the people who are affected. The player is not the dark god Chernobog himself, but merely his high priest, committing unspeakable deeds in his name.
What thoughts went into designing gameplay around running a cult? What elements did you want to include, and how did you want to turn them into play mechanics?
Very early on, we decided to centre the game around a dark ritual - a seasonal human sacrifice. In order to create meaningful consequences for this, we moved away from the management of conventional resources like food and shelter, and replaced it with the management of religious and political resources. Each person the player kills will impart a moral lesson on the townspeople, based on his or her personal traits. For instance, killing a scholar will set an example for what happens to those that seek forbidden knowledge, raising the Ignorance of the town.
What complicates matters is that each villager belongs to a noble family, which will revolt if its members are repeatedly sacrificed without justification. In choosing the seasonal sacrifice, the player must consider not only his or her ostensible religious duties, but also political control over the five great houses.
What pitfalls did you want players to run into as they tried to run a cult? How did you decide on the ways in which players could fail?
We wanted the player to encounter delicate circumstances in which the player's religious goals conflicted with political goals. To accomplish this, we added three defeat conditions to the game:
- The villagers fail to maintain the five values of the cult: Ignorance, Fervor, Discipline, Penitence and Obedience.
- One of the five great houses revolt.
- Major sinners still remain at the prophesied time of Chernobog's awakening.
We chose these defeat conditions because they tie back to the original theme of being an "administrative monster". The townspeople's well-being is largely irrelevant to the player beyond the risk that their moral failings will anger the slumbering dark god. Pacifying the great houses only matter as far as allowing you to pursue your ultimate goal, which is to purify the village of sinners.
You've shown considerable skills with procedural generation in your previous titles. How did those abilities transfer over to The Shrouded Isle?
Instead of generating maps or levels, The Shrouded Isle generates unique townspeople at the start of each playthrough. Each person is randomly assigned one virtue and one vice, both of which are initially hidden from the player. The player is forced to make educated guesses about who the major sinners are, or attempt to reveal them by spending precious resources. This results in the player feeling insecure and paranoid, despite their position of power.
The Shrouded Isle has a striking aesthetic. How did the art style come together for the game? What made it feel like it fit the universe and its ideas?
Erica, the art director for the project, wanted to challenge herself with a visual style that was both constraining and visually striking - resulting in the two-tone aesthetic. As the game was inspired by Lovecraftian horror, Erica also integrated Victorian fashion, Gothic architecture, and ornate flairs. The harsh otherworldly visuals of the game reflects on the apocalyptic outlook of the town's religion.