The Shrouded Isle is nothing if not contemporary. I play the leader of a cult governed by various statistics represented by little bars across the bottom of my computer screen – I keep them obedient, I keep them ignorant, I keep them religiously zealous, etc. I have advisers who often turn out to be poorly-qualified, and my cabinet is a bit of a revolving door because I get rid of one every few months. That this isn’t the White House and that I fire people by sacrificing them to the demon god Chernobog are minor details. The Shrouded Isle is a neat doomsday cult management sim that holds some amusing commentary on oppressive power structures and parallels to the current political climate, but in practice, metaphors like these don’t extend particularly far beneath the surface.
A game goes like this: to get Chernobog to rise again and liberate us all from mortal torment, I need to survive three years while managing the populace with those stats I mentioned earlier: ignorance, religious fervor, discipline, penitence, and obedience. Though I exercise total dominance as the unseen leader and designated clicker of eerie, monochrome, Game Boy-esque menu screens, these attributes are enforced by five families. Each season, I choose an adviser from each family to carry out their ancestral duties like burning books (which increases ignorance) or investigating heresy (which bumps obedience), and at the end of every season I sacrifice a chosen adviser to the void.
The Shrouded Isle is complicated, as all things are, by the human element. I, the all-seeing prophet of our lord Chernobog, know exactly how to lead my followers into glorious Armageddon, but the trouble is getting them to do my bidding with any sort of efficiency. I can only select up to three of my five advisers each month (three months to a season), and the families will grow happy or unhappy with me depending on whether I select them to perform their sacred duty. If I let them get too unhappy (or if one of my governing stats sinks too low), the game will end because the villagers will grab their torches and pitchforks. Each individual adviser also comes with both a virtue and a vice that further affects my stats to degrees of varying extremity when they’re selected – charisma, for example, is a minor virtue that will give a slight bump to my fervor, and being an artist is a mortal sin that will absolutely tank my ignorance.
The dilemma: vices and virtues are a mystery, revealed only by either choosing the adviser in question each month (which is governed by chance) or by asking their family to make an inquiry (which is guaranteed to work but unavailable if the family is unhappy with their dear leader). From there, it’s numbers. How many advisers I choose affects how strongly they shake up the statistics – while I’d get bigger numbers to both village stats and family disposition if I choose only Andrei Efferson to whip the unfaithful for penitence, I’ll get a more balanced spread if I choose two or three advisers (plus more chances to reveal vices/virtues). And if I manage to uncover that Andrei is an artist, his family will be slightly less upset with me if I select him as the lucky end-of-season sacrifice – creating art, after all, is a mortal sin.
It’s a clever system that forces you to juggle enough different values to prevent easy decisions without overwhelming you with numbers. And as morbid as the whole process sounds, it’s abstracted enough through menus and expressionless character portraits and flavor text to distance you from a pesky conscience – you see them less as people than the numbers they contribute to. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that The Shrouded Isle has abstracted and streamlined things a little too much. For how well the various systems interlock, they leave little room for stories to emerge because it’s the numbers that matter above all. The flavor text never indicates Andrei tries to raise penitence any other way. He has no relationships to speak of. The process of figuring out what makes him tick is little more than a series of dice rolls. His name may pop up in a creative random event, but those come few and far between.
Andrei is less a character than, well, a number. And while this makes for an effective commentary on how people are dehumanized when they’re exploited by their leaders, it grows tedious after just a few hours. That’s not terrible for a game that originated as a short riff for a Game Jam, but The Shrouded Isle is dependent on how many permutations its systems can lead to. It lives on how many stories it can create, and it squashes so many of them before they get anywhere interesting that it loses out on further commentary. Never do you adapt to plummeting ignorance by figuring out new ways to keep people in the dark, nor do you stamp out brewing resistance by any method more complex than increasing stats. In this game, the systems by which oppression functions certainly intersect, but they never expand or adapt to keep the populace under its, well, shroud; instead, they’re simple and crumble at the slightest protest. Rounds are short and end quickly because this largely text-based management structure affords so few possibilities, and the effect is less of managing a complex system to keep the populace in line than solving some short math and logic problems.
The Shrouded Isle doesn’t offer much more than a few hours of entertainment for its novel concept because of that simplicity, but perhaps that’s the point. Compared to the beginning, rounds grow easy and uneventful when they’re nearly over and you’ve figured out most of the vices/virtues; after all, isn’t it easier to maintain a system of oppression than to get one going in the first place? The game ends rather than allow you to adapt to plummeting stats because, compared to its lofty goals (whether that’s the return of a demonic god or just an uninterrupted, unchallenged regime), the oppressive cult mentality is thin. It’s easily toppled at the slightest hint of weakness, if people truly wish it to be. And in a grim little game based around summoning the apocalypse, a game released in the current global political climate, that’s the most depressing thing of all.