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Cult of the Lamb publisher’s new game is The Sims in reality TV hell

Card Shark developer Nerial teams up with indie creator Nicole He to bring us a reality TV roguelike sim with '90s nostalgia and a dark twist.

A cast member of The Crush House holds up a can of Crush Juice while sticking her tongue at the camera.

If you’ve been keeping up with Devolver Digital lately, you might have noticed a curious little announcement on April 1 that the publisher is making a “bold, suspiciously sudden, and some might say doomed pivot from indie games to reality TV.” The best part? This is no April Fool. Devolver Digital subsidiary studio Nerial teams up with independent game dev and creative technologist Nicole He to bring us The Crush House, 1999’s hottest reality TV show. From cringe conversations to sizzling showmance, The Crush House has it all. You just have to make sure you get it on tape, or fear the wrath of your audience – or worse, the producers.

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I caught up with He and Nerial CEO Tamara Alliot at GDC for a hands-off preview of the genre-defying indie game, which He aptly describes as a “thirst-person shooter” while she walks me through a typical day in The Crush House. We begin in a dank room located directly beneath the titular house itself, notable for its spartan bed, desktop workstation, and a set of stairs leading down to a mysterious elevator. It’s here that we prepare for the day by picking up our trusty camcorder and taking heed of the poster above the bed declaring the TV network’s golden rule: “DO NOT SPEAK TO THE TALENT!”

Above ground, the Malibu mansion is a ‘90s pastel color block nightmare, complete with a swimming pool, branded juice dispenser, and an enormous slide leading to areas unknown. “Today’s Monday, and if the show’s popular enough to make it to Friday then [the cast] all get to go down the success slide, which is their ultimate goal,” He explains.

The casting menu for season one of The Crush House, in which players must select four out of the 12 prospective cast members.

The pool of prospective cast members is a dozen strong, but only four can go into the house at a time. While you might start with any of the preset groups on offer, as you get more seasons under your belt and become familiar with everyone’s personalities, you can begin to mix and match to your preferences – pair compatible talent for a lovey-dovey season or pick clashing personalities then sit back and watch the fireworks.

He breaks the player’s objectives down into three crucial questions: “Who are these audiences? What do they want to see? How do I film what they want to see?” Foodies, Landscaping Lovers, and Divorced Dads are just a selection of the many audiences that The Crush House can court, and satisfying them all is key to ensuring that success. An audience of Butt Guys will ensure a flurry of hearts whenever a plump derriere is in view, whereas hitting your talent with a Dutch angle shot will satisfy the Film Students in your audience.

However, there’s also a secret third thing, and it’s near and dear to the hearts of content creators the world over: ad revenue. Whenever you’re not filming the talent and pandering to your audiences, you’re running ads to gain the passive income necessary to purchase props for the house. “We actually asked a bunch of our game dev friends at other studios to make fake ads for us to represent their own games,” He says, as increasingly surreal videos move across the camcorder screen – including a cheeky reference to Baby Steps, another upcoming PC game that falls under the Devolver Digital umbrella.

The interior of The Crush House, notable for its enormous pastel purple couch and the indoor hot tub, while the camcorder plays ads for 'Dogmilk'.

As someone who was very much the target audience of late ‘90s reality TV, I ask why it was important that The Crush House capture this particular time period. “That era was sort of the beginning of reality TV,” He says. “It felt right for the game to place it in that timeframe, even if some things may seem a little anachronistic.” One such anachronism is a live chat at the side of the screen, which bursts into life as soon as Milo, our first cast member, enters The Crush House. There’s a veritable flood of emojis and suggestive comments, which only increase as the rest of the talent arrives – including a British programmer in a sweater vest, a Floridian personal trainer, and a high femme ex-model.

“When I watch reality TV, that’s one of my favorite parts, like first impressions and how they react to each other,” He says. I pick up on that recursive voyeurism as we watch the cast members interact, camcorder at the ready to catch a stray side-eye or shift in body language. “We actually built a reality TV simulation system that looks at all of these characters,” He explains. “It generates these scenes that play out between them, depending on who’s there.” However, this system isn’t random. It adheres to the personalities of each cast member to preserve the dynamics between them.

As the cast begins to warm to each other and break off into smaller groups, it presents its own challenge. There’s one of you and four of them, so inevitably, you have to decide who to film. Thankfully, you can also keep track of everyone’s relationship status via a menu, so any major developments you miss with your camera can be explored the next day.

The camera records two castmates engaging in a slap-fight by the pool as another looks on, a scrolling feed of comments at the side of the screen.

Naturally, The Crush House takes full advantage of the psychological minefield inherent to the reality show TV genre, and nowhere is this more evident than the props you can purchase with the profits you make. A statue depicting two people engaging in a slapfight, for example, increases the likelihood of your talent coming to blows, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out how the talent might be influenced by a gaudy neon love sign or a butt-shaped pillow.

Once the cast retires for the evening, we’ve still got work to do. We head back down into our underground bedroom-slash-bunker-slash-cell and check the ratings and revenue at our workstation. We head back outside to set up props under the cover of darkness – and come face-to-face with a cast member instead.

It turns out that Emil wants me to stoop to a whole new voyeuristic low and film him getting frisky with another cast member… with the caveat that I only focus on his face. “It reveals a bit about [his] psyche, but also how he wants to be represented on reality TV and what he’s trying to get out of the whole experience,” He explains.

Two castmates in swimming wear embrace one another on The Crush House patio.

A more conservative cast member requests that we go a whole day without filming anything risqué – which will not only disappoint any Butt Guys in the audience, but is also a tall order when the cast start to follow their romantic inclinations. “They talk a big game but you don’t actually see very much. Maybe I shouldn’t say that!” He laughs. “It’s implied – they talk about it – but it’s a little more Sims-like in terms of not seeing much.”

Of course, that poster above the bed was put there for a reason. As we fraternize with the cast and the questions begin to pile up, it’s only a matter of time before the PR on our walkie-talkie politely requests that we get in the elevator. This is where the preview comes to an end – He and Alliot don’t want to give away all of The Crush House’s secrets ahead of its 2024 release window.

The room that serves as your base of operations beneath The Crush House, including a bed and a corridor leading to a mysterious elevator.

He tells me that inspiration for The Crush House first took root in 2019 after both herself and ex-Nerial developer Arnaud De Bock became regular watchers of Terrace House, a Japanese reality TV show. “We realized that the project was going to require a larger team,” He explains. “We decided that if Devolver wanted to get behind it then it would make sense to bring on the whole Nerial team.”

Naturally, He is known for her subversive projects, which span the analog and digital realms and often include social commentary. “This is my first commercial game and I can’t believe that I get to do this with Nuriel,” He says. “They love the project, they have faith in it, and Devolver Digital is also really supportive of that.” Naturally, there is a degree of pressure that comes with the publisher’s high-quality reputation, but He and Alliot are confident in the project. I have to admit – I might have a bit of a crush.

While you’re waiting for The Crush House release date, check out some of the best life games from The Sims to Stardew Valley, or the best dating sims if you’d happily trade away home-grown turnips for a whirlwind romance.