Developer droqen is most famous for the endless vertical scrolling platformer Probability 0 released in 2012. Okay, fine, if you insist, it’s actually Starseed Pilgrim from 2013 he’s most famous for. I wrote about that game without spoilers, with spoilers and then I made a short movie about it (without spoilers).

On April 1, 2021, he released the game Cruel World which was commentary on cryptocurrencies, abusive to players and only on sale for 24 hours.

Today, it’s back on sale again, some players interpret the abusive design as meditational and I’m not even sure if it is about cryptocurrencies any more.

Welcome to this week’s edition of “the author is dead”.

Cruel World doesn’t reveal all its secrets at once. It looks like a platformer from the masocore zone of the game taxonomy universe – and indeed it is. When you begin, there’s an information node before you but only the node’s owners can read it. You do have the option to hack it and so, you hack.

You watch the game conduct some sort of hack combat between you and the owners of the node. You take on each one in series until they’re all defeated. Then you have a choice: to keep the node temporarily hacked or make the hack permanent with the command MINE, adding yourself to the list of owners.

I think many players probably did what I did. Sure, I’ll put myself on the guest list! Everyone can know I played this game! I’ll make it MINE.

The penny doesn’t drop immediately. Once you’ve become a node’s owner, the next person to hack that node has to fight you as well. Congratulations, you’ve just made it harder for the next player, you little shit. Now imagine a painful platformer with weird jumping mechanics, billions of spikes where not just the information nodes but save points are weighed down by ownership.

So, after you hack, do you MINE it so you never have to worry about it again and make life worse for others – or leave the hack as a temporary measure? Temporary hacks survive until you hack another node or turn off the game. And there’s a nagging suspicion you might have to retrace your steps because Cruel World does not present you with a linear path.

If you were one of the first players, mining everything in sight seems like no big deal. But if you came upon it when I did, 23 hours later, every node had multiple owners – even the information nodes. Why would you MINE information nodes to make it actively more difficult for those who came after you? Because you can? It took, uh, some time to make progress.

Cruel World is trying to say something about cryptocurrency. It discards the idea that cryptocurrency liberates the people from governments and banks and says: take a look at this speculation bubble “liberty” you have electronically created. The folks who got in on day one were winners but the nature of cryptocurrency technology makes it harder for those who follow later to be part of the bubble. To enter this contest, you need to serious computer heft to mine new currency, grinding away into the night.

But I put down Cruel World. I had to stop mining the nodes because I couldn’t live with the guilt of it, that my name would be daubed on every node’s hall of bastards. I didn’t need to be a contributor to its unwholesomeness. Using temporary hacks everywhere hadn’t made too much impact but I wasn’t into all the waiting. And I’m not a big lover of the pain platformer – I loved VVVVVV but La Mulana was graveyarded on my desktop years ago.

As dabbling with Cruel World was a distraction from writing my monthly newsletter, delaying its publication by a day, I took up droqen’s suggestion that the owners of his on-sale-for-just-24-hours game were now its gatekeepers. I spread a now out-of-date pirate version of the game in the newsletter (for just two days). Droqen had even made it more valuable by adding DLC by Mer Grazzini and John Molloy after it was withdrawn from sale.

The expectation was that more players would pour into it via “pirate” distribution of the game and eventually become unplayable. You couldn’t keep charging for a game which encouraged players to pour glue into its cogs.

But strange things happened after that.

First, developer Sylvie modded Cruel World with the “rom hack” Beaceful World. Then it turned out Cruel World’s online database wasn’t as secure as a cryptocurrency ledger and was hacked, with the hacker deleting all of the owners. Droqen said this “breaks the systemic narrative” but I do wonder. While you can’t just wave a wand and wipe out cryptocurrency, it does speak to the anger of the have-nots trying to rise up against the cryptocurrency haves.

Then ArrogantGamer said they’d found contentment in Cruel World enforcing hacking breaks – a sentiment which reminded me of VESPER.5 (Michael Brough, 2012). In VESPER.5, you can only make one move every day and while I reacted negatively to its design at first, the act of launching the game burrowed its way into my routine. In fact, it became so familiar, I found it difficult to make that final move. (I wrote about cynically monetising it – but seeing what’s happened with idle games and IAP, I’m not sure I was that far off the mark.)

I can’t really argue with Cruel World as meditation. I’m playing Cruel World right now, while writing this article. It turns out running a hack is long enough to drill through a paragraph or two.

And so droqen put Cruel World back on sale and the new version appears to have… well, I don’t know for sure. It sounds like there’s a cat god in there that can help you undo your mining if you want to be a good samaritan but I can’t be sure as I haven’t finished Cruel World and may never do so.

Is Cruel World a “message” game anymore? And if it is, what is the message? And who wrote it – the author or the audience?

Have we actually said goodbye Cruel World?

Update 12 Apr: Cruel World is about NFTs rather than cryptocurrency, but I fixated on Bitcoin mining while I was playing and then wrote up Cruel World as a cryptocurrency story rather than an NFT story. Whoops. It’s a different allegory (energy usage is the focus rather than early adopters) but it doesn’t affect the meat of this post, so I’m going to leave it as is.

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13 thoughts on “Goodbye Cruel World

  1. I do not have anything profound to say but:
    I have not MINED anything yet. (I’m SOLAR_ND.) First time through I thought even hacking would mess things up for people and I was worried about saving at all, and played through the first part several times restarting from the beginning. Then I was like yeah no.
    I was also afraid that quitting and restarting meant losing the save completely but it didn’t. And at some point I thought, why do you have to mine at all, can’t you just save at save points? But there is the backtracking (I got caught by this at one point).
    And I guess I could actually HACK at max level, or it might make sense if you have to fight everyone whose current save point is there.
    I am currently in stasis in Blue Gauntlet due to simple inability to get from the center to the top.
    The platforming is delightfully zany and frustrating!
    I am impressed by PEN who managed to get on everything with 15.

    And thank you for the link! Since Cruel World was not on sale at the time I put extra money into Handmade Death Labyrinth and ten minutes my eye, I have no idea what I’m doing.

  2. First off, interesting commentary from droqen in response to this piece here:

    Right, hello Matt! It turns I was working myself around a loop in Cruel World – well done to you – but I actually have to backtrack. So I’ve stopped for now. Will I continue? I don’t know. I’m not that invested. There was a conversation between Bennett Foddy and droqen about the platforming joy in Cruel World, Foddy saying it reminded him of Conan and GOD I AM SO OLD I KNOW WHAT HE WAS TALKING ABOUT. droqen is good at finding a way of making kinetic mechanics interesting while also appearing to be deliriously frustrating.

    I’d estimate HMDL0 around 30-40 mins, it’s the longest of the 10mg games by far. But I loved it a lot.

  3. “Cruel World is about NFTs rather than cryptocurrency, but I fixated on Bitcoin mining while I was playing and then wrote up Cruel World as a cryptocurrency story rather than an NFT story. ”

    You broke the systemic narrative! Fnar fnar.

    I think there’s a danger with message games that if it can be explained in the first paragraph of an op ed or whatever, there’s no longer a reason to actually play it.

    I remember playing one, about 20 or so years back, that had the player committing remote strikes against terrorists (/Mujahideen/freedom fighters) in a Middle Eastern country. The delay in the strikes and the movement of the people was such that hitting civilians was basically impossible, and civilians who witnessed this ‘collateral damage’ would be driven to take up arms themselves, proliferating the problem endlessly. It was a simple but strong message that was a perfect fit with its medium, but you only needed to play it for about 10 seconds to grok what it was getting at.

    Reading that sentence back, should that ‘but’ even be a ‘but’? Would it be better for the message to be muddier? And for whom? Clear communication is generally more effective than cryptic. If your game is an idea, how communicable should it be? One paragraph, twelve paragraphs? A full “deep dive”? What about if you’d like to actually sell some copies for your effort? How compatible are messages and markets? And what of its qualities as a game qua game – something that often gets completely overlooked. Your article raises some interesting questions.

  4. Yo, CA. If we zip over to films and books for a second, there are plenty of examples of allegories being sold for a profit. And a lot of those stories could also be boiled down into their essential terms: e.g. prostitutes are people too! I think the difference, when it comes to games which tell their message through mechanics is… well, it can seem like a pretty blunt instrument. A good film/book will colour in a lot of detail and it’s not just the message but a patchwork of human stories wrapped around it.

    The one time I’ve felt a game cracked this was Cart Life which was not just a collection of gotcha mechanics but gotcha mechanics woven into a delicate narrative tapestry. Just telling you the message “cart life be hard for ppl” is not enough to feel what the game is projecting.

    With something like Cruel World, yeah, I can explain the mechanics in a paragraph or two and you get it. And the game is more like performance art: all the players are part of the performance, choreographed to destroy the game. The story of those players are what carried Cruel World, not the story of the game. It’s not enough for droqen’s idea to be conceived or just built – it has to be performed. Once it is performed, it is no longer needed, and its story becomes part of oral history. “Remember that parable about NFTs? That was fun times.”

    However, saying that, I don’t know what the game is any more and it’s setting itself up for longevity – and it has a set of masocore mechanics that people enjoy.

  5. “I don’t know what the game is any more and it’s setting itself up for longevity – and it has a set of masocore mechanics that people enjoy.”

    – droqen

    I stole your quote, Joel, because it is also me. you are me. your words are mine.

    It kinda got away from me, if I’m being honest. I think your take, “all the players are part of the performance, choreographed to destroy the game,” is the closest to heart of what Cruel World is–or was–meant to be. But the thrill of having a live game encouraged me to poke a little more at its design, to play with what-ifs, and I’m happy with some of the stuff that has come out of it! But it has lost a little bit of knowing what it is. Or, I’ve lost a little bit of knowing what it is, anyway.

    Next time I’ll be more confident with letting the story end 🙂

  6. @CA: About “message games”, one thing I feel we sometimes ignore is that “consuming” games is much harder for the larger population than consuming movies or books. So what appears simple or obvious to people who’ve played games for their whole lives might not be for someone who hasn’t.

    Case in point, some time ago, I played, with my girlfriend, a short “docu-game” about the Nazi occupation of Italy from 1943 to 1945. It’s called “Venti Mesi” (Twenty Months), and it’s basically a collection of vignettes presented visual-novel-style with dialogue choices. It’s very short, but well written and with a striking art style, so if the subject is interesting for anyone, I’d advise you to take a look (it’s also free). But it’s hardly revolutionary. It’s pretty obvious from the beginning what are the limits of the mechanics and what the game is trying to do. But my girlfriend was thoroughly engaged. It’s not that she didn’t know the subject matter (she has a Master’s in Contemporary History), but experiencing it through interaction, even the relatively limited interaction of a visual novel, put her in a very different emotional state than reading about it, or watching a movie/series on it.

    So, on the one hand, I think the interactivity of games, even “message games” that tend to the simple(r), is enough to make experiencing them directly radically different than hearing an explanation about them; on the other, especially if the message is central to the experience of the game, making it easier to grok could be the best choice in that it expands the possible audience. Even basic literacy is hard in this field.

  7. Droqen: I also think you suffer from making mechanics that have some juice and then like to cut the players’ legs off just as they’re starting to enjoy the hurdles. Orbs, HMDL0, Cruel World – you have a gift for crafting engaging “gameplay” just to set the player up in some way. You excel at trolling players but sometimes it seems like you’re trolling yourself.

    Lorenzo: This is a good point – but I could counterargue that there are a lot of ‘literate’ gamers out there. The people who will read the everything into the lore of Dark Souls will not spend the time of day tackling a ‘message game’. Maybe this is unfair though. While everyone can a watch a movie, there are swathes of ‘nongamers’who will swear by not playing videogames. We have millions who play junk food games but precious few connoisseurs…?

  8. I always think I have no time for hurdles! When I see hurdles to jump I immediately shy away from a game*, and it’s also quite terrifying to me to think about allowing my designs to consume hours upon hours of people’s lives, so I try to cut things short rather than letting them go on and on and on. But seeing how several people so deeply enjoyed the hurdles presented in CW, and thinking back to your Death Crown piece, and even back to Starseed Pilgrim — gosh, what a long game that is — I am learning to let go of that fear and hesitation somewhat. Just, slowly.

    *I have to remember how much longer I wish Uurnog Uurnlimited was! I don’t regret this instinct, I think it helps me to not get stuck into games that I don’t *love*. I’ll just have to pay more attention and recognize the difference between games I love to play, and games I “just” respect.

    Maybe this is related to the other interstitial conversation here; I think about the “message” of Cruel World as something that I hope anyone can hear about, talk about, comprehend. But the game itself, the act of playing it, is much more particular. You wouldn’t play through the whole game unless you loved something about this style of game. I think the act of playing the game is, you know, it’s powerfully related to what the game is trying to say! But even in the digital realm where all things seem possible, you can’t experience everything. Sometimes you just have to hear stories and be satisfied with that.

    There’s definitely a difference between reading a fictional story, compared to reading a story about someone’s actual experience in a fictional world, but strictly speaking I would say neither of these is interactive at all. (I guess in the case of the ‘actual experience in a fictional world’ you can go play the game.)

    Intriguing thought, about games.

  9. I saw both of you! Currently on my version it seems as though every single owner has been converted back to BERV. Also *really* tempted to mine one of these doors.

    I mentioned I was stuck in the center of the Gauntlet, and then I saw droqen talking to Sylvie about her speedrun and he said “Ha ha you took the impossible path through the upper right of the Gauntlet!” and I was like WHAT, that is the path I was trying. He liked my tweet calling him a bastard.

    (Droqen, I am speaking about you in the third person even though you are here because you already know all this.)

  10. I don’t think the “junk food game” is a specific problem of gaming culture – blockbuster movies are rarely very challenging to their audience, and I’d argue even most bestseller books (maybe less than other media), and I know many people who swear by not watching “heavy movies”, whatever that means. Maybe, there’s a bit of stigma on “message games” that’s connected to the emergent politics of those “keep politics out of my games” people, but I’m not going to disentangle that mess.

    I absolutely agree with droqen that you can’t entirely disentangle what a game is trying to say from how the concrete act of playing it, and by changing the play you change the meaning – the medium is the message and all that. I’m convinced that an author (or authors) has the right to make their game (or whatever) as accessible or inaccessible as they want, the classic example being the ever-present Dark Souls. I’m just wondering about tradeoffs – it’s something I’m thinking about these days for work I’m doing on science communication, and I see similar problems here I guess, but maybe I’m just projecting.

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