Good Luck Finding a Stranger, More Interesting Game in 2021 Than 'Cruelty Squad'

'Cruelty Squad' breaks every rule about making and selling a modern video games, and it's found a rapturous audience.

Sep 7 2021, 1:00pm

A few months ago, I was talking with my colleague Gita Jackson about this bizarre-looking game called Cruelty Squad. It'd started making waves in my circles, and was also leaving its niche status behind, as thousands of ecstatic reviews pushed the game into "overwhelmingly positive," aka rare, territory on Steam. We'd both been playing it a bit, and Gita described the experience thusly: "this shit rocks even tho i suck shit and don't know what's happening."

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"I'm happy that people are experiencing the game this way," Cruelty Squad designer Ville Kallio told Waypoint about Gita's observation. "It seems genuine and immediate."

It's hard to explain Cruelty Squad, one of 2021's most enthralling and surprising games, without selling it short. What if Deus Ex and Rainbow Six, uh, took drugs? In screen shots, it looks like a low-budget game from a PC CD-ROM you picked up at the supermarket in the 90s, a game to be confused with the asset flip games critic Stephanie Sterling regularly scorches. In playing, you're given little intro to a grotesque nightmare world where you die every few seconds and it's likely you won't know why because it takes, at most, only a bullet or two. 

"I'm a big fan of games that drop you somewhere and force you to put things together yourself," said Kallio. "Obviously there's parts that are openly hostile, like traps etc., but generally I don't think it's so much player hostility rather than just player comfort being secondary to how I want the game to feel."

Cruelty Squad is aesthetically and mechanically arresting, a game whose lo-fi look acts as a headfake, because what's immediately obvious about Cruelty Squad is how deliberate everything truly is. It's a game that demands your attention and pushes you away. Is the game's overwhelming and hard-to-parse UI, paired with an absurd reload mechanic involving holding right click and pulling the mouse down, hard to grok? Yep. Is it strange to play a game in 2021 where absolutely nothing is explained, and even as you die over and over and over again, nothing in the game responds to this and offers to help? Definitely.

And yet, despite this, have I found myself thinking about Cruelty Squad more than almost any other game this year, and watched its wild commercial success with awe? Absolutely.

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"There's this vague nebulous community of people who gravitate toward weird or subversive (or even bad) games, and we like to throw the phrase 'it breaks all the rules' around," said David Szymanski, designer of the throwback shooter Dusk and regular public champion of Cruelty Squad. "This is usually hyperbole. Usually a game will break one or two rules, in a few key ways. Cruelty Squad, however, is genuinely a game that breaks all the rules."

There is an undeniable fervor to the way people, fans especially, talk about Cruelty Squad. Because it demands your attention, its diehard supporters respond in kind on social media.

An error occurred while retrieving the Tweet. It might have been deleted.

Video games are a young enough medium that we're still watching its "rules" be written and rewritten in real-time. A game should look like this, a game should play like that. In order to be successful, make money and ultimately develop more video games, you should do X, Y, and Z. But it's always worth questioning who decided those were the rules in the first place. 

"It's difficult to think of a single 'how to make a successful game in 2021' principle that it [Cruelty Squad] doesn't just utterly trample on," continued Szymanski, "then plaster over with vomit-colored textures."

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If you can set aside 30 minutes, YouTube creator Civvie 11's existential exploration of Cruelty Squad and the uncanny depths available to those willing to walk forward, is worth your time. Halfway through Civvie 11's video, they're doing the equivalent of talking in tongues, and I could no longer tell if they enjoyed Cruelty Squad or merely in service of it. It feels like you've watched Civvie 11 become part of a cult, and by the end, you've lost them.

"I am broken," they say towards the end of the video. "My hope is eradicated. I am dead, and I am death. I have ascended to wealth and status, beyond those that would employ me, I am the lifeblood of society, I am a flesh automaton animated by neurotransmitter."

It's a bit, sure, but one that captures the spirit of Cruelty Squad in a way that's useful, especially if you—like me—find talking about Cruelty Squad more interesting than playing, because it's a game whose anti-norms approach to visuals and play is, itself, beckoning.  

On Steam, Cruelty Squad describes itself as "an immersive power fantasy simulator with tactical stealth elements set in a sewage infused garbage world." None of this is wrong, and while it might not strike you at first blush, Cruelty Squad has more in common with 1998's original Rainbow Six video game than anything else. Before Ubisoft drained the Clancy name of any meaning, Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six was a harsh tactical shooter where players could spend hours looking at detailed maps of their upcoming mission, plotting in advance how every step would go, only to turn a corner and get shot dead by a single bullet.

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It both sucked and ruled, a player arc that Kallio said directly fed into Cruelty Squad, where masochism is a path to "pure joy." Cruelty Squad is a lot like that—except way more gross. 

"It's difficult to think of a single 'how to make a successful game in 2021' principle that it [Cruelty Squad] doesn't just utterly trample on, then plaster over with vomit-colored textures."

"[One] thing that I thought a lot about during development was how playing games felt as a child, before it was at all clear how they function," said Kallio. "In a way they felt completely limitless, like if you kept pushing you could find almost anything. That's the kind of feeling I wanted to emulate when designing the hidden content, where if you keep looking you'll find completely new layers to the game."

Cruelty Squad started as a way for Kallio to play around with the Godot game engine, a set of open source tools that have become increasingly en vogue in the wake of Waypoint's own reporting on how Unity, another popular engine tool with indies, has worked with the military. There was no plan to actually make a game, and even as an idea for something started to come together, Kallio was making the equivalent of a Quake clone. Icons spun floating in the air, and there were certainly no complicated movement mechanics like crouching or leaning, ideas that would later come to help define the unique feel of playing inside Cruelty Squad

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One crucial moment that Cruelty Squad's design shifted was after Kallio played Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield, a moment in the Rainbow Six series when it quizzically straddled the line between its hardcore tactical roots and the attraction of finding more mainstream audiences.

Kallio rattled off a series of other surprising inspirations, including Super Mario 64 (because of their fondness for spending "hundreds of hours" looking for secrets as a kid), Deadly Rooms of Death (an old puzzle game notorious for its difficulty), the violent satirical works of the now-dead Bloodlust Software, the subversive YouTube cartoon Dilbert 3, and a bunch of time spent reading through Wikipedia entries related to gnosticism. (Gnosticism is a complicated early form of Christianity. They believed the material world is an evil creation and, Jesus Christ came to teach us salvation and enlightenment through "gnosis.")

"What's in the game is a combination of my own lived experience and becoming increasingly internet poisoned on Twitter since 2014," said Kallio, whose Cruelty Squad account is highly recommended. "A lot of the stuff that might seem completely ridiculous is actually based on something I've read about somewhere. For example, the cruise ship level is a combination of an article I read about a cruise for crypto millionaires and the seasteading community."

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One of the optional-but-necessary mechanics present in Cruelty Squad is its marketplace, where players can sell body parts they've collected in the battlefield for money. The game's callous indifference to death and violence is wrapped firmly in anti-capitalist commentary.

"I've come to realize you can sort of treat divinity as a filter through which to see the world," said Kallio. "In the game even capitalism itself is layered with mythological tones, the financial system being a primordial being born out of chaos. Themes of punishment and suffering are very present, and there's a gnostic element where the entire game world is essentially a prison that separates the entities living in it from divine light. In the end the game is also about rejecting that light, turning inwards to wade the unknowable darkness."

But, of course, as with anything in Cruelty Squad, it's not that simple. 

"I'd also like to add that while capitalism is maybe the primary scaffolding that everything else rests on," he said, "Cruelty Squad is also about God, divine violence, life and death."

It's a game about a lot of things, but none of that's initially obvious by design, which is why so much of the conversation around Cruelty Squad rests on the odd framing of gaming as shitpost. The modern shitpost is caked in layers of irony and detachment, the equivalent of a rhetorical hand grenade lobbed into a crowd to act as a distraction. It only takes scratching against the surface of Cruelty Squad to suggest it's anything but, and yet shitpost is one of the more common ways people, even folks evangelizing Cruelty Squad, talk about the game.

"Cruelty Squad is a maximum effort shitpost wearing a puke stained Rainbow Six t-shirt," reads a review in Rock Paper Shotgun.

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"At first glance it seems to be a obscure, surreal shitpost—and on second glance it seems… actually, the same," said a writer for Kotaku AU. (A different publication than mainline Kotaku.)

Perhaps the funniest outcrop of this descriptive confusion was when God of War and Twisted Metal designer David Jaffe, who now spends his days ranting on YouTube, ended up buying Cruelty Squad on Steam because of, as he put it, the "beautiful reviews of this thing" which seemed to indicate it was "right up [his] alley." Narrator: It was not up his alley.

"This looks and plays like a piece of shit," he said in a video talking about his experience with the game. "If you can't see that then you're a fucking moron."

The designer requested—and received—a refund through Steam's generous service, and shared his reaction to Cruelty Squad on Twitter. The Cruelty Squad hive was upset in return, specifically because Jaffe's request mentioned "it sucks to get rolled by your review section."

An error occurred while retrieving the Tweet. It might have been deleted.

"Why do you think the reviewers are trolling?" said Kallio in response. "I work on this game 8+ hours almost every day and do my best to make it as good as I can with the resources I have. have you considered people have different tastes?"

Jaffe said he was "making a response video," prompting Kallio to exit the conversation.

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"Shitpost' is accurate when it comes to the sense of humor, but I don't think the developer ever didn't want to make something interesting and fun," said Dusk designer David Szymanski. "I suppose by virtue of being so non-traditional in its aesthetics, mechanics, and pretty much everything, it's necessarily somewhat hostile, but again I don't think there was ever an intent to make something that drove people away as some sort of artistic statement."

Szymanski is right, and Kallio chafed at the notion that Cruelty Squad was a shitpost.

"I don't really like it," said Kallio.

The irony, of course, is that Cruelty Squad itself has inspired many a proper shitpost.

An error occurred while retrieving the Tweet. It might have been deleted.

What Cruelty Squad is, importantly, is a success. A lot of people have bought the game.

"I have become corrupted by power and wealth," said Kallio. "I no longer worry about paying rent."

All hail the new flesh.


Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561)

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