Most video games hope to last forever. Cruel World, however, does not. Dubbed "a persistent world that can only get worse," the cynical expectation of its designer was that Cruel World, a platformer as much as a social experiment, might not last more than 24 hours before the inherent selfishness of its players made it unplayable for anyone who later tried the game.
"Will you protect yourself from the selfish actions of other players by taking selfish actions yourself," reads the original description for the game, "or will you keep faith and fight the good fight, no matter the personal consequences?
In Cruel World, there are a lot of terminals that contain hints or, importantly, a checkpoint. A save point is useful in a mysterious and unforgiving world, but there's a cost. In Cruel World, accessing a terminal requires hacking it, and hacks reset when you quit the game. A successful hack, which demands nothing more than time and patience, reveals secrets and a chance to become a co-owner of the terminal by "mining it." Becoming a co-owner grants immediate access in the future, and makes it take longer for someone else to hack the terminal. If enough people became co-owners, the hacking time could, in theory, be infinite.
"I thought the world would become unplayable," said Cruel World designer Droqen. "That was actually the plan! Not that it would be literally unplayable but more that it would become undesirable to play."
What actually happened to Cruel World was more complicated and unexpected.
Cruel World was part of this year's "Games That Shouldn't Be Games" game jam, and the pitch was to make "something that is technically playable, but really tests whether anyone would or should want to." It was a riff on April Fool's day, but from an indie perspective. There were some other rules: games had to cost at least $1 and only be sold for a single day. "Bonus points," the rules stated, if the game stopped being playable after April 1st.
"I designed the game to degrade such that I expected I would no longer want to sell the game past that mark," said Droqen.
The idea for what became Cruel World came to Droqen while lying in bed one night.
"I remember I went to bed in the middle of the afternoon to disconnect from the internet and just be alone with my thoughts to think up some ideas," said Droqen.
What resulted was a design sketch with the tagline of "yeah, we all know the planet's dying—a tragedy-of-the-commons masocore platformer." It was, in part, a direct response to the ugly discourse that's erupted around the ethical and environmental impact of NFTs.
Droqen actually sent me the original sketch:
"Although I didn't keep the title, YEAH, WE ALL KNOW THE PLANET'S DYING was a strong, meaningful touchstone for me," said Droqen. "I wanted everyone to feel that in Cruel World: that the world was dying, and it was really just a matter of how you dealt with it, whether you were fine being a part of the problem—or wanted to just watch as individual acts of merely not participating in harm failed to have any real impact on the inevitable decline."
We are, Droqen pointed out, surrounded by apocalyptic media suggesting the world is coming to an end because of decisions made by those who came before, the solutions are out of our grasp, and there's nothing you, a single person, can do about any of this.
A few things were supposed to happen after Cruel World came out on April 1st. One, selfish players would make it unplayable. Two, it would stop being sold after 24 hours. (Players were told they could pirate the game.) Three, the world would remain untouched by its creator. If Cruel World became unplayable, Droqen would not reset the game state.
None of these things happened.
Someone hacked the game and removed the list of terminal co-owners. While funny, Droqen fixed that, meaning God actually did intervene in service of Cruel World's metanarrative.
Also, Droqen put Cruel World on sale again because players defied expectations, and it became obvious that Cruel World would not suddenly become unplayable overnight.
"Players were more dedicated and/or more zen than I expected," said Droqen. "The world fell into the state I had predicted—actually even worse than I predicted—and people kept playing. The fact that people kept playing kept making the world worse and worse, and yet players still persisted!"
One player emphasized do-no-harm and did not hack terminals, meaning anyone playing after would not receive a time penalty, but it also meant they had no checkpoints to rely on.
Another player found peace in waiting upwards of 15 minutes for a hack to complete.
"As I write this I’m waiting for a hack against a node in the DLC with just 6 owners, and I feel like a member of the inner circle," they wrote. "The hack to get to the rooftop was 15 minutes, vs 48 owners. If we had all colluded and decided not to mine, this texture would be missing."
Some are even roleplaying different kinds of players.
The master plan had been for Droqen to stop actively selling Cruel World almost immediately, and encourage anyone who wanted to dip their toes into its broken world through piracy. A broken world is still a world that might be worth exploring and understanding its history, but there would be no point selling a game that you couldn't play. But that's not what happened.
"I used to pirate a lot," said Droqen. "Lots of weird burned CDs, I had an R4 for my DS, I played a lot of emulators, etc. Now I pirate less, and I find I appreciate the things I do have a lot more, and along with this all I've started to feel better about selling my work & valuing it & seeing other people valuing it. But, I don't think this is really an attitude I can force onto people, and it's not always applicable. Giving money to creators can be an act of love, but requiring it can also be a barbed-wire fence."
For a time, there was communal piracy that kept Cruel World alive. Fans shared links of the game's executable, and even updated those links when the game received patches.
"I thought the world would become unplayable. That was actually the plan! Not that it would be literally unplayable but more that it would become undesirable to play."
Cruel World is difficult, both in design and philosophical terms. There are sections that Droqen intended to stretch the patience of even the most peaceful players, forcing them to consider mining a terminal and slowly corrupting Cruel World further. The terminal in Cruel World with the most co-owners does not surprise Droqen—it's a sequence with painful backtracking and lengthy hacking, meant to punish players.
The moment players stepped foot inside Cruel World, it got worse. That was unavoidable. But players have stuck around, and have forced its designer to reconsider some preconceived notions. One player modded the game, calling it Beaceful World, and made all the terminals public. A few days ago, a "heal" command was added to the game, allowing players to remove themselves from the co-owner list, but it's difficult to obtain and only unlocks towards the end of Cruel World. It, like so much of Cruel World, is onerous.
"I was right about the social dynamic," wrote Droqen, announcing the game's return. "But the game itself transformed became an artifact in its own right, something worth not gatekeeping, something worth not keeping arbitrarily digitally scarce."
The question, then: had this experience made Droqen more hopeful and less cynical?
"I was wrong about what people were willing to endure, or accept, or even embrace," said Droqen. "I have a more 'positive' view of what people are capable of enduring now, but I don't know if that's a good thing! [...] People can get used to—and even find joy, beauty, and solace—in just about anything. On one hand, this is admirable and quite beautiful. But maybe it means as the end of the world draws nearer, instead of fighting to stop it, maybe everyone will just endure it."
For now, Cruel World can still be played. How long that remains, however, is unclear.