More thoughts on the passing of cruelty

I find it interesting, as an aside to yesterday’s column, to examine how applied cruelty has fallen from favor across multiple game media over time.

I chose the word “cruelty” quite intentionally, referencing Andrew Plotkin’s famous Cruelty Scale for interactive fiction and adventure games in general, even though that particular yardstick actually hasn’t seen much use lately. Today, adventure games worth playing rarely require players to keep more than one save file. Gone, largely, are the days where players must save early and often, managing an entire tableful of carefully named save-positions for easy — and inevitably frequent — access.

(In fact, the main reason the concept came to mind at all was Sarah Morayati’s excellent but unforgiving Broken Legs, a game that overtly classifies itself as belonging to the thorniest rung of Zarf’s scale, the one where games merrily — and silently — allow you put them into an unwinnable state. The game is an intentional stylistic throwback to certain knotted puzzlefests of yore, leaning against the modern trend that favors narrative over puzzles.[1] The game (which took second place in last year’s IFComp) succeeds because the player character — the irascible, scheming drama princess Lottie Plum — is an acerbic joy to play, and she tells a rollicking story, even if she herself is more interested in sabotaging all her peers than actually performing on-stage. But it’s a story you’ll need to patiently play though several times, if you want to give Lottie the best ending.)

Board games, too, have largely become a stranger to cruelty. When we filmed Diplomacy last year, I initially felt disappointed that no players got eliminated from our game — an ever-present possibility in this game from the 1950s. Not only would that have added easy drama to our unscripted, televised narrative, but we could have capitalized on the very concept of a board game that can “kill” players, forcing them to stop playing while their friends keep going — something that seems flatly outrageous by today’s tabletop design standards. Never mind certain shambling zombie-games that still manage to keep up this pretense…

And when’s the last time any of you with a tabletop RPG bent have ever had a character die — or, at at any rate, die without your full consent as a player? A few years ago, some local friends decided to play a game of first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, taking the circa-1975 rules literally as written, with the GM making no exceptions. This was back when phrases like the character must make a saving throw versus poison or die could be found dozens of times in any given rulebook or adventure description.

The result, of course, was a massacre, with individual players sometimes ripping through several character sheets within a single session, as their powered-up superheroes succumbed in a heartbeat to unlucky die rolls around falling-rock traps or venomous spiders. Nobody tried terribly hard to develop their doomed characters’ abilities, nor was there much call for inventing a completely new persona for each of their mayfly alter-egos. Clearly, these rules fit much better to a time when the game still had one foot in the category of miniatures-based wargaming.

So, the next time you’re playing a game of any sort that recognizably punishes failure without diminishing your level of fun, thank all those before you who have gave their in-game lives — over and over and over again — for the sake of inspiring better game design.

[1] Sarah reminds me about Jon Ingold’s delectably evil Make it Good, another capital-C Cruel game of recent vintage that is far larger and more difficult than her own work. The key point for me, though, is that I played Broken Legs more recently, and my memory is weak. So there’s that!

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2 Responses to More thoughts on the passing of cruelty

  1. Oreolek says:

    >Today, adventure games worth playing rarely require players to keep more than one save file.

    I don't want to dig for examples...but you're wrong. Or have a perverted "worth playing" criterion. This statement is very hard to prove or contest because that requires a lot of comparison (count the new cruel games vs. the new easy games). Text adventures are indie games - they don't have to be easy and suitable for everyone.

    >And when’s the last time any of you with a tabletop RPG bent have ever had a character die — or, at at any rate, die without your full consent as a player?

    There is ALWAYS a threat of dying. Of course, tabletop RPG is somewhat fair because the death can't come suddenly out of nowhere - you have HP, and you can withstand some damage before dying - but you can die rather easily. The DM who loves its characters so much they have no threats is a bad DM.

  2. Howdy Oreolek,

    Allow me to put my statement another way, and unhook it from the (admittedly somewhat sniffy) "worth playing" judgment:

    Time was that adventure games _expected_ their players to save frequently. A wise player would start accruing carefully indexed save files right from the starting gate, and instruction manuals would advise you to save your game before doing anything you weren't sure about. It's just how they were played.

    I would argue that this philosophy is now the exception to the rule. While I still save before doing something dangerous, just to set my mind at ease, it's rarely necessary. There certainly are exceptions to this among new adventure games; my post named two such interactive fictions written last year, and I have no doubt you can find others. But these games now stand out because of their "cruelty" (and, in the better cases, because they prove gripping and playable in spite of it), where this used to be the norm.

    As for RPGs, I have played under many excellent GMs with many different play-styles over the last 20 years, and have seen PCs die only when their players choose to write them out of the story with a bang -- or have them do exceptionally stupid things. (e.g. "OK, when you pull the stick out of the hole, you see that it is cut neatly in half." "I stick my head in!") I don't pretend my experiences are universal, but they've been pretty consistent so far.

    This is fodder, I think, for a future column... there's definitely been a curious disconnect between how I've always played D&D-and-such (with emphasis on communal storytelling) versus what the rulebooks and such describe (with emphasis on simulated fantasy combat), and I'd love to see how my experiences stack up against others'.

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