Cruelty Squad, Peer Pressure, and Viscerality

Are you an uncultured swine for not liking Cruelty Squad?

Cruelty Squad is Super Mario 64, with its abstract lego block architecture and color anti-theory texturing, its joy of movement for the sake of movement, and (more explicitly) its hidden worlds inside paintings

Cruelty Squad is Kid Pix, with its garish airbrush coloring and arcane hieroglyphic button interfaces that demand experimentation and play

Cruelty Squad is Deus Ex mutated with Postal 2 and Bubsy 3d: Bubsy visits the James Turrell Retrospective

Cruelty Squad is the “greater gaming community” unearthing discoveries the modern and contemporary/postmodern art world learned, refined, and swallowed themselves into over the past 100 years. In terms the difficulty level of analysis, it is somewhere around the level Marcel Duchamp’s readymade urinals.

Cruelty Squad’s text and subtext are subversive enough to confuse gamers acclimated to the realist and blockbuster movie stylings of most popular games (especially shooters), but not so subversive to be impenetrable and with a thick enough layer of irony and humor to facilitate analysis. It has reference points to contemporary/postmodern visual arts, but its strongest reference points are other videogames.

Cruelty Squad is “Overwhelmingly Positive (5,724)” on Steam. Don’t you get it? Its intentionally bad. Oh but also a lot of the intentionally bad parts are actually good.

Like much analysis of contemporary art, analysis of Cruelty Squad is at a certain point recursive and shallow. The moment-to-moment experience is ultimately what matters.

A week before I played Cruelty Squad, I went to a Jasper Johns career spanning exhibition, a massive victory lap for one of the premier American 20th century contemporary artists. I had very limited experience with his work (what do you expect? I am a gamer). I am not going to lie: i was, frankly, unmoved. The contextual and didactic importance of his most famous work from the 1950s and 1960s (mixing representational and abstract art, reconsidering a painting as a 3D sculpture) seems quaint 60+ years later, what was once subversive is at best familiar and at worst overbaked. When you remove the historical relevance, what remains is the aesthetic and emotional experience of the art itself. This aspect is (at least for me) a major weakness of much contemporary and postmodern art, as they often veer far too didactic and are less about craftsmanship or revelation or inspiration (again, for me). I did not have the “standing in awe of a Rothko in person” experience.

Or maybe I am just too uncultured to appreciate Jasper Johns’ work? I enjoy going to art museums but I more often than not find modern art exhibitions frustrating, empty , and contextualless, and I leave a little in denial. Did I miss something? Should I trust the tastemakers or my own instincts? How much time should I spend trying to like this?

False Start by Jasper Johns (sold for 80 miliion dollars in 2006)

One week after the Jasper Johns exhibition I played Cruelty Squad and found it to be, at the very least, a bit more of a visceral experience. I dont care too much about the subtext or didactic components of the game*, it is the experience of playing Cruelty Squad that I find exciting and still enjoy playing with. I love dumb games that throw paint at the wall to see what sticks and Cruelty Squad revels in this. To list some select examples from my Cruelty Squad experience:

  • The aforementioned arcane icons scattered all over the level and weapon select screens, from the beginning you have no choice but to just click around amd see what happens
  • That you have to manually reselect your augmentations and weapons every time you restart, somewhat encouraging you to try new things rather than stick with what you’re comfortable with
  • The writing for the weapon and augmentation descriptions
  • That several of the augmentation descriptions either hide critical aspects of how they work or just lie about what they do
  • How broken and fun the grappendix grappling hook is
  • An surprisingly pretty good poison swamp level
  • The “residue” the DNA gun leaves behind
  • Patch announcements are “added a new hidden implant to cruelty squad, good luck finding it”

At the end of the day, I quite like Cruelty Squad. I think there absolutely is an element of “emperor has no clothes” and peer pressure, people can easily read intention into every single part of the game including the not so good parts and I would not be surprised people are afraid to properly critique it lest they appear not in on the joke. Ultimately though, for me it’s a fun game that didn’t waste too much of my time and a novelty that cannot be imitated in the future without looking hacky.

*One major exception: I quite like the (essentially invisible and unspoken) introduction, immediate loss, and late game return of “divine light” and its relevance to the gameworld and gameplay. It’s cliche to invoke Dark Souls, but this was akin to the revelation of understanding how critical bonfires were for that game’s narrative and gameplay.

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I was a huge proponent of Cruelty Squad this year. A lot of the conversation I saw around it was basically as you said, people feeling in or frustratingly outside of the joke or privileged circle or whatever. My reaction, which is an earnest one as far as I can tell, has basically been to stress that Cruelty Squad is brilliant because it shows that simplicity is actually quite enough depth, which is certainly true in games, but also to some extent a general truth about art I think. I have told people over and over that there’s nothing really avant garde about it, it’s just a shooter with feel good bounce tech and fun mysteries; classic videogames stuff. But, I have to confess, this is probably another way to express “You just don’t get it” to a kind of pretentious videogame essayist loving type of gamer who flocked to this thing. I wish the tone of conversation around this could be different, but discouse is a hole we all fall into one way or another.

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I didn’t get it and it didn’t feel good to play to me, i assumed this comes from not contemporarily playing deus ex or system shock rather than a failing on my or the game’s part. I also don’t get those games in exactly the same way.

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This is one of those games I feel like I should play. I was skeptical about Anodyne and its sequel in a similar way and those turned out to be games I loved.

cruelty squad is a paint-by-numbers shooting game with as much to say as your average twitter leftist, meaning none of it subverted any of my expectations and its political message is pointing at capitalism and saying “look how fucked up and wacky this is!” and it does this by being as gaudy as possible, and you know that being as gaudy as possible is the message because the creator of the game gets pissy when people say it’s ugly on purpose, because “nooo it’s all artistic direction, it’s meant to look like this”. like, yeah, meant to look ugly as hell lmfao.

there’s nothing to miss because there’s nothing to get. if there’s any relevant plot at all, i didn’t get to it. it’s just a sandbox game and it’s bad at being that, because all you really do is click on heads. it feels about as good to click on heads as it does in any other point-and-shoot game ever. which feels good. like, the act of shooting someone in the head in a videogame gives me dopamine, and that’s part of the game’s entire message, but the message ends there.

the NPCs are all meat puppets (yeah, I get it, that’s also part of the message). you can talk to them, shoot them, or eat them, or a combination of the three. when you talk to them, you get a popup box containing a funny one-liner about that character’s folly in this free-market dystopia, directly from author’s brain. it’s like every NPC is a tweet except you can delete the tweet yourself and also you had to pay $20 to follow the twitter account.

people keep comparing it to deus ex and deus ex is like one of the worst-handling shooting games I’ve ever played. it’s not a flattering comparison because there’s even less shit to do in cruelty squad. it’s clearly trying very hard to be art, and it gets praise on the premise that it’s art of any quality, and not for the novelty or mechanical lubrication or narrative complexity that’s all missing.

and anybody responding to any of these criticisms going “that’s the point! you’re missing the point!”, yeah, if something’s art, and you dislike it, then you don’t understand it. just kidding! I don’t have to articulate why I “get it”, I simply get it, and my opinion is valid, and the game is meh. 5/10 :sunglasses:

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that’s just every game with townspeople npcs

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Wow the discourse around it seems poisoned and negative. This makes me emotionally tired.

I dont like the idea that something like art or entertainment has inherent “value” (+/-) outside of perception and the enjoyment / boredom / revulsion you feel based on what you bring to the experience. You CAN be uninformed or over-informed in your views and “not get it” as in not get out of it what the other person did but that doesn’t mean the differently informed person’s goodbad time is wrong or of less value or is less interesting.

I feel like the right response to being told you dont get something is to say: “Yes I didn’t get out of it what you did and thats fine”.

And then you kiss or fist fight in the rain, there is no middle ground.


I had a really really good time drilling into it, finding things, figuring out how the levels and movement altering options and other systems work. The systems contain the joy the setting is lacking. The level design is clever, thought through and fun. I was required to think about my approach more than I did in most shoot things, specifically Deus Ex (which it is not very similar to). I find the general lack of mechanical polish and over educated art nerd aspects of the color schemes cute and dumb in a fun way. Breaking or subverting parts of the game / level feels fun and totally fine. Its cruel and janky and sometimes that screws you over deep into a run. You really like that or you don’t and I change my position on it based on my current level of humor. It has some old game obtuseness that I find charming that Im sure other people HAAATE. Part of my fun time came from my being bad at shooters and adapting to that with strategy so take that into account maybe.

The game doesn’t really have a plot. There are no characters with characterization, the entire premise can be written on a bar napkin. Instead it has a little context and a mood that for me functioned to loosely tie the game play to the aesthetic choices. Its text is very online in a bevis and butt-head but leftist way that actually totally fits with the game’s online discourse.

It scratches my itch for a weird, surprising and slightly mean game experience.

My take is if you wanna explore well designed levels, enjoy jank, wanna move weird and shoot a bit and if you dont mind looking at LSD the dream Emulator while doing so Id give it a shot. I expect to be picking this up and playing it here and there for many years.

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the entire fps genre demolished

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My brother said this game is awesome but I really hate the look of that fleshy meat border around the screen so I didn’t play it.

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Cruelty Squad’s use of leftist Twitter sensibilities felt compelling to me – it’s not a world that really exists, it’s a world based on legit concerns processed through excessive screen poisoning, self-hatred and powerlessness, full of people who don’t feel real and keep spouting crap everyone else has said a hundred times before. The aesthetic reflects that mode of perceiving the universe as much as it deservedly mocks it, it’s a “fuck the world/become capital’s cynical slave/kill your landlord while you’re at it” power fantasy that constantly ridicules itself in an ambient way, and the audiovisuals are confident and singular enough that it never came off as empty posturing to me, just an honest expression of a completely contradictory and self-critical state of being. No other NEO BOOMER SHOOTER comes close to Cruelty Squad in terms of art direction/general vibe to me, I feel a desire to show something new here, a clever way to stand out from all those boring slavish 90s throwbacks by gleefully building something original and very 2021 with all the late 90s 3D imperfections instead of grinding the rough edges away. The way CS negates all that’s divine and beautiful in the world paradoxically reinforces it all for me, and if the guy who made the game is really planning to use its success to make an Armored Core/survival horror hybrid he has my wholehearted support

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This is why playing FPS games is better with a controller :twisted:

(this post brought to you by wanting to aggravate Cuba if he reads this)

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Consumer Soft Products has begun work on the next thing and it looks pretty early but pretty interesting

WIP VIDS

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i was sold the moment i saw the fucking border that facehuggs you the whole time. excited for the new joint. feels in line with idk. hausu mountain. machinegirl. realtree amen breaks. swan meat. cargo pants. nootropics. bass amps. but still born from the bone broth of video game. it doesn’t carry a pretention that this is someone “outside games” trying to make something obtuse and anti-video game. it is video games. a taste of whats to come. finally some swag.

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