Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Throw Lamp into Chasm: The Cruelty Scale

“Cruelty.” Don't do a Google Image search, trust me. As far as games are concerned, it’s a great word.

As I have come to know it, the “Cruelty Scale” was devised by IF author Andrew Plotkin (a.k.a. Zarf, creator of a ton of amazing interactive fiction, including the insidiously cruel A Change in the Weather), will be relatable to any fan of the genre. Here’s a quick copy/paste of the scale from Plotkin’s own summary:
  • Merciful: cannot get stuck
  • Polite: can get stuck or die, but it’s immediately obvious that you’re stuck or dead
  • Tough: can get stuck, but it’s immediately obvious that you’re about to do something irrevocable
  • Nasty: can get stuck, but when you do something irrevocable, it’s clear
  • Cruel: can get stuck by doing something which isn’t obviously irrevocable (even after the act)
While many games from outside the IF genre can be plotted along this spectrum, it's not a concept that fits very well with regard to games from more recent generations. Maybe the frustration players receive from “getting stuck” was enough to have it all but banned from use in today’s big-budget titles. Compare Maniac Mansion, which could quietly be rendered unwinnable from within the character selection screen1, to Skyrim, which forces you to hold onto an inventory full of quest-related items so that none of its many tangled storylines becomes un-finshable.

Dragon Age: Origins and Cruelty By Stupidity
Where was this guy when I needed him?
It’s been a while since I played a really cruel game. Close for me was my playthrough of Dragon Age: Origins, during which I absolutely failed to pack enough health potions before signing on for the game’s final act. Slogging through the Darkspawn apocalypse while waiting for a shop that stocked an ample supply of potions or ingredients (it never came), I began to wonder whether I had played myself into a position where there was no way to win.

And yet, it’s disingenuous to place Dragon Age on the above scale—DA:O turns on a combination of skill, strategy, and dice rolls, so there was never a point where my playthrough had technically become unwinnable. But insofar as “cruel” describes a game that you can continue to play without realizing that you’ve passed a point where win conditions are no longer realistic, my experience was at least very close—in order to survive the final battle, I had to choose between backing up to an old save or lowering the difficulty. (After four hour-long battles ended in defeat, I went with the latter.)

That experience was a bit of a bummer, but real cruelty can actually be a good thing—when it works, cruelty adds something special to a game. Webster’s defines “cruel” as “disposed to inflict pain or suffering; devoid of humane feelings.” While they didn't have games in mind, I like this definition a lot, because it lends a game a certain diabolical consciousness. A cruel game doesn’t just allow you to get stuck—it delights in your pain and wasted time. A cruel game wants you to get stuck, and if you’re oblivious to the futility of your actions after you’ve passed the point of no return, all the better.

Moreover, a cruel game gives players an adversary outside the boundaries of narrative. Cruel games become a sort of meta-antagonist—you can thwart Zork’s thief and dwarf and grue, but you’re still left to contend with Zork. Better yet, this relationship means that the player must respect the tools he or she has been given to solve the problems that a cruel game presents.

No Consequences: The Cruel, Uncruel World of L.A. Noire
Looks deadly, sure, but he’s shooting blanks.
Forget Dragon Age—what really got me thinking about cruelty was L.A. Noire, which I completed recently (after putting it down and picking it back up many, many times). Everything about the game suggests that it should involve some degree of cruelty. Much of the game actually plays like an IF mystery title—you’re given areas in which to find and examine objects, characters to meet and evaluate, and crimes for which you must assemble solutions and carry out arrests. It’s possible to miss clues entirely or completely blow an interrogation—both fantastic and necessary parts of any respectable detective game. What good is it to try and solve a murder without the possibility that the perpetrators will go free?

And yet, despite my pathological insistence on achieving positive results from its interrogation scenes, the game gave not one shit about my commitment to crime-solving. As Detective Cole Phelps, it is entirely possible to fail spectacularly and yet progress through the game a legendary sleuth, garnering promotion after promotion even while intentionally shooting your cases in the foot (which you might as well do, because you can’t shoot much else).

Without much gameplay to fall back on, I felt compelled to stick around for L.A. Noire’s storyline—and when the story didn’t seem to care much about my level of participation, I couldn’t help but feel a little cheated; like I had purchased a game but was playing a film. Here was a game that easily could have involved a set of win conditions or even alternate outcomes based on performance, yet offered none of these. By allowing the player to fail both upward and forward, the game creates the uneasy feeling of a world with no consequences whatsoever.

Considering the themes established in the game’s opening and closing chapters, this is more than a little bit fitting—but it also establishes L.A. Noire as one of the most mind-blowingly uncruel games I’ve ever played. Its actions have no reactions. Its causes have no effects. Its crimes have no punishment.

One cannot fail to win because there is no way to lose.

And what could be crueler than that?


Lead image for this story was unceremoniously stolen from PETA, whose website is a fantastic resource for real cruelty-free products. For what it's worth, L.A. Noire is not currently listed on their site.

1 I sure hope you picked Bernard for your team. Does Maniac Mansion hold the record for fastest game-breaking?
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