Cruelty Squad

Aug. 15, 2021

As you look at the screen, it is possible to believe you are gazing into eternity.

You see the things that were inside you. This is the womb, the original site of the imagination.

You do not move your eyes from the screen. You have become invisible.

The images captivate you, but still you drift off. You can still see every detail clearly, but can't grasp the meaning.

Whatever shift in your spiritual life occurs, fragments such as these surface.

You won't be distracted, either by the reflection of yourself, or by the last glimpse of the things now being lost forever.

As you look at the screen, it is possible to believe you are gazing into eternity.

For a moment it all interlocks, but then a new pattern of order-disorder emerges in front of you.

Always the one before the last.

You are again in a dream, walking endlessly...

And you can't find your way out of the maze you are convinced it's been created solely for you.

Jon Rafman OPN Video

Cruety Squad: A.G.T.



Cruelty Squad was developed by Consumer Softproducts and it left early access on June 16th 2021. I picked it up in February and it's been slowly burrowing into my brain and laying eggs ever since. You play as a gig economy mercenary working for the titular Cruelty Squad, carrying out hits in a series of increasingly absurd levels. If we go completely by the product description, Cruelty Squad is a mixture of Thief, Hitman, and Deus Ex. Really, there's a lot more to it than that. {== music cuts in ==}

All of the Cruelty Squad reviews I've seen have to go out of their way to point out how it looks like an epic freaking acid trip. It does, of course, but I think that a game that marries style and gameplay so well deserves more than a cliché. Visually, Cruelty Squad blends the Y2K aesthetic, a stereotypical 80s executive office, and a PS1 horror game. All of these things are decontextualized and blended together into a unique style. The visual design follows its own internal logic distinct from anything we would consider logical. The way polished granite, brightly-coloured tile and pulsing flesh mix doesn't necessarily make sense, but it works.

While the graphics definitely have an older feel, they aren't really retro because older consoles aimed for realism. Cruelty Squad's visuals are much more impressionistic. Its graphics are the way they are because that was the best possible way to convey its ideas.

The music has a similar tone; it fits roughly into the sampler and tracker or dungeon synth genres--which are about making electronic music with primitive computers and cheap synthesizers--but the tools of those genres are used in unique ways. {== Get some appropriate samples from DS and S&T ==} There is a mixture of industrial rhythms, strangely elongated samples, and sugary mall-pop melodies.

The impression I get from the game's style is a perpetual discomfort that sometimes veers into panic. A moment that really stands out in this regard is the beginning of Apartment Atrocity. The sound design here is absolutely perfect. {== show it ==} Anxiety disorders are on the rise, and Cruelty Squad's vision of the future is buzzing with it. The game occasionally moves into full-on horror as well, usually when you're exploring the underbelly of a level. {== Paradise darkness ==} In more general terms, everything in Cruelty Squad tries to alienate you, because the world that Cruelty Squad imagines is totally alienating.

I've been focusing on the negative aspects, but Cruelty Squad is like a Funko Pop {== Mall Madness funkopops ==}: deeply horrifying in one way, but stupid enough to laugh at {==Every single Funko Pop will outlive every living human==}. The level Paradise sees a "goo-food" startup embezzling money to buy Chunkopops {==I must have spent $100000...==} and Urbit planets {==then cut to Urbit guy==}; Seaside Shock parodies Peter Thiel's insane libertarian utopia of floating government-free cities; {==INTJ==} Mall Madness imagines the mega-mall as a sort of consumer cathedral full of winding catacombs and hidden spirits {==the mall speaks dialogue==}. Most of the game's NPCs dispense wisdom that could have come from an entrepreneur's Twitter account.

The game is darkly comedic, and although it leans more toward the darkness as it goes along the absurd satire never really goes away. It's a tone that I like a lot, and it mirrors its subject matter well. Billionaires travelling to space just to one-up each other is funny, but the pile of bodies that they climbed to get there is definitively not funny {== Jeff Bezos: you paid for this ==}.

It's worth mentioning at this point that nobody I know seems to really be intrigued or interested in Cruelty Squad. I think getting into it requires you to be plugged into a very specific internet death-matrix of cryptocurrencies, technocratic corporations, and politics. Its satire really only works if you're exposed to anime Nazis, Epic Bacon Elon Musk worshippers, and startup advice guys on a regular basis. If that's how you like to punish yourself, Cruelty Squad perfectly embodies those people and the world they want to live in. They even included the GameStop short squeeze.

Hints of the game's aesthetic are present all over the internet, and that's a testament to how well Cruelty Squad captures our current moment, but the game's style is still wholly its own. This would be reason enough to talk about it, but the gameplay complements the style perfectly.

{-- Before I go on, if you like anything you're seeing in this video, go play Cruelty Squad right now. Words fail to capture how original this game is, and you really need to spend time in its world to get the full effect. Watching to the end of the video will spoil some parts of the game for you. --}

Once you take in the sights and sounds of Cruelty Squad, you might actually want to play a level. There's not much to Cruelty Squad HQ, but you can practice your aim, shoot hoops, and go through a little combat course. This is a good place to get acquainted with the weapon reloading, which involves whipping the mouse downwards while holding right-click.

{== hope eradicated door ==} I wonder what that is.

The first real level is Pharmakokinetics. {== Show walking in and immediately dying ==}. Upon starting the game, you're probably going to immediately die and put your bank account in the red. Body reconstruction costs $500. If you die three more times, you get turned into some kind of creature that can eat bodies. Putting this strange series of events right at the beginning of the game creates a sense that you've failed in a significant way before you've even mastered reloading a gun, and it contributes to the anxious atmosphere. It also gives level restarts a context by turning death into 'genetic recombination,' and it even explains why targets can be re-killed!

At first blush, the best word to describe the combat is 'insane'. Once enemies are alerted, they run around erratically and pursue aggressively. I don't know if I'm just bad at the game, but I think the movement patterns were designed to make it especially difficult to hit enemies. If they hear gunshots through a wall, they'll kick down doors to pursue you, so it's easy to get swarmed. Being shot pretty much blinds you, and the camera jerks up and down with every reload. Since the player hasn't acclimated to the game's visuals or level design at this point, it's impossible to resolve what places are safe or where the enemies are.

Somehow, it all works. The stress that Cruelty Squad puts players under is applied intelligently, and the style is so strange that it's impossible to go into the game with expectations, so it's not really disappointing. Cruelty Squad is destabilizing. The game is trying to pull you into a world where these events could take place, where everybody is on the edge of homelessness, the natural world is collapsing, incomprehensible horrors are seeping from the earth, and it's all so normalized that you can't even understand how things got this way.

The world is so saturated with misery and cognitive dissonance that it leaves everyone in a state of vertigo, never quite able to orient themselves. This state is transferred to the player mechanically by the user interface, the reloading, the labyrinthine levels, and the hectic high-damage firefights. It is a feeling no game before it has ever quite created. There are chaotic games, even ones about wars, but in those games the player is always situated within history. It could be a real or fictional history, but games try to give a sense of place and time. Cruelty Squad pretends to but it always throws the player off balance. Here's a ski resort {== catacombs ==}. Here's the police chief {== bouncy castle ==}. There's always a sort of unspoken absurdity that makes it hard to hold on to anything.

Cruelty Squad is difficult, but it's balanced to avoid being frustrating. There are no random enemy spawns, and threats are telegraphed well. Idle enemies stand still with their weapons out, while NPCs walk around. Once they've been alerted, NPCs and enemies have different movement patterns. The game's copious gore imparts a sort of body horror, but it also leaves a mark that the player can use to navigate each level.

Every area has many paths to the target, and the difficulty of combat encourages careful exploration. Some paths are obvious, some are locked behind progression items, and most of them are hidden. In Pharmakokinetics, you can go through a duct that leads right to one of the targets, break a window, or go in the front. If you still have your Divine Link there's a special door leading right from the first target to the second one. With that said, your options in the early game are pretty limited, and it plays like a mechanically solid immersive sim with an edgy message and a coat of vomit. The aesthetic keeps it interesting, though, and the game starts to open up fast [Paradise basement].

Movement is really enjoyable, and it immediately reminded me of Quake. The protagonist's body is the one thing the player really gets to control, and thankfully the controls are super responsive. Traditional sneak-by-the-enemies stealth isn't really possible, but with some practice it is possible to beat levels without alerting anybody. How this is done depends on the level and it's more about routing than slowly crouching past people. Although the level design always gives multiple options, it never sacrifices believability. The level that takes place in a gated community doesn't have convenient ductwork leading to every target, for example, so to play it stealthily the player has to climb around on rooftops and avoid being spotted. This keeps every level feeling unique, and it builds immersion since each map remains grounded in the game's internal logic. It permits brightly coloured insanity hallways, but not overly convenient paths to the target.

Each of the 26 weapons in Cruelty Squad have a distinct look and firing pattern, and most of them feel great. All of the gunshot sounds are loud and satisfying, and some of them, like the Balotelli flechette shotgun, have extra ominous noises. There's a really well-designed ammo indicator; the sound that each gun makes lowers in pitch as the player's ammo dwindles. It works really well--I almost never look at the actual ammo counter--and it keeps the player engaged in the action rather than making them look down at an indicator. Something like this could only work in a game like Cruelty Squad, that's dominated by its style. Every bullet that gets fired leaves a bullet hole or a projectile stuck in the wall for the duration of the level, and spent casings ping around each time a gun is fired. This gives a satisfying, Hotline Miami-like sense of achievement to each mission as you look back at the evidence of each firefight.

For the first few levels I played it just to take in the weirdness, and the experience was difficult but enjoyable. It is always fun to explore a new level and plan a route, and executing it perfectly is satisfying. There are secret areas and equipment to find, and every level has some unique NPC dialog, which encourages a thorough exploration. Money is a big obstacle in the early parts of the game, so getting new equipment always feels earned. It's apparent early on that the game is open to multiple approaches, but when I got to Mall Madness, I started to realize how profoundly open-ended Cruelty Squad is.

Even without any expensive equipment, there are numerous ways to beat Mall Madness. The bluntly named Cancer City Megamall is a massive building hewn out of a mountain. At the edges it gives way to abandoned tunnels and ductwork that wrap around the mall and surrounding area. All of them funnel you toward one particular part of the level, but I seem to find a new area every time I enter.

Before each level starts you get to choose a loadout. If you leave a level holding a new weapon it gets added to your arsenal. This incentivizes using new and unfamiliar weapons all the time, or sacrificing a weapon slot, which once again throws the player off balance. You can buy or find different equipment and implants. Some of the equipment is what would expect from an immersive sim; you can trade armour for speed and vice versa, or carry an extra magazine, but there are some items that really change how the game works. I'm a big fan of the grappendix. It's a grapple that lets you go pretty much anywhere and reach ludicrous speeds. In most games it would be a totally broken item, but Cruelty Squad is built with the grappendix in mind, and it allows you to access some special secrets.

With the grappendix Mall Madness gets blown wide open, but it has to be used skillfully to actually get a good time. To use any of the implants effectively, they need to be paired with a well-planned route, so they're not game breaking in the sense that they trivialize the game. Perfect runs look broken, but to perform one the player needs to spend time with each level to find fast paths and holes in the enemy placements. It actually forces you to master the levels to get good times. Designing this way lets a more casual player have fun with the implants while allowing a high-level player to go ridiculously fast.

There is a lot of interesting equipment: The ammo gland gives infinite ammo that regenerates slowly, so it lets you exploit some of the more powerful weapons. There's an augmentation that flips the entire world on demand, and there's one that shrinks you to the size of an ant. The eyes of corporate insight speed up the stock market, allowing you to make some fast money. And there's also this flesh armor that has no immediate downsides {== get footage of this ==}.

Building a game where all of these tools are viable but not overpowered must have been incredibly difficult, but the result is a game with a stunning amount of variety. When combined with the different routes, it feels like there are limitless approaches to every level, and I imagine everyone's playthrough is at least a little bit different. I haven't even mentioned what you can do with the game's physics objects. The way that Cruelty Squad manages to feel broken while working as intended is a really unique feature. On Androgen Assault, for example, it's totally viable to just go behind the map and kill the targets from outside. I think you might even have to do it to that way to get an S-rank.

Your score for a level only depends on the completion speed, which is a bit disappointing, but the scoring really just determines what letter shows up when you beat the level. Ranks are more like speedrun challenges than marks of skill. The cash reward for each level is the same no matter the score. For a while, the game hits a groove of perfect level after perfect level. It's tied together with the in-game markets that give sense of inter-level continuity and a fairly engaging numbers-go-up type of game. Since cash is so tight in the early game, the commodity markets incentivize taking some time to fish or meticulously harvesting your victim's organs.

{== This would be a good place for a montage. SHOW FISHING ==}

The game is a challenging, mysterious spectacle that opens up more and more as your skillset and stash of equipment grows. After the initial shock of Cruelty Squad's uniqueness starts to wear off, it gives way to an addictive, fast, rock-solid action game. However, since combat is so high-stakes, the undercurrent of anxiety never fully goes away, and the enemies that appear later on only intensify it. The Psyker is a particularly interesting enemy, who shows up for the first time in Androgen Assault. If they notice the protagonist, they manipulate him into firing against the player's will, and they cause the camera to zoom and twist in a disorienting way. It's not clear if they're controlling his mind or if he's just terrified of them. Another favourite of mine are these flesh pig creatures that made me say "what the fuck" out loud the first time one suddenly appeared in front of me.

Most of the enemies on offer challenge the player in a unique way, and the humanoid enemies have silhouettes that make them easy to differentiate from one another. I'll run through them all briefly. A normal humanoid can be killed in a variety of ways. Psykers incentivize stealth since they are very difficult to hit if the camera is spiraling out of control. Fleshmen release a fleshrat if their bodies are destroyed, so they require well-placed headshots that don't gib their bodies. Knifers deal melee damage and release toxic gas when killed, so they need to be targeted from afar. Zombies get back up after a while, so they encourage spatial awareness. Golems take buckets of armor piercing ammo to kill, so it is best to either stealth past them or stay high up where they can't reach.

The non-humanoid enemies are less varied; in general, the strategy is to take them out before they can reach attacking range. Gorbino is invincible, so it has to be carefully baited to get past it.

While Cruelty Squad is composed of discrete levels, it does kind of have a story that plays out in the protagonist's actions. The first ten levels are disconnected assassination jobs where the protagonist kills various CEOs and political figures to benefit his boss. The game establishes a sense of continuity with its consistent visuals and the markets. With mission 11, Idiot Party, your friend-slash-handler implores you to kill the priest of a religion for billionaires. 12 sees you killing your boss, the Corporate Arch Demoness Elsa Holmes. There is sort of a turn toward self-determination in these two levels, but it's unclear if the protagonist is trying to free himself or if the friend is just giving orders now. Since the protagonist is characterized as a "fucked up detached loser" I suspect he is just following the friend's orders.

The last main mission is Archon Grid. The Grid is an all-seeing techno-being whose existence is hinted at earlier in the game. It's used to track targets, and probably gives context to the crosshairs that appear over targets. At the beginning, your Divine Link can finally be restored via an orb that I think is a reference to the Prosperity Path series {== find a funny pic from the Urth website ==}. The level consists of a massive maze straight out of game of the year 2006 Gorbino's Quest that leads to the titular Archon. {== Probably do the boss the 'normal' way for footage ==}.

Unsurprisingly, the first ending is ambiguous. Killing the Archon Grid seemingly gives the protagonist a kind of freedom within the bounds of his current life; he remains trapped in a world where he isn't really alive or dead, but just exists within a perpetual past. I read {++ i.e. reed ++} the line about "Acceptance and Forgiveness" as a reference to the player coming to terms with the anachronisms of the game and the line about "Lacking Knowledge and Understanding" as an allusion to the other endings.

At this point there are probably still some locked levels, even if it seems like the game is over. So how about that dark basement in the Paradise level? If you have Divine Link you can get a piece of equipment there called the cursed torch. Entering a level with it equipped switches you to the game's hardest difficulty, Hope Eradicated. It adds new targets and enemy variations, and enables another hidden feature we'll talk about in a bit.

Cruelty Squad has a unique approach to difficulty, although the way it works is never stated in the game. Divine Link is actually the second hardest difficulty. Dying immediately changes the difficulty to Flesh Automaton, and dying four times in a row in a single level boots you all the way down to Power in Misery. These are pretty standard difficulties that just change enemy damage. Hope Eradicated is locked off until you complete the last level or venture into the mass grave beneath Paradise. It is both a new difficulty and a key to the second part of the game. Once you get into it, the new targets are placed in a way that leads you toward most of the important secrets.

There are four secret levels that you enter through Mario 64 paintings. They are totally on par with the main ones, and Neuron Activator is actually one of my favourites. If you make it this far into the game, you're probably hopelessly addicted, and starting to return to old levels to get S-ranks. Upon returning to Idiot Party on Hope Eradicated difficulty, a new character appears... {== death mode guy ==}

{== crossfade to Pharmakokinetics, getting Death mode ==}. Cruelty Squad is full of these insane, game-changing secrets. The tooltip for secret equipment is that "something in the world is waiting for you" and that's a great summary of how Cruelty Squad feels to play. It's always refreshing to play a game that trusts the player to discover things, and a first playthrough of Cruelty Squad is something that happens to you more than something you do. It hooked me on my second death, when I realized that once my Divine Link was severed it just never came back. The game is so aggressively strange, alienating, and funny that you just have to see what it does next. Death mode adds a slight speed boost, a wall jump, and a health meter that says Death. Cool.

In Death mode, we can enter that weird door in the Cruelty Squad HQ. There are a couple of things inside: the best gun in the game, and an enemy with ten trillion HP. The Transaction Rifle is "attuned to the beating heart of the financial system," and it's hidden behind a mass of ambushes and a special enemy that explodes into flechette grenades. Unfortunately, we have to kill the invincible guy and actually exit the level with the gun to keep it. The transaction rifle's damage scales with your stock portfolio, and mine was pretty small when I picked it up, so I found an alternative method {== gas strat ==}.

If you have a CEO mindset, you might be a millionaire early in the game, but I had to start grinding fishing to power up the transaction rifle. While I was waiting to catch an expensive fish, I bought $60,000 worth of the CSFT stock and had a million a few minutes later. Then I did it again, and ended up with 30 million, which is way more than you need to unlock everything. Let's try out the Transaction Rifle now... {== visually communicate that it's gas guy somehow ==}

The second ending casts the protagonist as a master of his world. Keep in mind that you're intended to get the transaction rifle and have a million dollars in stock to max out its damage before getting this ending.

With thirty million in the bank, it's finally time to retire to a house in the country. The house level imagines property owners as literally living alongside gods, and they have their own creation myth about these things, the triagons. {== communicate the level visually, maybe do a little montage inside the house, or sample some property show ==}

Once every level has been completed, we get access to the Cradle of Life, the game's final challenge. It's an amazing level that throws one final curveball by stripping you of all equipment. {== montage to the end. ==}

If there is anything that I want to do with these videos, it's to trace the unique ways that video games can create and convey emotions. I think it's too early to say what Cruelty Squad will mean for the future of video games, but from my experience it really pushes what games can express as works of art. Its mechanics perfectly convey its themes while being satisfying. Its level design is alienating but readable and exciting to explore. It's rare for a game to explore anything deep through the player's experience, and it's even rarer for a game to tell jokes with its mechanics and level design, but Cruelty Squad manages both. It is soulful and earnest in a way that resonated with me, and it gives voice and form to the current moment in an urgent way. Cruelty Squad is a total, visionary work of art. It might be game of the decade.


{==Video's over / glitch joke?==}

I was originally working on a very long analysis of Cruelty Squad's themes but instead I want to talk about a few specific facets of the game. I think the developer is against this sort of analysis, so I will only go into the things that resonated with me, and I make no claim to the game's overall "message" or "point" if it even has one.

Cruelty Squad imagines a world whose creation myth is essentially economic. Markets are measures of investor panic, and this is echoed in the feeling of anxiety Cruelty Squad creates; the basis of existence is a fluctuating, periodically crashing economy. One of the game's specific creation myths, espoused by the targets in the house level, is based on the work of Georges Bataille.

Triagon translates to "three conflicts." The first triagon creates life out of malice, and the second finds itself overwhelmed and disgusted, so it uses metabolic processes to limit biological life. The third, born of death, creates value, "the seed of primordial financial might," and this breeds conflict and causes the wheel of history to begin turning. In his book the Accursed Share, Bataille develops a "general economy" which traces the transfer of energy between bodies. It's called general economy because energy transfer is just about the most basic thing in the universe.

It begins with the sun, which radiates an infinite excess of energy. This leads to biological life, which uses some of this energy to stay alive, but once life is ensured it has a surplus. This accursed share of its energy needs to be dissipated somehow. In nature it happens through growth, reproduction, and death, which Bataille calls luxuries. Human beings wield much greater productive power than animals, and have a greater share of energy. In his view, we can either squander energy knowingly through art and sex, or squander it in great destructive wars.

The religion in Cruelty Squad stresses the transactional nature of general economy, but I think this speaks more to the character of the people in the house level than to Bataille himself. He thought that growth necessitated a world without profit, and that to maintain human life we would have to radiate our excess energy without any expectation of a return and become like the sun. In his words: "if a part of doomed to destruction or at least to unproductive use without any possible profit, it is logical, even inescapable, to surrender commodities without return...The possibility of growth is instead subordinated to giving."

Cruelty Squad's critique of capitalism is framed in the ways that it transgresses Bataille's general economy. Of course, the whole system is nakedly cruel and exploitative, but there's more to it than that. In the game, humanity has conquered death, and life is completely valueless as a result. Reproduction is impossible without death because there's just not enough energy to go around. Nothing can really die, and we see the late stages of this "garbage-infused" world. The first ending depicts the naivety of someone who thinks they can liberate themselves merely by doing their job for 30 years and retiring. The protagonist attains some earthly power, but is still trapped in a world without life or death. The second ending recasts him as an emperor, someone who can wield financial might, who is primordially lucky, but remains a rotten husk.

In the true ending, the protagonist confronts and kills the universe, finally allowing everything to die. The protagonist realizes that the contentment, the blue skies, and the CEO mindset of the previous endings were not freedom--he wanted to stop living like this, and the only time that he exercises his own will is in this true ending. He brings about a golden age, presumably a new world.

What rings true in the game's critique is that a world without death makes meaningful life impossible. The billionaire Peter Thiel, and many others like him, are narcissistic to such a degree that they want to infinitely extend their lives. In his essay, the Education of a Libertarian, Thiel literally says that the inevitability of death is an ideological construct. He is interested in, and may be receiving, transfusions of blood from young people to extend his life. So, while I think Cruelty Squad is ultimately satirical, we aren't really that far from the world that it imagines, at least for the ultra-rich.

The game's structure has us acting out a core idea of Hermetic philosophy; the player begins on earth, and travels above and below--into life and death--to obtain knowledge and power. It is equally likely that Cruelty Squad's world is just a stream of consciousness that I'm projecting meaning onto, or that the protagonist is fully immersed in psychosis by the end of the game.

The true ending may also be a reference to Shrek.