Interactive Fiction has a convention of rating how cruel a game is
April 6, 2016 7:18 AM   Subscribe

Is this Cruel, y/n? In my hunt for the most interesting and bewildering wikis, I discovered the IF wiki, and it yielded a cruelty system that isn't only explained in the permanence of actions - but also described in save file usage.

Additionally, a diagram.
posted by CjEggett (44 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
Interesting. In Morrowind, it was possible to kill a quest character (someone who later on was essential to completing the main quest). I can't recall how quickly a player was informed of that, to allow restore from a Save, and one hoped the save was a recent one (one of Mrs. Mogur's jobs around the house is to wander into the game room from time to time and say "SAVE!".

The next game solved that by making quest characters unkillable which also made them into excellent meat shields.
posted by Mogur at 7:26 AM on April 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


Seems to be missing a special level of cruelty - "outright sadistic" aka how the hell do you get the Babelfish into your ear?
posted by Mchelly at 7:33 AM on April 6, 2016 [10 favorites]


Seems to be missing a special level of cruelty - "outright sadistic" aka how the hell do you get the Babelfish into your ear?
Yeah, Zarf's Cruelty Scale is not about difficulty (see the Limitations section of the linked page, especially the first item), but very specifically about expectations of how your actions affect the game state, in particular whether there is still a path to successful completion.
posted by dfan at 7:39 AM on April 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


In Elder Scrolls, I didn't kill a character, but made a quest unfinishable by pissing them off. There's a mage in the mage-school-place that has her rage level set really high, apparently. She saw me shoplifting and flew into a murderous rage. Her murderous rage convinced all her friends that they should murder me too. It made it nigh impossible to even go to the mage place, which meant no mage quests for me. Too bad that's how my character was specced, right?

Luckily these games are highly moddable, so I was able to find out from the internet how to reset a character's feelings.
posted by tofu_crouton at 7:41 AM on April 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


The thing that often gets overlooked about this today is that many people playing these games in the early 90s were doing it without internet, pre-wiki, pre-Google. Maybe you were lucky enough to have access to some nerdy RPG BBS or something that had a few tips or maybe you could go gossip down at the game store but really most likely you were stuck on your own trying to puzzle out this nonsense. I know some people like to tell their "uphill both ways" stories but I am all in favor of the trend away from this type of design.
posted by Wretch729 at 7:49 AM on April 6, 2016 [10 favorites]


Luckily these games are highly moddable, so I was able to find out from the internet how to reset a character's feelings.

"I'M GOING TO KILL YOU!!!!"

$POKE 0x0a371337, 0

"Hi! Can I help you?"
posted by eriko at 7:52 AM on April 6, 2016 [19 favorites]


I favour games that let you think you saved, but actually don't. Or better yet, let you save, but randomly forgets things when you restore.
posted by scruss at 8:11 AM on April 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


Who remembers the Creature of Havoc Fighting Fantasy gamebook, which due to a copy-editing error, came pre-stuck in early printings? Literally unwinnable fresh out of the bookshop.
posted by howfar at 8:13 AM on April 6, 2016 [6 favorites]


Early videogames where this was more of an issue, I maintain, are why I'm such an inveterate save-scummer these days.
posted by ColdOfTheIsleOfMan at 8:20 AM on April 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


I accidentally enraged and killed an important elf in Baldur's Gate (I think it was) and the only way to make the game winnable again was to install a mod that let me respawn the NPC.
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:25 AM on April 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


I know some people like to tell their "uphill both ways" stories but I am all in favor of the trend away from this type of design.

Agreed. Opaque IF isn't fun for me.

Speaking of which (to piggyback) ... does anybody have recommendations for story-light, fun IF like Nord and Bert?
posted by uncleozzy at 8:27 AM on April 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


Not traditional IF, but one of the Kings Quest games had a pie on an early screen that you need in the late game. If you ate it... you lost the game, but wouldn't know until you got a couple hours in. THAT is cruel.
posted by SansPoint at 8:47 AM on April 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


I wasn't that big on IF, but god do I remember these in Sierra games. I guess it isn't that I miss the "sorry, it is hours later but you've died" (SansPoint's example in KQV), it's that I miss adventure games in general, and Sierra made good ones despite this flaw.
posted by jeather at 8:51 AM on April 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


I favour games that let you think you saved, but actually don't. Or better yet, let you save, but randomly forgets things when you restore.

This reminds of Eternal Darkness, a game that saved at one point then pretended the console had crashed and all your saved games had gone missing. I went through the stages of grief in less than a minute at that point only to turn the console off, back on again and discover my saves intact. My reaction to this was "well played developer, well played", having been primed by such meta gaming tricks in titles like Metal Gear Solid, Psycho Mantis I'm looking at you.
posted by diziet at 8:54 AM on April 6, 2016 [6 favorites]


One of the canonical examples of cruelty when Zarf proposed this was taken from Dungeon: "For example, the game Dungeon Adventure, a pride of lions is carved over a doorway. Any player walking through falls into a lethal pit. The clue referring to the proverb ‘pride comes before a fall’." Notably, the player only saw the lions if they examined the door, which was not an obvious thing to do always.

Even that was not deemed "cruel", but merely "nasty". To be cruel, that death would happen 50 or 100 turns later.
posted by bonehead at 9:09 AM on April 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


Who remembers the Creature of Havoc Fighting Fantasy gamebook, which due to a copy-editing error...
GODDAMNIT! 30 years this book has haunted my dreams. I curse the very day I spied its enticing cover art and its leaves of filthy lies. It wasn't my fault, do you hear me? IT WASN'T MY FAULT!
posted by AndrewStephens at 9:11 AM on April 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


Early Sierra games win the Cruelty prize, hands down. Remember when you woke up in the room at the beginning of the game? You did pocket that used tissue from the nightstand, didn't you?

I'm currently playing my nth game of Skyrim, and the Dawnguard DLC add-on introduces random vampire attacks all across the land, and there's nothing you can do about them short of beating the game (I think). The Nastiness is that they can kill relatively essential NPCs, meaning that when you finally get around to bringing that Ring of Wombats back to Surli Yglagsfir, you derp into town and she's lying there dead in the gutter, usually along with a couple other people. Hope you saved.

It's frustrating, but somehow it's not quite Cruel enough to make me ragequit and hate the game. Look at me, still playing. With lots of saves.
posted by sidereal at 9:16 AM on April 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


I think there's an additional, zeroth level level of cruelty: When the game gives you an illusion of agency that you never really had.

A game can let you make decisions that without warning turn out to have tragic consequences hundreds of turns later, but if you reload a save you find you were expertly railroaded and never really had a choice. In essence, you didn't know you were playing a linear game, and are doomed to whatever ending the author has in mind, but you don't find that out until you go back and try to do things differently.

It's not necessarily a bad thing (*spoiler alert* one famous example) but it's a narrative cruelty only interactive fiction can provide.
posted by Eleven at 9:30 AM on April 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


Yeah, Zarf's Cruelty Scale is not about difficulty

The level of cruelty seems to depend on just how obvious you think it is that you should always pick up your junk mail before getting on any passing space ship. It's clear that you've done something irrevocable, but it's not particularly clear that you should have fed a cheese sandwich to the dog first.
posted by sfenders at 9:30 AM on April 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


Speaking of which (to piggyback) ... does anybody have recommendations for story-light, fun IF like Nord and Bert?

Are you looking specifically for games that focus on wordplay, like Nord and Bert did? If so, check out Nick Montfort's Ad Verbum, though be warned that its puzzles suffer from some of the same issues that plague "Nord and Bert," where you have to guess some very specific inputs. Andrew Schultz's Shuffling Around has anagram-based puzzles, while Simon Christiansen's PataNoir is all about similies. Emily Short's Counterfeit Monkey reifies the text nature of parser games in really amazing and great ways, but it's long and less light-hearted than my previous suggestions.

If you're interested more in a light-hearted tone than wordplay, check out Admiral Jota's Lost Pig and Steph Cherrywell's Brain Guzzlers from Beyond!

I've stuck with parser-based IF rather than choice-based works (think Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books), but I can recommend some there, too!
posted by sgranade at 9:33 AM on April 6, 2016 [6 favorites]


EVE Online?

Meter explodes.
posted by Splunge at 9:36 AM on April 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


I've been fascinated by interactive fiction since playing Zork I on my Commodore 64 as a kid, but I've actually played very few IF stories to completion because I have a low tolerance for bad/obtuse puzzles (yet modern experimental IF doesn't do much for me.) Every couple of years I make noise about writing an adventure of my own but I always fizzle out because I feel like I don't have enough of a grasp of what works/what to avoid because of the aforementioned lack of experience.

In terms of the cruelty scale, offenders probably aren't even doing it intentionally a lot of the time. My one foray into IF authoring was illuminating; it was a minicomp where you were allowed to spend no more than 24 hours (albeit nonconsecutive) writing your adventure. The time limit was very helpful in limiting my scope; I think I had half a dozen rooms, a handful of objects, and one pretty straightforward "Find the things, combine the things in a way that has been hinted to you via descriptions and diary entries" puzzle -a savvy player could probably have finished it in 10-15 minutes. But I didn't have third-party testers, and not long after I released it a player reported a logic flaw that put the game into an unwinnable state. Of course I have since lost the source code.
posted by usonian at 9:39 AM on April 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


I've stuck with parser-based IF rather than choice-based works (think Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books), but I can recommend some there, too!

Great, thanks for the recommendations. I do prefer parser-based games, and I have played (but can't remember if I finished) Counterfeit Monkey, which is exactly the sort of thing I'm interested in, so I'll definitely look into these. Thanks!

Generally speaking, I'm mostly looking for games that aren't either CYOAs or wordy, slightly-interactive fiction. I enjoy puzzles and prefer to consume my longform fiction in non-interactive ways.
posted by uncleozzy at 9:44 AM on April 6, 2016


In terms of the cruelty scale, offenders probably aren't even doing it intentionally a lot of the time.
Yeah, you generally have to really make an explicit effort to make it impossible to get your game into an unwinnable state, and sometimes it can place pretty annoying constraints on your design. For example, if there's no way to get back to Region A from Region B (say, because Act II of your story takes place in Region B) and the player needs an item from Region A in Region B, you have to make it impossible to leave Region A without having the item. I remember the Monkey Island games being a real eye-opener at the time in that they went to great lengths to ensure that you couldn't make a game unwinnable.
posted by dfan at 9:46 AM on April 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


For worst accidental cruelty in a modern AAA RPG, I would like to nominate Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, in honour of my second character, carefully designed to level up as quickly as possible by choosing major skills that she used all the time no matter how generally useless they might be. She was a fast, sneaky, lock-picking acrobat who quickly became incapable of surviving encounters with the level-scaled wild boar that prowled every road in the land.
posted by sfenders at 9:52 AM on April 6, 2016 [5 favorites]


Not traditional IF, but one of the Kings Quest games had a pie on an early screen that you need in the late game. If you ate it... you lost the game, but wouldn't know until you got a couple hours in. THAT is cruel.

That's not even the worst Kings Quest death. In Kings Quest II there's a bridge that you can only cross 7 times (I think), which is coincidentally the exact number of times you need to cross the bridge to complete the game. Thought you could explore this world freely? Nope, you accidentally caused an unpreventable future death hours from now just because you wanted to know what was across a bridge but didn't have the exact stuff you needed to complete all the puzzles over there.
posted by Copronymus at 10:07 AM on April 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


I still don't understand 90s game nostalgia!
posted by Ferreous at 10:17 AM on April 6, 2016


FTL and Tharsis are both off the scale.

Tharsis: Winnable if you eat your crewmates? Y
But you die anyway? Y
posted by zippy at 10:21 AM on April 6, 2016


What helped the most, in my opinion, was when we arrived at a point where games could auto-save in the background. I don't mind Sierra-style games as much as long as, when the game kills me, it automatically takes me back to the point where I could have prevented that death. (If it was an hour ago, of course, that's another story.)

But forcing me to save on every screen (which is the logical end when faced with an anything-can-kill-you game) turned Sierra games into a bookkeeping system. (So you were screwed when you ate the pie an hour ago… great. Do you still have a save from before you ate the pie? Can you find that save? Can you remember how to replicate everything you did after that?) And don't forget that lots of adventure games had a finite number of save slots.
posted by savetheclocktower at 10:25 AM on April 6, 2016


Even though it doesn't seem like it should be a defining part of my taste in games, I really do find that save-and-restore, particularly quicksaves, substantially decreases my interest in a game. I want to feel like my decisions have real consequence, I guess. Nethack and other roguelikes make up a large part of my gaming diet, and the lack of save-and-restore is arguably definitional for that genre. Similarly, I could only play X-COM in ironman mode. And I'm currently clawing my way through a hard-mode career game in Kerbal Space Program with both quicksaves and reverting flights disabled (RIP Jeb).

To bring this back to the actual topic of the FPP though, I think that for this sort of game to be enjoyable, it needs to not be cruel even if it is punishingly hard. When Jeb burned up on reentry, I cursed, but I had to acknowledge that this was something I should have foreseen when performing a perfectly vertical descent from outer space with no heat shield.
posted by 256 at 10:39 AM on April 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


Mogur:
"In Morrowind, it was possible to kill a quest character (someone who later on was essential to completing the main quest). I can't recall how quickly a player was informed of that, to allow restore from a Save, and one hoped the save was a recent one"
As soon as you kill a plot-essential NPC, you get the message, "With this character's death, the thread of prophecy is severed. Restore a saved game to restore the weave of fate, or persist in the doomed world you have created."

This was actually beautiful in several ways. One was the obvious devotion to the Elder Scrolls ethos of continuing to play after the main quest was over. Another was that it represented Morrowind's wonderful take on prophecy - you may be the one to fulfill the prophecy, but it doesn't mean you'll be successful. If something happens that kicks you off the track then your shot is up and you become a false incarnate, like the ghosts you meet late in the main quest. And finally, because this is effectively the last chance before Big Stompy Mark II, the world becomes doomed if you fail. Too bad you can't play through to see THAT happen...
posted by charred husk at 10:53 AM on April 6, 2016 [3 favorites]


So, NetHack would fall into the "Cruel" or with the TVTropes extended definitions "9th circle of hell," yet still remains a "I'm stuck with just a cellphone, fire up a game" standard for me. Haven't ascended in years, but it's still fun to go diving and see how far I can get before YASD.
posted by Blackanvil at 11:19 AM on April 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


Re "the cruelty scale is not about difficulty": I've long felt that this realization, that cruelty and difficulty are different things, is the most important thing that the Cruelty scale has contributed to the discussion of adventure games. It's not an obvious distinction to make when you don't have the vocabulary to express it, and a lot of early adventures tried to be extremely difficult and wound up extremely cruel instead.
posted by baf at 11:22 AM on April 6, 2016 [7 favorites]


Ooh, this reminds me, I think my seven-year-old might be old enough to try Wishbringer.
posted by fings at 11:52 AM on April 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


FTL and Tharsis are both off the scale.

I haven't played Tharsis, but FTL isn't cruel, just extremely difficult.
posted by tofu_crouton at 12:33 PM on April 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


Seems to be missing a special level of cruelty - "outright sadistic" aka how the hell do you get the Babelfish into your ear?

This is a "cruel" puzzle. But I think there's different degrees of cruelty shown by that game, which the FPP article doesn't distinguish. The facet of this issue that they don't really pay enough attention to is: the ability to diagnose that the game is unwinnable.

Here's three examples from that game. In all of them you can enter an unwinnable state without being told, so if you only use one save file, you may have to start over completely.[Spoilers follow]

  • There's ten tools in the game. At the end of the game, Marvin will ask you for one of them. If you don't have all of them at the end of the game, Marvin will ask you for one of the ones you're missing. It's pretty clear that you don't have what you need. And if you've been paying attention, you probably also know how far back you have to go to get, e.g., the toothbrush. Now this can be a lot of annoying legwork, since you have to get all of them, and he only tells you one that you're missing at a time, but at least you know where you stand.

  • At one point you can go into your own brain. If you leave any objects behind there, the game will seem normal for maybe a dozen turns, and then you'll die. If you save your game before then, that stinks, but it won't take very many reloads before it becomes pretty clear that there's no escaping death, and you have to go back and do something different.

  • The babelfish puzzle: Solving it requires a complicated and somewhat arbitrary (but not completely unclued) series of actions with a bunch of different items. It is certainly going to involve a lot of trial and error, and because you have a time limit, you'll be dying and restoring a bunch while you blunder through it. Still, there is some logic to it, and it's clear when you're making progress. However, it's possible to get to the Vogon Hold without the Junk mail. The previous few steps took a few tries to get right, so it's easy to think that the solution is just buried somewhere in the game's grammar of verbs, nouns, and prepositions, when in fact, you had already lost on like the twelfth turn of the game.

    IMO the first example is more annoying, but the last example is more cruel. (and the in-between one is in between)

  • posted by aubilenon at 1:11 PM on April 6, 2016 [9 favorites]


    It seems like the way we think about these games has changed. Now, we think of them as a linear sequence of puzzles -- you beat one scene, move on to the next, and when you've done the last one, you win. So if the last scene requires a missable object from the first scene, that seems unfair.

    But the old Infocom games, like Hitchhikers, and particularly Enchanter/Sorcerer/Spellbreaker were designed more as a single very large puzzle with lots of subpuzzles and moving parts. Starting over was part of solving them, because even if you solved a bunch of the little puzzles, you almost certainly didn't do it efficiently enough to beat the hunger timer, or you missed that one tool for Marvin, or you solved a puzzle wrong by doing it with a spell that has to be used elsewhere.

    That's why the Infocom games gave you the ability to save a text file of your entire playthrough so you could research back as far as necessary, and allowed you to string together as many inputs as you wanted as "N. W. TAKE TOOTHBRUSH. S" Beating the game meant slowly assembling the correct sequence of steps that you could type in to solve the entire game from the first entry prompt.
    posted by rifflesby at 3:21 PM on April 6, 2016 [6 favorites]


    And in fact the ability to type in an entire paragraph of inputs at once is what makes Marvin's tool puzzle basically fair, and the lack of it is what makes the analogous puzzle in Space Quest I bullshit.
    posted by rifflesby at 3:33 PM on April 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


    That's why the Infocom games gave you the ability to save a text file of your entire playthrough so you could research back as far as necessary, and allowed you to string together as many inputs as you wanted as "N. W. TAKE TOOTHBRUSH. S" Beating the game meant slowly assembling the correct sequence of steps that you could type in to solve the entire game from the first entry prompt.

    I... did not know this.

    > CRAWL INTO A HOLE AND CONTEMPLATE ALL THE LOST TIME
    posted by Mchelly at 4:08 PM on April 6, 2016 [5 favorites]


    you almost certainly didn't do it efficiently enough to beat the hunger timer, or you missed that one tool for Marvin, or you solved a puzzle wrong by doing it with a spell that has to be used elsewhere.

    This lead to what I suppose you'd call 'save game strategies' by which you would create save points after completing actions in as few moves as possible, so you could continue your exploration with as many moves up your sleeve as you could get. Once you were sure you'd sussed out the next steps, you'd reload, retrace your steps as quickly as possible, and then re-save and repeat. Similarly, a puzzle solution that cost an inventory item? Best to take a save before you lost it.

    I don't recall this being a hardship (but then I never played an Infocom game on one of the notoriously laborious 1541 c-64 disk drives). It was just the efficient way to proceed once you'd been bitten a couple of time.
    posted by Sparx at 4:21 PM on April 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


    It's worth noting that cruelty in this sense doesn't have to result in a bad game, either. Adam Cadre's Varicella is a good example here. It's an extremely cruel game -- a successful playthrough basically requires foreknowledge of everything that can go wrong in multiple parallel time-sensitive plot threads. But it works, because every failed session is short, and the game is up-front about the fact that you'll need to start over multiple times.
    posted by baf at 5:06 PM on April 6, 2016 [2 favorites]


    The cruelty classification seems to line up fairly close to a few other axes that you can position games on — whether it's a simulation of reality or a narrative experience, how linear it is, whether the intent is for a player to inhabit a particular experience or whether they're expected to master the system as an outsider, how brute-forceable it is (for lack of a better term).

    The history of cruelty in games reminds me of something that happens with level editors too. The first thing people tend to do is make a bunch of levels that are almost natural disaster levels of broken. (You can add bombs? Well I'm going to add a giant cube of bombs!) It's quickly obvious that that doesn't stay fun for long, so designs gradually get more restrained, then hew towards the style of the professional levels with carefully tested boundaries, then finally you get people making things that require a deep knowledge of the game's quirks to appreciate.
    posted by lucidium at 7:56 PM on April 6, 2016


    but then I never played an Infocom game on one of the notoriously laborious 1541 c-64 disk drives

    You were spared the long load times, but you missed out on the joy of spending an hour trying everything you could think of and getting nothing but "I can't do X" or "I don't know the word Y" or "you can't eat the Z" until finally you type something and feel a thrill as you hear the disk drive chug to life and realize you've finally hit upon something that required the game to load another paragraph of text.
    posted by straight at 10:55 PM on April 6, 2016 [4 favorites]


    The Babelfish puzzle had a deliberate wrinkle: the vending machine contains a finite number of fish, and if you figure out the puzzle step-by-step the intended way and lose only one fish between inplementing steps of the solution, the machine will run out of fish right before you implement the final step - the puzzle cannot be solved the intended way without saving and loading.
    posted by BiggerJ at 11:01 PM on April 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


    « Older The Scars Project   |   I Can't Give Everything Away Newer »


    This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments