Why do old people struggle to understand modern culture? Is it a memory thing, like if you’ve got too many memories of Chuck Berry and trousers with very high waistbands there’s no room to squeeze in any appreciation for fidget spinners? Or is it something physical that just happens one day like your balls dropping or your first period where some culture appreciating part of your brain dies and from then on every new song you hear sounds like a microphone being held up to a fluorescent light? See, I always thought it was just that as you get older you retreat more from general society and lose touch with the common cultural references that allow us to relate to new trends, but there are moments that make me wonder. Like when everyone and their toupees were nagging me to try Cruelty Squad. Whose screenshots on the Steam page immediately made me think “Are they taking the piss? It’s all clashing colours and PS1-era 3D models with worse animation than the little dudes on a foosball table. And environments that look like someone opened the level editor and then threw their laptop out the window of a speeding bus. And texture work that looks like the brooms from the Sorcerer’s Apprentice got set loose in a water damaged gift wrap shop.
And an interface that looks like it got molested inside a crowded novelty photo booth at a Juggalo convention? Complete with a health meter that takes up an entire quarter of the active screen and looks like an untreated hernia? Etc, etc. But there had to be something more to Cruelty Squad. An Overwhelmingly Positive rating on Steam after 2000 reviews goes a bit beyond taking the piss. That would require a complex organized piss-taking effort and I think the troll brigade used up all their piss-taking energy with the Gamestop thing. So I gave it a try. And I can almost guarantee that you, too, will be confused by the appeal of Cruelty Squad on your first attempt. If you can even decipher the fucking mission select screen, which is like examining a pile of vomit to figure out what specific carrot that orange bit came from. You’ll then start the first mission, walk into a room and get immediately shot to death by an enemy who looked at first glance exactly the same as all the nonhostile NPCs you’re not supposed to shoot. Then you try again and shoot the enemy who shot you last time, whereupon fifteen of his mates pour into the room and juice you like an overripe orange.
And this is on top of the game looking like MS Paint neon prolapse. And the MIDI music that sounds like the soundtrack from a 90’s adventure game about being inside the mind of Nick Cave. You’ll probably kick it in the head after that and no one would blame you, but if you’re anything like me, something will make you go back. At first I thought “Well, it’s just a troll game, isn’t it. Kids of today, acting like they invented troll games. The Newgrounds era wasn’t THAT long ago.” But you know something, troll games are kinda my jam. Like those mods people used to make for Half-Life that replaced the textures and sound effects with memes and the voice lines with fifteen year olds yelling cuss words way too close to the mic. I love shit like that. It’s amateurish and obnoxious to play but it expresses something that no other form of art does. It’s the equivalent of graffiti; an irreverent expression from an unheard voice, defiantly skating on the knife edge of acceptability, often darkly hilarious if only metatextually from the thought that someone made it and uploaded it and I downloaded it and then wasted an hour on it that I could have spent reading William Makepeace Thackeray.
But when I went back to Cruelty Squad to assess it from that angle I discovered there’s a perfectly playable game here once you figure the basics out and get past the visual vomit and aural catarrh. It calls itself an immersive sim, and I’ve never been entirely clear on what defines one of those, I think it might just be any game where you crawl down air vents a lot. It’s a mission-based assassination game where you get to your targets, skillfully use the contents of their skulls to reduce local property prices, then return to the exit, all while keeping an eye out for guards because you die faster than a dumb blonde joke at a lesbian wedding reception and there are no mid-mission saves so you have to start all over again. But then again the enemies die faster than Adolf Hitler doing a set at a lesbian wedding reception and they don’t even get to restart the mission so maybe you should check your fucking privilege. At its core it’s a game about carefully advancing, peeking around corners and getting the drop on the enemy with precise headshots and once you’ve found some of the weapons that don’t suck as hard as their looking like massively overused sections of sewage pipework would imply then it plays perfectly efficiently.
And hey, the environments might look like they were carved out of the world’s least appetizing potatoes with a child’s plastic beach implements but the same was true of the first two Thief games and we somehow got over it. Not that I’m saying the game should get a pass for being retro-styled. Even in retro times games didn’t go out of their way to look like the top of an overused salad cream bottle. This doesn’t feel like a game from retro times. It feels like an expression of nihilistic frustration bubbling up from the morass of modern society and its deliberate hideousness is part of that effect. The story of the game is that you are an empty shell of a person in a dystopian cyberpunk world where I guess everyone got their sense of aesthetics shot off in the water wars, assassinating key targets because your corporate masters told you to. Your targets are never characterised or given any dialogue, you just kill them and piss off. Neither they nor any nearby NPCs seem particularly surprised when the murder starts, this is just the world everyone lives in. Hell, our own agency marks us for death in one mission and we have to escape a police raid on our apartment building. In other immersive sims this would have been a turning point in the plot, like when you betray your agency in Deus Ex or that bit in Thief 4 when you finally wise up and stop playing Thief 4.
But no, you just glumly go back to work the next day ‘cos it was a bureaucratic fuckup and there’s nothing sufficiently humanlike in the world that you could possibly complain about it to. Get through the missions and you’ll have played a decent enough if simplistic assassination game but this is only scratching the acne-riddled surface of Cruelty Squad, fully explore all the levels and you’ll descend down a surreal rabbithole of psychedelic secret areas and unlockables. As for whether I like or recommend the game, that’s the wrong attitude. Sure I can criticise it for looking like garbage and its many unintuitive design choices – that grappling hook ability that completely alters the way you move around could’ve been introduced with more ceremony, but you know what, I don’t think Cruelty Squad cares. It’s an experience like having a bad acid trip while already blitzed out on weed so all you can do is numbly zone out and stare into space as reality collapses about your ears. And it’s worth a look just to explore that head space. Spend a little time in a nihilistic funk where life is one long bleak joke at humanity’s expense, then snap out of it and get back to work at the Amazon warehouse.