For the last nine years or so, Damien Crawford has been making games they don’t think people would want to play.
Crawford is the sole developer and head of Cannibal Interactive. They’ve made over 20 games through the label, most of which have been released primarily on itch.io. They came to game development after several years of struggling to fit into other jobs such as fast food and mundane government work. A relationship falling through and a need to cut loose from parental support eventually pushed them to try something new.
“I thought if I failed the safe path, then what do I want to do? And so I started making games.”
Their first project, Legend of Moros, took two and a half years, and did not do well – not even $100 in release day sales. So, on another contrarian whim, Crawford spent a month making a game they thought no one would want to play; an “atrocious” (their words) RPG where 99 characters band together in a single fight, all piled in on one side against the enemy. In addition to the absurd gameplay, Mighty 99 had a “horrible memory leak issue” that made it impossible to get through three full turns.
But, to Crawford’s astonishment, something fascinating happened.
“It got feedback, most of it negative, but people were playing it. And they were detailed notes sometimes!”
Instead of no one playing a game they thought people would want to play, people were playing Mighty 99 – even if they didn’t like it. But that was enough for Crawford. They revamped Mighty 99 into a more playable version entitled “I Have Low Stats But My Class Is ‘Leader,’ So I Recruited Everyone I Know To Fight The Dark Lord,” and then kept making more games like it. Games with tons of characters, unwinnable scenarios, and humorously lengthy titles.
Crawford refers to them as “maximalist RPGs,” and examples include: “My Older Sister Left The Computer So I Got On & Found Myself Trying To Coordinate A Raid In A Game & I Don’t Play MMO’s”, “It’s Six Random Characters and a Single Floor Dungeon, That’s the Whole Game,” and “This Is A First Person Dungeon Crawler That You’re Speedrunning At An Event.” They also released, earlier this year, Damien Crawford’s Golf Experience 2022 – where you play a golf game as someone who has only the most basic understanding of golf, including not being able to tell how far away the hole is, apply any spin or curve to shots, or even see where the ball goes after it’s hit.
That may seem absurd, but over the years Crawford has developed a following based on their absurd games, even leaning into it as part of their identity (see their Twitter handle “TheWorstRPGDev”). But after nine years of making games no one would want to play, Crawford has come back around to making something that they hope people might want. With the help of a team and publisher Strange Scaffold, they’ve just released Purgatory Dungeoneer. Or, “My Grandpa Died And All He Left Me Was This 1 Dungeon In Purgatory Filled With Nihilistic Adventurers.”
Crawford tells me that their shift toward slightly more conventional game development came about because they had a story they wanted to tell, and knew if people weren’t interested in finishing their game due to gameplay nonsense, they wouldn’t get to see the whole thing. Purgatory Dungeoneer, then, is an RPG about retired adventurers who arrive in a guild hall the player inherits from their grandfather, with a dungeon attached. The player takes the adventurers through the dungeon in parties of five, helps them shake off their adventuring cobwebs, and eventually, offers them space to confront the deep-seated trauma they’ve developed through their years of fighting.
“I’m bored with how fantasy often portrays trauma because it’s usually the one or two same things,” Crawford says. “Adventuring isn’t something a sane person would just go out and do one day…And so it felt like that was an important set of stories to tell. A lot of them have similar origin points and end points, but the way that they get there is very different. That was a fun writing exercise for me.”
Purgatory Dungeoneer has an overarching story revolving around the Guild Hall and its inhabitants, including a few NPCs who help you manage it, which will take most players about 10-15 hours to finish. But if you want to see all of its character stories, you’re in for a much longer haul. There are 420 different characters, each with their own race and class combination complete with unique strengths and weaknesses in battle. All of them have their own stories, which are told through Remembrance missions – Purgatory Dungeoneer’s version of sidequests. You’ll have to dig into at least a handful of these missions to see the game’s end, but there are so many characters you could easily finish Purgatory Dungeoneer while avoiding over half its cast.
Playing through Purgatory Dungoneer myself, I almost didn’t believe that every character was designed deliberately, rather than procedurally-generated. My Guild Hall initially only had a handful of members, but with each mission I undertook, more would arrive, filling its rooms and tables with new friends like Raz the Angel Healer, Terhi the Woad Guardian, Awinita the Lizardfolk Guard, Rufaro the Minos Lancer, Myfanwy the Fairy Druid…I could go on. Crawford tells me the enormous variety of class and race combos was inspired by lots of other RPG and fantasy settings, especially Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 and 2011 roguelike Dungeons of Dredmor.
Purgatory Dungeoneer Screenshots
Even if you’re not familiar with every specific combination you see, you should still be able to make it through Purgatory Dungeoneer if you have some basic knowledge of how to build an average RPG party. You want someone to tank damage (like a Guardian), a healer of some sort, and some damage dealers, perhaps ideally a mix of melee and ranged damage. It only took a few runs through the dungeons for me to become intimately familiar with Purgatory Dungeoneer’s stat pool.
For those who love good crunchy numbers, Purgatory Dungeoneer delivers. While most characters have some basic skills and spells to do damage with, they almost all sport the ability to buff allies or debuff enemies, and playing around with stats and systems in this way can turn your party into an unstoppable freight train. Alternatively, you can build the worst party you can think of for a personal challenge mode. You’ll inevitably spend lots of time building and rebuilding your party for each subsequent run, and there’s plenty of room to get very nitty-gritty with how you assemble your heroes.
If party building and obsessing over stats seems tedious, Purgatory Dungeoneer may not be for you. But for the many of us who love that sort of thing, the actual dungeon helpfully eschews trappings like treasure or complex dungeon mazes or puzzles in order to better put the spotlight on the complexities of combat.
“I don’t want to cut away from the game by having people do busywork,” Crawford says. “The guild is enough busywork as it stands trying to figure out who you’re going to recruit and then resetting your party and trying to remember who was in your party and who you wanted to change out…It’s kept minimalist partly because I don’t want people to worry about not getting anything that they wanted to [get]. But also because the thing about the adventures [is that] they’re dealing with their trauma. They’re very used to just being tools, weapons. They know how to go in, how to take care of business and how to get out. And doing these sorts of repetitive things reminds them of who they are and why they started and stopped in the first place.”
So each dungeon is made up of a handful of rooms, and each room features a single battle, followed by a choice between two doors to move forward, each of which will give your party an unremovable debuff for the remainder of the dungeon. By the time you reach the final fight each time, you’ve accumulated multiple stacking debuffs. In that way, Purgatory Dungeoneer is almost a reverse roguelike. The further you delve, the weaker you become, forcing you to make calculated sacrifices to survive to the end.
“I do enjoy roguelikes where you scale up and you’re eventually just absolutely unstoppable,” Crawford says. “But this is again a game about adventurers and trauma, and the thing about adventuring is that when you start out, you are the best that you’re going to be. It’s as you continue on the quest that you start running low on supplies. You start taking some extra injuries. And as you keep fighting in the dungeon, sometimes you’ll get offered a deal, but most of the time [you’re asking], ‘How bad do I want this and what is my party best set up to deal with?’”
Though initially overwhelmed by the sheer number of adventurers and complexities of stats, spells, and skills, I may have inadvertently fallen in love with Purgatory Dungeoneer. I keep reopening the game, thinking, “Oh, just one more dungeon,” or to see if one of my favorite party members has a Remembrance mission available for me to get to know them better. Its boppin’ soundtrack (courtesy of RJ Lake), especially the Guild Hall theme, keeps playing on loop in my brain. So intentionally or not, nine years of trying to make things no one would want to play appears to have taught Crawford a lot of tricks for making games people (or me, at least) really do want to play.
Crawford, at any rate, is staying humble about it.
“I’ve worked on this for a year, so if I could make a year’s salary off of this, that would be great,” they say. “Especially because most of my games, I can’t say they’ve recouped their cost…I’ve had a couple people email me or message me on Twitter telling me they enjoy the game and that’s been pretty good. So if this does at least reach some sort of cult classic status, the fabled seven out of 10 that some people like and some people don’t, but you can tell looking at [reviews] that they’re all saying the same thing. Everybody likes it or doesn’t like it for the same reasons, then that’s good enough.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.