I played a video game about a purgatory dungeon full of nihilistic adventurers and then I wrote this article

I played a video game about a purgatory dungeon full of nihilistic adventurers and then I wrote this article

For the past nine years or so, Damien Crawford has been making games that he thinks people wouldn’t want to play.

Crawford is the sole developer and head of Cannibal Interactive. They have made over 20 games through the label, most of which have been published primarily on They got into game development after a few years of struggling to fit in other jobs like fast food and mundane government work. A failed relationship and the need to break away from parental support eventually pushed them to try something new.

“I thought if I didn’t make it on the safe road, then what do I want to do? And so I started making games.”

Their first project, Legend of Moros, lasted two and a half years and didn’t do well – not even $100 in sales on the day of release. So, on another contrary whim, Crawford spent a month making a game they thought no one would want to play; An “awesome” (their words) RPG where 99 characters team up in one battle, all stacked on one side against the enemy. In addition to the absurd gameplay, Mighty 99 had a “terrible memory leak” that made it impossible to get through three full turns.

But to Crawford’s astonishment, something fascinating happened.

“It got feedback, mostly negative, but people played it. And sometimes they were detailed notes!”

Instead of nobody playing a game they thought people would want to play, people played Mighty 99 – even if they didn’t like it. But that was enough for Crawford. They remade Mighty 99 into a more playable version called “I have low stats, but my class is ‘Leader,’ so I recruited everyone I know to fight the Dark Lord,” and then went on to make more similar games . Games with tons of characters, unbeatable scenarios and witty long titles.

Crawford calls them “maximalist RPGs” and examples include: “My older sister left the computer so I found myself trying to coordinate an attack in a game and not playing an MMO,” “It’s six random characters and a dungeon on one floor, that’s the whole game,” and “This is a fast-paced first-person dungeon at an event.” They also released, earlier this year, Damien Crawford’s Golf Experience 2022 – where you play the game of golf as someone who has only the most basic understanding of golf, including the inability to tell how far a hole is, apply any spin or curve to shots, or even see where the ball goes after it is hit.

It may seem absurd, but over the years Crawford has developed a following based on their absurd games, even relying on 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 is back to make something they hope people might want. With the help of the team and publisher Strange Scaffold, they are just out Purgatory Dungeoneer. Or, “My grandfather died and all he left me was this 1 dungeon in purgatory full of nihilistic adventurers.”

It got feedback, mostly negative, but people played it. And sometimes they were detailed notes!

Crawford tells me that their move towards slightly more conventional game development came about because they had a story they wanted to tell, and they knew that if people weren’t interested in finishing their game because of the nonsense about the game, they wouldn’t be able to see the whole thing. Purgatory Dungeoneer, then, is an RPG about retired adventurers who arrive at a guild hall that the player inherited from his grandfather, with an attached dungeon. The player guides the adventurers through the dungeon in groups of five, helping them shake off their adventuring cobwebs and ultimately offering them a space to confront the deep-seated trauma they’ve developed over years of combat.

“I’m sick of how fantasy often portrays trauma because it’s usually one or two of the same things,” Crawford says. “Adventure is not something that a sane person would just go out and do one day… And so it seemed like an important set of stories to tell. Many of them have similar starting and ending points, but the way they get there is very different. It was a fun writing exercise for me.”

Purgatory Dungeoneer has an overarching story that revolves around the Guild Hall and its inhabitants, including several NPCs that help you manage it, which will take most players around 10-15 hours to complete. But if you want to see all the stories about his faces, you have a much longer journey ahead of you. There are 420 different characters, each with their own race and class combination along with unique strengths and weaknesses in combat. They all have their own stories, which are told through Remembrance quests – Purgatory Dungeoneer’s version of side quests. You’ll have to study at least a few of these missions to see the endgame, but there are so many characters that you could easily finish Purgatory Dungeoneer while avoiding more than half of its roles.

Playing through Purgatory Dungoneer myself, I almost didn’t believe that every character was designed on purpose rather than procedurally generated. My guild hall initially only had a few members, but with each mission I undertook, more would arrive, filling its rooms and tables with new friends such as Raz the Angel Healer, Terhi the Woad Guardian, Awinita the Lizard Guard, Rufaro Minos Lancer, Myfanwy, Fairy Druid…I could go on. Crawford tells me that the huge variety of class and race combinations was inspired by many other RPGs and fantasy settings, notably Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 and the 2011 roguelike Dungeons of Dredmor.

Even if you’re not familiar with every specific combo you see, you should still be able to get through Purgatory Dungeoneer if you have some basic knowledge of how to make an average RPG party. You want someone to deal damage (like a Guardian), some sort of healer and some damage dealers, maybe ideally a mix of melee and ranged damage. It only took me a couple of dungeon runs to familiarize myself with the Purgatory Dungeoneer’s stat base.

For those who like a good crunch of numbers, Purgatory Dungeoneer offers. While most characters have some basic skills and damage spells, almost all have the ability to buff allies or repel enemies, and playing with stats and systems in this way can turn your party into an unstoppable freight train. Alternatively, you can make the worst party you can think of for personal challenge mode. You’ll inevitably spend a lot of time building and rebuilding your party for each subsequent run, and there’s plenty of room to tinker with how you assemble your heroes.

If building a party and obsessing over stats seems tedious, Purgatory Dungeoneer might not be for you. But for many of us who like that sort of thing, the actual dungeon helpfully avoids trappings like treasure or complex dungeon mazes or puzzles to better put itself at the center of the complexity of the combat.

“I don’t want to take away from the game by making people busy with work,” says Crawford. “The guild is busy enough trying to figure out who you’re going to recruit and then you reset your party and you try to remember who was in your party and who you wanted to change… It’s been kept minimal partly because I’m not I don’t want people to worry that they would not get anything they wanted [get]. But also because it’s about adventures [is that] they are dealing with their trauma. They are very used to being just a tool, a weapon. They know how to get in, how to conduct business and how to get out. And doing things like this repeatedly reminds them of who they are and why they started and stopped in the first place.”

So each dungeon consists of several rooms, and each room has one battle, followed by a choice between two doors to move forward, each of which will give your party an unrecoverable debuff for the rest 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 dig, the weaker you become, forcing you to make calculated sacrifices in order to survive to the end.

Adventures… are used to being just a tool, a weapon. Doing repetitive things like this reminds them of who they are and why they started and stopped in the first place.

“I enjoy roguelikes where you level up and end up being absolutely unstoppable,” says Crawford. “But this is again a game about adventurers and trauma, and the thing about adventure is that when you start, you’re the best you’ll be. As you continue your quest, you start to run out of supplies. You start taking additional injuries. And as you continue to fight in the dungeon, sometimes you will be offered a deal, but most of the time [you’re asking]’How badly do I want this and how is my party best prepared?’”

Although I was initially overwhelmed by the sheer number of adventurers and the complexity of stats, spells, and skills, I may have inadvertently fallen in love with Purgatory Dungeoneer. I keep reopening the game, thinking, “Oh, just another dungeon,” or to see if one of my favorite party members has a Memories quest available to get to know them better. Its boppin’ soundtrack (courtesy of RJ Lake), especially the Guild Hall theme, keeps playing in my brain. So, intentional or not, it seems that nine years of trying to make things that no one would want to play taught Crawford a lot of tricks to get people (or me, at least) to actually want to play them.

Crawford, however, remains coy about it.

“I’ve been working on this for a year, so if I can make a year off of this, that would be great,” they say. “Especially because most of my games, I can’t say they’ve recouped the cost… I’ve had a few people email me or tell me on Twitter that they enjoyed the game and that it was pretty good. So if this at least reaches some sort of cult classic status, a legendary seven out of 10 that some like and some don’t, but you can see by watching [reviews] that they all say the same thing. Everyone likes it or doesn’t like it for the same reasons, then that’s good enough.”

Rebekah Valentine is a reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.

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