What a fun idea, I thought. A game about taking charge of a raid in an MMO you've never played before. What wacky gamer sitcom hijinx. So I played that game, which by the way is called 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? What I found was a singleplayer RPG boss fight where I had control of too many characters, all with different classes and abilities, all poorly explained. One of them said I'd have to assign their equipment as well, so they'd be geared correctly. Only there's no inventory screen.
This is part of the joke. You don't know what you're doing, you just have to roll with it. Choose abilities based on guesswork and see how they do, try to figure out which status effects are significant and which buffs are worthwhile. It's a puzzle that sounds like a parody that's also an affectionate tweak of the collective nose of RPGs.
My Older Sister Left etc. was made by indie developer Damien Crawford under the name Cannibal Interactive, though on Twitter he calls himself @TheWorstRPGDev. Most of his previous games take one particularly silly aspect of RPGs, whether it's the complexity of MMO raids or adventurers' tendency to steal from the towns they're supposed to be saving, then spin that into a small game. Usually, a wilfully opaque one. Their pages on itch.io don't call them games, but use labels like "a downloadable excessive joke" or "vile thing".
Back in 2015 Crawford released a game called Legend of Moros on itch and Steam. Though made in the same engine (RPG Maker), and with combat built on similar bones (Final Fantasy menus), Legend of Moros is not like his later games. It's a homage to classic JRPGs, with some tongue-in-cheek moments but an otherwise serious story about quests and warring kingdoms, with tutorials and everything.
On Steam it has a handful of user reviews. Positive ones, but not enough to save it from falling into obscurity like so many indie projects. "I spent two and a half years making that game, and it totally bombed," Crawford tells me. He was broke and dispirited, but it provided motivation of a kind. The motivation to make Mighty 99 Demo, "A downloadable Gordian Knot for Windows" that's a prototype of everything he's done since.
Mighty 99 gives you a party of 99 characters. Each has 19 stats, and some of their abilities deal elemental damage, of which there are 24 types. You're expected to master all this to defeat a boss with 999,999 hit points. "I spent a month making the most convoluted and awful game that I could and released it for free as a demo," Crawford says. "It got some views, it got some downloads, but most important of all it got feedback. People hated this game, but there was something that interested them enough to play it in the first place and motivated them to tell me that they did."
Like Homer Simpson signing up to be a Bigger Brother, his reason was revenge, as he admits with a laugh. And it worked. He's built a small masochistic following, and My Older Sister etc. has done particularly well. "It's comparable in gross revenue to my other game I Have Low Stats But My Class Is 'Leader', So I Recruited Everyone I Know To Fight The Dark Lord," he says, "and that's a game that's been out for a year and a half, that I spent two years off-and-on developing, and including the $2k from the Kickstarter I ran for it. My Older Sister, etc. is a game that I tore parts from other project databases, pulled some assets together, and made in a week as a joke."
That could form a happy, wholesome ending to his story, but let's not forget that Crawford is a sadist. Take his downloadable vile thing, It's Six Random Characters and a Single Floor Dungeon, That's the Whole Game. A first-person dungeon crawl, it saddles you with a party made of combinations of 105 classes and 28 races (I have a Fairy Summoner, a Demon Evoker, and a Demon-Cursed Mage, and I'm not sure the last two get along). Skills have obscure names like "Prokeross", and new skills have to be bought with licenses—eight-digit numbers printed out by computers randomly found in the dungeon. Gear is found in toilets, also randomly distributed. There's no way to save and nothing to do but hope you survive to find the single door that leads out.
"People start one of my games and think it'll be a good joke," Crawford says, "and then realize that when I commit to a bit I'm completely serious about it and run with it beyond any logical conclusion."
Crawford was inspired by Japanese light novels, illustrated books for young adults with titles like That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime or Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?
Light novel publishing is highly competitive. "A lot of the time, people are just looking at the bookshelf stocked with new releases and the only space you have to catch someone's eye with no marketing budget is the spine of the book where the title is," Crawford says. "And ridiculously long titles that act as both the pitch and summary of the novel help get the audience that would be interested to see it to actually pull it from the shelf. Indie games are in a similar situation".
Crawford's games are all based on an intimate familiarity with what RPGs are really like to play. He makes fun of their oddities, whether it's storytelling clichés or the way they pin down imaginary beings with complicated math. "If someone calls my games parodies I don't mind," he says, "but I don't consider them that. I do really love RPGs but also games as a whole." There are a few clichés he doesn't feel affection for ("I namely hate 'bikini armor' and the lack of race and age diversity in these games," he says), but there's heart in his games, and as he puts it, "while I poke some fun, it does come from a place of sincerity and love, and I hope that comes through in my work."
In 2020, a tweet by Jordan Mallory did the rounds. It said: "i want shorter games with worse graphics made by people who are paid more to work less and i'm not kidding". Crawford empathised with the idea. "Later that year, Cyberpunk had a messy release and with all the talk about crunch and how much better it would be if companies actually made shorter games with worse graphics, I put together a game bundle with 24 other developers called The Shorter Games With Worse Graphics Bundle."
As well as It's Six Random Characters etc. and There May Be Ninety-Nine Of Us, But We Have To Win In Nine Thousand Nine Hundred and Ninety-Nine Turns! the bundle contains games from other indie devs, like Demonizer, an arcade shmup that calls itself "The fantasy bullet battle to end monstergirl genocide!" and Northanger Abbey, a visual novel based on Jane Austen's satire of the same name "It was a very global bundle with devs from all over, and there were a lot more purchases and showings of support than expected."
Crawford plans to run another bundle with the same theme. His other plans for the future include updating There May Be Ninety-Nine Of Us etc. and putting it on Steam, since thanks to the success of My Older Sister etc. he has some spare cash. "I can afford the $100 fee without much worry about needing that money elsewhere. I might also go back to working on my tabletop RPG 'Guildy Pleasure', where instead of rolling dice you file paperwork." Another idea he's tinkering with is an RPG where the dungeon has 50 floors, which change based on the time of day, the week, or the month, "so the player has to keep up with all the possible floor plans."
These all sound like extremely Cannibal Interactive concepts, the vengeful Dungeon Master deliberately messing with us. It's not all motivated by pure revenge, however. After the Mighty 99 Demo, Crawford went back and started turning it into a longer game in which a hero collects every single NPC in the starter town to join her party, which eventually became I Have Low Stats But My Class Is 'Leader', So I Recruited Everyone I Know To Fight The Dark Lord.
"I got to work on making a full version and found I enjoyed making these complex and awful things," he says. "So I went from love to spite to love again."