Mechanical Mystery

Posted by Tom on 3rd March, 2012

Yume Nikki is crazy. You are a girl who dreams. In your dream, there are doors to go through that lead you to different kinds of rooms, many of which have their own complicated subset of rooms. There are characters you meet, but usually you can’t interact with them. Occasionally, when you can, you’ll get an “effect” that you can equip. In my time playing I found effects that let me have a lamp for a head, turn into a frog lady or shrink down to a tiny size. You can also dump these effects in the central room where they take the form of little plastic eggs.

That’s basically all I know for sure. You are thrust into a world without context and without direction. You try things to see what will happen, and barely anything is consistent. Mechanics are deliberately obtuse and confusing, so you are constantly in a state of discovering new things. It encourages the same type of co-operative play as old adventure games, or (from what I understand) Dark Souls.

In What Yume Nikki Does Right, Jack McNamee calls for developers to embrace hidden mechanics. Don’t tell your players what to expect, or even what to do. Just stick them in front of the game and ask them to find their own way. Once I started thinking about it, I realised that almost everything I like about games is related to this concept, which I’m going to call ‘mechanical mystery’. But before we get to that, let’s examine SSX‘s tutorial.

“GAMEPLAY TIP: Notice your left hand grabbed the left side of the board.”

The SSX tutorial teaches you how to do tricks by having you fall through the sky and push the prescribed buttons and watch as your snowboarder grabs things and flips things. One by one, I was forced through every single move that you can do. Three times each. I landed on the ground with a theoretically perfect knowledge of how to push buttons and make my snowboarder do things in the air.

I could barely do anything. The information was so awfully delivered that I could not pull off more than one trick in a row without crashing. My brain could not take the information I was given and turn that into snowboarding. I bet the SSX controls make perfect sense. Absolutely every other person I’ve read the opinion of can play it just fine. I felt like a dad sat staring at his controller, asking “Wait, which button makes her jump?” to his frustrated kid. (I don’t know if I can entirely blame the tutorial’s information overload for that, but it sure helps the point of this article if I try!)

By contrast, Cart Life is one of my favourite games of all time, and it barely teaches you anything about its mechanics. If you pay attention at the start then you know where you have to go to fulfill your implied goal, and you know the controls. Other than that, you’re in the deep end. With so many systems and no indication as to how or even if those systems interact, you end up feeling like you are actually in a world. You stop talking to people because it might get you tips later and start talking to people to find out about them. You start talking to people to make your work day more interesting. In the same way that real world morality isn’t halos versus glowing red eyes, real world social interaction isn’t about adding more points to your imagined future-relationship-o-meter, unless you’re some kind of PUA asshole.

If a tooltip came up and said “Hey! Maybe you should talk to people more! Then they’d like you and you’d get tips!” I would do it out of a feeling of obligation to the mechanics. Without that, I did it out of obligation to the character. If you take away mechanical transparency, you force players to engage on a level that’s deeper than that. I don’t know how Cart Life works under the hood, and I don’t want to. With mechanical mystery, you’re playing the game to play, you’re not playing it to minmax your build or whatever. It’s the same reason you should stop caring about achievements; paying attention to the extra stuff is just distracting you from the game.

That said, let’s examine Dwarf Fortress, a game with a lot of stuff to distract you from the game. While I play Cart Life with a deliberate wish to avoid knowing its inner workings, I play Dwarf Fortress with the wiki open. You have to, because the game is so vast in scope that you constantly end up in a situations that you have absolutely no context for. Dwarf Fortress is a beast that is unknowable simply through quantity. There are so many mechanics that you can never truly master it. Mechanical mystery by volume.

You know what else is a huge, unwieldy collection of mechanics that nobody is ever likely to know completely? Pirate Kart. With 866 games as I write this, the Pirate Kart already has way more games than any one person is likely to have the energy to play. They’re not all winners, but the Pirate Kart is more than the sum of its parts. Most of these games are simple by necessity. They’ve got a single mechanic, and once you discover that mechanic you’ve essentially gained all there is to gain from the game. So you go on to a different game. You’ve got 865 left to choose from! The Pirate Kart is mechanical density. For every half-baked piece of garbage there’s a game that will make you smile at its subversion of the medium or think about control schemes in a different way or just be plain cool. Going through the Pirate Kart is a journey of discovery akin to Yume Nikki. You have no idea what to expect from any given game, and every clever little thing can bring a smile to your face.

Mechanical mystery is about surprising players with hidden implications of your systems. It’s about treating players like they can do basic tasks on their own. It’s the antithesis of the dull grind. It’s why mechanical spoilers are a real thing. It’s why Cart Life is better than Skyrim.

Mechanical mystery is pretty much everything, ever.

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