Reading Leigh Alexander’s essay on candy box got me thinking: What makes Dark Souls, Kentucky Route Zero, and Candy Box! occupy the same space in my gamer nerd heart? What makes Proteus or Antichamber exciting experiences that actually make me want to play them even before playing them? Once I’m in, what drives me to spend hours wondering what’s around the next aesthetically minimalist corner or imagining what new ASCII graphic will pop into my browser? What is the thread that connects these incredibly different games?
On the surface, a game like Dark Souls and Candy Box! are very different. Dark Souls is an extremely difficult mostly inaccessible console game that appeals to hardcore gamers. Candy Box is designed for minimal interaction and appeals to anyone who knows how to open a browser. What then, do these games have in common? Dragons? Actually…yes. But I don't think thats the answer.
Though they handle player feedback differently, they both throw you into a scenario/world and say “Have fun! Good luck! I ain’t tellin you shit!" And we LOVE that, right? I mean, many theorists have talked about games setting up scenarios in which the player will ultimately fail unless they apply the knowledge gained through play to the problem at hand. I’m poorly paraphrasing Jesper Juul here, but I think these games take this a step further by not telling the player how to fail, or what to expect, or what to be wary of, or how to learn; They expect the player to discover the systems themselves.
This makes me think about a conversation I had in a class a few weeks back: What makes a game memorable or nostalgic? Many answered with “being transported to a new world" or “experiencing a story I had agency over." Both valid reasons why someone would love playing games. But I want to posit that many of us think we like a game because it displaces us or there is interactivity, but really its what we do in those situations, and more specifically, how we figure out what we do, that makes us remember fondly the experiences we had with games in the past.
The concept of mystery/wonder that is inherent in the games listed above is something familiar to the NES generation I grew up with. In Hyrule, when we ran against a rock (I always thought they looked like frozen brown snails…) accidentally revealing a hidden staircase for the first time, or found that running along the bricks at the top of 1-2 would warp Mario to world 4, we happened upon something that the game almost expected us to find, but didn’t necessarily tell us how to find it. Sometimes we never discovered these secrets until that other kid (besides you of course) with the Super Mario lunchbox told us or we dug it out of our cousin’s two year old issue of Nintendo Power.
Other times the secrets were almost mythic, impossible to remember the first time you went left instead of right to obtain the morph ball in the original Metroid. This is something the game of that era was built upon, perhaps by accident due to limitation of hardware, but regardless of authorial reason, that, to me, was what made these game experiences so vibrant and fulfilling. Information was withheld so the player could play with the system in order to discover the wonder of its machinations.
As Leigh Alexander articulated so well:
[Candy Box is] so minimalistic that it recalls a beloved earlier age of games, when all of them were opaque and mysterious, and the only real way to progress was to share playground lore.
What’s interesting about this to me is how we describe this “return" to “retro aesthetics" and make games “hard" or “classic." We talk around what we want in games because our language is limiting us. We don’t want a game to punish us over and over, we want the game, as Jesper Juul would say, to cock its head to the left, with a twinkle in its eye and say “come play with me!" We don’t want to be shuffled through an experience, we want to learn the system and the mechanics through interaction. We want the game to be a game, where learning is inherent to the completion process and the learning happens through collective collaboration and moments of pure luck. This is why I find a modern triple A game like Dark Souls, similar to an ASCII art browser game like Candy Box; they both give the player the game and say “have fun!" while encouraging you to be a part of the games' community. Engagement at its finest!