I’ve been playing some Spelunky 2 since it came out recently, and while it’s a great iteration on what came before, I can’t help but feel like I’m going to miss out on some things as I play, putting a damper on the experience. Much like the game before it, Spelunky 2 is jam-packed with secret routes and hidden interactions. The problem is how you access them isn’t always the clearest, which means a lot of experimentation is required. And even that isn’t the easiest thing to do given how skill intensive Spelunky 2 already is, which is why so much of what Spelunky 2 can offer is collectively discovered by the community at large. While community problem solving is a very cool development in modern game design, I can’t help but feel like something is lost when we play by ourselves, even though games like this are at their heart single player experiences.
The rise of the wiki and the community banding together to comb through a game and hollow it of secrets is a recent development in games, but really it’s the culmination of so many playground rumors and grassroots discussions of what game players discovered in their casual playthroughs. Someone will find something cool in a popular game, tell their friends, and the information would spread from there. With the centralization of the internet connecting all of us today, however, information can spread much faster, with a game’s secrets laid bare within a week of release. It also has the benefit of democratizing guide content, allowing anyone with an internet connection to look up what they need without having to purchase expensive guidebooks. It’s ultimately a good thing for everyone, really.
And yet I can’t help but think that this new communal way of playing games comes at the expense of designing with the individual in mind. So much of Spelunky 2’s hidden content will never be discovered by most people playing the game, leaving it to the most high-level players to discover its secrets and share them with the world via wikis. Much of the joy in secrets is the discovery of them, and while you can optionally ignore wiki content as much as you want, it’s hard to shake the feeling that games are starting to be designed for the wiki generation, where secrets are obscured to the point where crowdsourcing them feels necessary to discover all their secrets. The discovery phase here is exciting if you’re a high-level player driving wiki content, but not so much for everyone else.
On the extreme end of the spectrum is the release of P.T., the playable teaser for the now-cancelled Silent Hills. It’s a brilliant horror game in its own right, but it’s held back by some of the most obscure puzzles ever put in a video game. People still aren’t sure of how exactly they’re solved, which may or may not involve walking a certain set of paces in a specific place, yelling into a microphone at a certain time, and listening for a baby to laugh three times. The idea came from wanting players to crowdsource the solution together in a way not dissimilar to an alternate reality game in order to get people talking about the playable teaser and hype the impending release of the full game. But if you just want to experience the game for yourself and see the ending, you were probably out of luck until you looked it up – an extreme case of designing for community discovery at the expense of personal discovery.
It’s not that this type of design shouldn’t exist, either. If a game is meant to be played with other people, then community design is fair game. Destiny 2’s raids are a great example of this. Featuring some very opaque puzzle solutions in between all the shooting, Destiny 2 tasks its pioneers with figuring them out and spreading them once they’re solved. When you’re in a multiplayer game, much of the discovery organically comes from other players, and helps foster a greater sense of community. Communal design absolutely should come with the territory of a multiplayer game to make it even more of a communal experience.
Make no mistake, the fear of missing out on content is a powerful urge, and one that’s becoming harder and harder to overcome as design is shifting to make solutions more communal. Peeling back the layers of a game’s mysteries is one of my favorite things about games. But maybe I need to make peace with this new way of designing games. I’m not necessarily owed anything by game designers. They’re free to design a game however they see fit, and their methods do lead to some undeniably cool things that weren’t even considered in older eras of game history.
But I can’t help but be bummed that optional areas like, say, the Painted World of Ariamis in Dark Souls are so counterintuitive to find that you need to resort to a wiki to even begin to know what to do. I want to be rewarded for exploration with secrets that are achievable for me to solve without a wiki. Don’t get me wrong, the democratization of game information is a great and necessary thing to make games even more approachable than they already are. I just wish that it didn’t come at the expense of making a game approachable when going it alone.