“The purpose of gameplay is to hide secrets.”
I started hearing that phrase thrown around last year, after it was posted on the Arcane Kids manifesto. It seemed like an overstatement at first, but it grew on me once I started to interpret the idea of "secrets" more broadly. Figuring out a winning strategy feels, to me, like discovering hidden knowledge. Viewed that way, rich gameplay is just a big pile of secrets, and uncovering them is a delight. I’ve taken this idea to heart when designing Darknet, and it’s proven useful so far. Almost the entire game can be viewed through this lens:
The surface layer of Darknet is meant to look extremely complex. The levels and puzzles are enormous webs of hundreds of objects that are all interacting with each other. The player often has to choose between dozens or hundreds of options. It’s meant to convey the “unthinkable complexity” of William Gibson’s original description of cyberspace.
This breaks a lot of rules of usability, but I think it works well for a cyberpunk hacking game. When I think about what makes hacking so cool (at least the Hollywood idea of hacking), I always land on the fact that the hacker can understand complexity. Movies depict hackers being bombarded by endless streams of data, which looks impossibly complex to any normal person, but somehow the hackers can read it all and use it toward their own ends. They wield a power that baffles everyone else.
Complexity fits the theme, but I don’t actually want to design a game that’s mechanically complex. This is the first “secret” of Darknet: underneath the complicated surface, the rules of the game are downright simple. It looks like a lot is going on, but it’s actually pretty easy to learn and to start playing effectively (and unlike in the movies, the graphics actually mean something). Even newbies will be able to see through the veneer of complexity, act intelligently on what they see, and look like a wizard in the eyes of those who have never played.
I want Darknet’s gameplay to be accessible, but I also want it to have a lot of depth, so simple rules are only half of the recipe. The other ingredient is the rich dynamics that emerge from the mechanics.
As I said above, the “secret” that’s hidden in most strategy games is an understanding of the systems and the potential winning strategies, and Darknet is no exception. It's a weird sort of sandwich structure: the simplicity of the mechanics is masked by the complexity of the visuals, but if you go one layer deeper, you find that the simple mechanics are themselves masking the complexity of the dynamics. A newer player, freshly armed with the ability to read the game's intimidating graphics, might assume that they’ve figured it all out, but it isn’t long before the game starts ramping up the challenge to impossible levels. It takes an exceptional understanding of the dynamics to progress further, and the process of delving into the systems and discovering how to win is a unique joy of games.
This isn’t a new concept; it’s essentially just a high skill ceiling, and you can find that in plenty of great games. For example, I’m a decent Spelunky player, but I’m nothing compared to the famous Spelunker Bananasaurus Rex. He knows things that I don’t, and I can only marvel when he does something incredible. I get the same feeling when I watch professional Dota or Starcraft, and I want my players to feel the same way when they see a master Darknet player. An average player might look like a wizard to a newbie, but an expert looks like a wizard to almost everyone. I think that’s the mark of a deep game, and I hope to evoke that feeling in Darknet.
Beyond the mechanics, and beyond the strategy, there are even deeper secrets embedded in Darknet. Unlike the broadly-defined “secrets” I describe above, these aren’t things that dedicated players are expected to discover over the course of the game. These are more like riddles that are posed to the entire community of players.
For example, you might see an isolated UI panel that asks for a password, with no indication of how to find the proper sequence of numbers of letters. Or you might see a crazy data visualization with no apparent meaning. Perhaps it’s just decoration, in some cases. But I’ve spent a fair amount of time implementing hidden mechanics that will give an advantage to the players that are dedicated enough to figure them out. (Or, more likely, the players who bother to go read about them online after the first few players write a walkthrough.)
These hidden mechanics serve two purposes. First, they add yet another layer of secrets, raising the game’s skill ceiling and adding to the renown of truly expert players. Second, they add an aura of mystery to the game. I plan to be very careful about how much I reveal about these buried treasures. Even though I’ve put a lot of work into these features, I’d be totally happy if some of them were never discovered at all. I want players to feel that maybe, just maybe, there might be something they haven’t discovered yet.
Maybe the rabbit hole goes even deeper? Half the fun, I think, is never knowing the answer to that question.