This is the second of an undetermined number of level design essays on the freeware version of Nigoro’s La Mulana (2005). The first is here. I’m not really concerned about spoilers, so if you are, well, you know what to do.
Guidance Gate: Was there ever so brutal a teacher with such an unassuming name? Last week, we established that the surface of La Mulana teaches timing and momentum. Now, we will learn to pace ourselves and mistrust certainties.
A sweeping, 8-bit flourish plays the first time you enter the ruins and never again, so perk those ears up. This fleeting instrumental introduction might be your last comfort for some time.
Two rooms in, paths begin to twist and branch. Keep heading east and you’ll eventually emerge amongst waterfalls where drowning is imminent. Alternately, a ladder leads to a maze of precipitous drops and traps, downward spirals branching east or west. To the west lies a land of sleeping giants. To the east you’ll find pyramids and circus cats. There are already more rooms than you can hold in your head. La Mulana argues mastery should never be confined to a single area; that progression and expertise hinge on memorizing connections and navigating spaces.
You will be punished for hasty exploration. Plunge forward through the sprawling, labyrinthine levels, and you won’t necessarily die right away, but you’ll feel overwhelmed by the claustrophobic unfamiliar. Failing to see the patterns for the noise, your eyes will whine for reason. La Mulana does not rely on invisible barriers to keep you in check.
Pictured at the top of this post is a room with many spikes, spikes that suspiciously line the bottom of the screen. This trap seems to plead for volunteers. That awkward, engraved structure in the center of the room reeks of secrecy. Listen close, and you might hear the skeletons whisper: Those spikes, they aren’t real, just non-interactive dressings and pixel paint, just like so many bricks and torches that color these ruins. Ignore the spikes, be courageous, drop down, trigger the switch, claim your reward.
The skeletons and spikes advise you to question that which you’ve come to accept as established truth, a lesson later reinforced by pig enemies with kamikaze diagonal assaults. The best way to defend against such an attack is to stand right next to the enemy, ignoring the careful instincts you’ve developed up to this point. La Mulana challenges habits ingrained by all those other games you’ve played. How many times have you been told to avoid spikes? Sure, La Mulana isn’t the first game to think up such tricks, but this is only the beginning, and it’s just starting to set the tone. Over the course of this journey, expect to develop a talent for spotting the invisible elephant in the room.
In this puzzle, you’re supposed to attack each piece of a suit of armor in a certain order. Pretty straightforward, but wrongful strikes invite divine retribution–lightning bolts that drain your health. Find the skeleton one screen over, who has memorized the solution to this puzzle. Said solution is not well-hidden, but its placement sends a clear message: Assume the answer is not in your head or in the same room as the puzzle you’re trying to solve. Avoid blind trial and error. Whereas the spike puzzle teaches courage, the armor puzzle preaches caution. Examine, question, prod your environment, but refrain from reckless assault. Punishment stays consistent throughout the game, as lighting strikes every time you attack a seal you haven’t yet unlocked. In this way, the game establishes a vocabulary of objects you’re not allowed to touch and expects you to follow suit.
La Mulana is slow to instruct, but quick to punish. Should we consider this a flaw? Is unbridled obscurity a design weakness? There are many who would rather watch somebody else play La Mulana than play it themselves. Is this a bad thing? You could make a convincing argument that obscurity is worse than oversimplification.
A lack of explicit instruction does have its perks, though, one of which is a hidden community component. I’ve been justifying my use of the “Let’s Play” videos as a strange form of multiplayer, or perhaps even conversation. I find myself returning to this video series not just for instruction, but for comfort and camaraderie. The ruins are lonely and unforgiving. They offer little comfort. But comfort arrives in the form of some dude on the internet, stumbling over the same puzzles, emitting nasally outbursts as he forgets what he’s doing and dies miserably. The views on his videos hover in the mid-twenty-thousands. It seems many would agree there’s no shame in consulting a guide on something like La Mulana. It just comes with the territory.
Also, “obscure” and “difficult” are terms that fail to grasp the scope of La Mulana. While Flight to Freedom showed me that illiteracy can be harnessed as a game mechanic to elicit a sense of vulnerability, La Mulana takes this idea further by denoting literacy and observation as separate peripherals. You have to earn the right to look around, and then, separately, earn the right to interpret your observations.
I can’t remember the last game I played that inspired me to regularly consult a manual. La Mulana’s manual is an interesting text in itself, since it’s not just a technical, dry affair. It offers cautionary advice, evocative artwork, beginner strategies and narrative exposition. You might say most game manuals contain such things, but most of that information is useless repetition. I used to think a game that encourages use of a manual does so through bad design. Portal doesn’t need a manual. But perhaps manuals, in many cases, have been rendered useless by flabby, burdensome tutorials. You don’t need a manual if the game bangs you over the head with HELPFUL INSTRUCTIONS until you don’t want to play anymore. La Mulana is one of the few cases I can think of in which the design warrants a manual not because it’s bad, but precisely because it’s good.