SPOILERS: Mild mechanical spoilers for Corrypt. In particular, general discussion of mid-game mechanics.
Corrypt is about power. It is about the simple power of interaction. It is about the various ways a game can empower players. It is about the power fantasy of sweeping obstacles out of your path. It is about the power to leave a mark on the world and it is about the consequences of that power.
There are three distinct moments in Corrypt which I think of as ‘leveling up’. Moments where your power within the game expands radically. The way in which these moments are implemented, and the consequences of your empowerment, are at the heart of the story and game of Corrypt.
The opening section of the game is its most traditional: a series of increasingly difficult puzzle rooms which must be solved by pushing blocks to and fro and by understanding and exploiting the behaviour of various creatures and devices that are encountered. The puzzles are set in a strangely depopulated world in which a few remaining people are transfixed, motionless and waiting only to share their single overriding concern with you: ‘Oh! I left open the door to my hut.’, ‘Oh where can my daughter be?’. These micro-quests shape your progress through the puzzle rooms ensuring that puzzles are encountered in the correct order and solving the design task of ‘teaching without teaching’.
After completing about a third of the rooms, we get the first ‘level up’ which is also the most traditional. Corrypt hands you a new mechanic – ‘Magic’. Magic is a resource bought from Magicians using mushrooms as currency.
From a design perspective, handing the player a new mechanic is the easy option when it comes to ramping up empowerment within a game. Providing the new mechanic itself is engaging, the main design challenge is to ensure that the new mechanic does not break the existing systems of the game and that the player is given opportunity to explore the possibilities of the new mechanic. This is the reason why a drip-feed of new mechanics presented throughout a game is an absolute staple of modern AAA design. In the strongest instances, like Dishonored‘s ‘blink’ mechanic, a new mechanic takes players right to the perceived edges of the game, creating the impression that the new axis of freedom is about to allow a player to break the system and then pulling back just far enough to maintain a coherent experience.
Corrypt immediately subverts this expectation. The Magician sells you magical tokens in exchange for mushrooms. These go into your inventory and magic is used simply by dragging a magic token onto any tile. What happens next? In a more traditional game the magic would spawn a resource or knock down a wall or some other mechanism to immediately open up new options for play. In Corrypt using your new found magic has no immediately obvious pay-off: a ripple passes over the screen and some tiles start to fizz with static. Glitched tiles appear in unexpected places. Parts of the game world that were previously accessible are no longer. The delicately characterised world starts to lose coherence.
It soon becomes apparent that using magic tokens is exacerbating this problem. However, in a few rooms the glitching has actually opened up new passageways to explore. The glitching caused by magic use puts the world into crisis but also creates new opportunities for the player.
This was the point at which I began to lose all certainty about the underlying nature of the game. I could see that using the magic provoked the glitching but the more tiles became glitched the more chaotic and unsolvable the game became. Resources disappeared. A room would have no switch any more, leaving a critical door permanently closed. Walls, water and other obstacles appeared blocking me into areas. I realised that people I had helped – the hermit or the mother and daughter – had been glitched out of existence.
Repeatedly I asked myself whether it was coherent at all, whether there was a system to be grasped or whether the glitching was aleatoric. Was Corrypt a joke? A joke which plays against our expectation of solvability by turning a traditional puzzle game into roulette where each use of magic propagated a wave of random glitching. Either way, what had been a traditional set of ‘key in lock’ puzzles had apparently become an emergent system of interacting rules – a rogue-like where each use of magic would either let me continue exploring the world or leave me forever walled-up in a forgotten corner of the map.
As I was about to let the game go, I ‘levelled up’ for the second time. However, this ‘level up’ was very different from unlocking the ‘magic’ mechanic. I was not actually playing the game, in fact I think I was trying to get to sleep, but in the back of my mind I formed a credible hypothesis for how the magic system might actually work. I tested my hypothesis. I tested it again. I tested it once more. It worked!
That moment of understanding the magic system in Corrypt went far beyond the satisfaction and empowerment of simply seeing the solution to a traditional ‘key in lock’ puzzle. This was empowerment on a huge scale: the power to reshape Corrypt‘s world at will. However, critically different from the first ‘level up’, this was not a power granted to me by the game. It was a power that I had earned through my own engagement with the game. A power that was personal to me.
That experience of looking at the map as an open sea of possibilities, where previously it had been dense thicket of incomprehensible obstacles, is the closest I have come in a game to experiencing what it might be like to learn actual, real-world magic.
Voltaire wrote that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. The empowerment that comes from understanding Corrypt’s deeper systems is no different. However, in Corrypt that understanding comes too late – by the time I realised what I was doing I had already devastated the ecology of the game. People had vanished, homes had been destroyed, the careful routines of various machines and creatures were irreparably disrupted. Worse – this was not random damage, this was the predictable consequences of a system that I had exploited thoughtlessly and without insight. The warning of the hermit earlier in the game that “magic is perilous” makes sense now.
It is also likely that I am not the first. The strange world is not depopulated by chance, it is post-apocalyptic: ruined by the use of magic to transform and exploit the landscape. The portly figure of the magician, standing as gate-keeper in front of his mushroom-packed vault and extracting a higher and higher price for his magic tokens, takes on a sinister aspect. For him, the environment is merely a resource to be stockpiled and consumed. Each time we take him the fruits of our labour, he tells us that he will need more next time. The changes wrought by magic use may well destroy him and his wealth ultimately, but his desire for short-term gain always wins out.
For me the challenge of Corrypt shifted once I had understood the nature of magic. It became a game of treading more carefully, but still too heavily, trying unlock the areas and rooms that I had not reached without wreaking too much damage and without wasting the increasingly expensive magic. After a time, when I had opened up what passages I could and found my way through various additional puzzle rooms, it became clear that parts of the map seemed to be off-limits. The game had not reached an obvious endpoint and yet there was no way through. I looked at some of the comments on Michael Brough’s blog and it seemed that some people had actually accessed all of the rooms. So it had to be possible.
The third ‘level up’ moment came when I resolved this late game obstacle. Unlike the second level up, which involved puzzling out the way that the seemingly random system worked, the third level up was a simple moment of insight. Having understood the way that the magic worked, I suddenly saw an additional possibility for how it could be applied – a simple trick that opened up the remaining areas and allowed me to complete the game.
But this simple trick also made it painfully clear how little I had understood the game initially. Armed with this knowledge it became possible to skip lightly through the game’s rooms with far less reliance on magic, causing far less damage to the environment, wasting far fewer resources. Magic used effectively, but also used wisely, did not need to involve such a comprehensive erasure of the game world.
These three moments of ‘levelling up’ each reveal a distinct facet of our complicated relationship with power. The first moment shows us explicit power being granted; the power derived from express authorisation that the Romans described as imperium, the root of the word ‘empire’. This is power as a tool placed in the hand. The second moment shows us power being put to effective use: the power that comes from learning how to use that tool properly. The third moment shows us that wise power may be best used sparingly, a gentle nudge rather than a sweeping directive: the insight to see when to use that tool and when not to do so.
The journey of empowerment that I followed through Corrypt was also a life journey. As a child, the world as I found it was incomprehensible: filled with challenges and blockages and grinding systems into which I fitted as best I could. As I grew, I learned my way through these systems until I came of age and was granted formal power over these systems – magic. But adulthood does not come with an instruction manual. Instead of finally achieving control I found myself in a mid-life crisis as the familiar structures of youth fell apart and the world shifted and changed around me – nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita mi ritrovai per una selva oscura.
With maturity the crisis resolved. I learned the proper use of this power and the responsibility that comes with it. I learned that it is my own impact on the world as an adult that destroys the familiarities of childhood. Finally, as an old man, I learned how much my exercise of power had been unnecessary: how I could have found my way through the game using my magic to make a few simple tweaks rather than tearing up a huge portion of the worldfabric. I learned the value of not intervening.
Corrypt is a puzzle game but it is not just a puzzle game. The real magic of Corrypt is that it leads the player on a journey through such density of game design that it can appear at different times as a challenging but achievable puzzle, an impenetrable emergent system and a kaleidoscope of overlapping and contrasting allegories. For me, the game was a story about power and about our own changing relationship with power as we journey through life.