Innovations: Outsmarting the Game

Do you know what the best feeling a video game can give you is? Letting you feel like you outsmarted the game when, actually, you are simply playing as intended. It is a different matter entirely when you outsmart the game and the developers did not intend it. That is simply poor design, and although you can be proud of yourself, it isn’t the same situation. Usually when it’s unintended, whatever it is you discovered, will likely ruin the gameplay and likely break the game. It takes real genius to give a player a key gameplay element, or method for beating a level, in such a way that he or she thinks they found some kind of secret or shortcut. Let me give examples.


Recently I have been playing some DOS games because, oddly, most of my most nostalgic video game feelings come from DOS. Mostly Master of Orion II (which I covered here), Prince of Persia and Dungeon Master 2. I haven’t played DM2 for a very long time although I do remember getting pretty far into it. I played it again. It’s still amazing. Most importantly the games cryptic magic system got me thinking about this very concept.

Dungeon Master 2 is a dungeon crawler RPG. The first thing you do is revive three companions from the “hall of heroes” where a bunch of random heroes are in cryogenic sleep or something. Then you begin your assault on Skull Keep. You find weapons and armor and kill monsters. The game is pretty awesome and atmospheric. I own the soundtrack. Anyway, back to the point.

The most interesting thing in this game is the magic system. When you click on the cast spell button you get a series of six symbol none of which make any sense to you. When you click on one, you lose mana, and it gets imprinted. Then the interface gives you six more symbols you can’t understand. Then again, and then again! So a spell consist of four or less symbols in a certain order. Once you click cast spell you just get a weird symbol and nothing happens (Unless you lucked out and actually cast a spell). How the heck are you supposed to know how to cast any spells? Guess!?


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You will pretty quickly discover that these magic runes are used throughout the game. Many heroes you revive even start with some items that have abilities which are displayed as a series of runes. The staff for example has a spell ability which is simply named (square, weird backwards n shape) and you have no idea what it does without trying it. Once you click it, the room you are in gets brighter. If you try to input these runes as a spell, it makes the room lighter! You just learned the “light” spell. Take a look at it, notice how the light spell uses the fire rune? Yeah! the spells actually make logical sense too. Once you know several spells, you can deduce additional spells just my understanding the symbols better.


Throughout the game you will find potions, weapons, shields, music boxes, rings, wands etc. Many of them will have spells on them for you to experiment with. The spells that are most useful (fireball, lighting bolt, guard minion, haste) you memorize and use constantly. The rest of the spells you better write down in some kind of physical spell book in case you need to cast them later. Because the game won’t hold them for you.

The beauty of this system is the sense of accomplishment you feel as a player when you “outsmart” the game by “stealing” spells from items with limited uses. You find a staff that can only cast two fireballs, but you figure out how to cast unlimited fireballs off of it. For a good part of the game I still felt like I was going to find some kind of spell book and I am just cutting corners copy-catting these spells. Then it dawned on me that this is exactly how the designers intended that the player learn magic spells. But when I first started dropping attack minions all over the map I felt like I was the smartest kid in the world.

Portal was another game that gave me the same feeling except in portal instead of a gameplay mechanic, it was the level design. In Portal you use a special machine that can connect any two points together using portals. You shoot a portal “over there” and one “right here” step into the closer one and you come out “over there.” The game takes place in a testing facility where you need to beat a series of puzzle rooms by using your portaling ability.

The cool part of the game is how often you “thought” you were taking a shortcut, doing something sneaky, discovering a path that is not the intended path and feeling smug. Well, that is how everybody felt, because that is the way you are supposed to go! For those of you that played and beat portal, trying playing it a second time, and avoid your gut instinct to take the shortcut and try it “the hard way.” You will find out that there is no hard way! You found the only way but the game let you believe you outsmarted it.

That is the feeling games need to provide. Less tutorials! So many games beat you over the head with their “genius” mechanics because they are too afraid you might miss something. There is no discovery there, no sense of accomplishment. Let players discover things for themselves don’t be afraid of letting players be stuck for a while. The way games are going now, soon it will be unacceptable for a player to have to concentrate at all. Everything will need to be served to them on a text-heavy platter. I bet there are spells in Dungeon Master 2 I have never even seen and I think that is a really good thing. Can you think of any video games that made you feel like you outsmarted them?

If you are interested in trying Dungeon Master 2 for yourself, you should! It’s free (download via abandonia). You are on your own for getting Portal though. If you choose to play but don’t want to discover the magic on your own, I have created this handy spell guide for your convenience.

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  1. […] is a real shame because the feeling of learning something on your own made you feel like you are outsmarting the game. A feeling rarely replicated in a world where everything needs to be spelled […]

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