GMotW: Candy Box and… hidden information

 

There is no instruction manual for Candy Box. There is just Candy Box. If you haven’t been there yet, do go, poke around for a minute, investigate all the options at your disposal, and then consider the Game Mechanic of the Week, which I am pulling from the FAQ:

“The sorceress, since she is a sorceress, can only work on magic swords. This is why you have to enchant your sword before being able to buy this spell!”

Now. Is the game mechanic I’m interested in the fact that there’s a certain linkage between magic elements, and that enchanted swords may only be worked on by enchantresses, and vice versa? Or is it the fact that there is a sword, a sorceress, and a spell, NONE of which you know about if, like I suggested, you only poked about for a few minutes?

I mean, did you meet the Candy Merchant yet? Did you get the special deal on lollipops? Listen. Candy Box gets weird, and quick. Point is, however, it’s also a game which doesn’t let on what it actually is, AT ALL.

And that’s really, really interesting. Lots of games are mechanically forced (for a given value of forced) to give away secrets early… TVTropes has a word for this: Interface Spoiler. If you have a sword slot, and it has an “Enchantment” value, then you can, as a player, reasonably assume that wherever you start off in the game world, you will ultimately end up in a position of owning an enchanted sword.

Games can hide the plot easily enough, but it’s a lot harder to hide what you can do… if you’re playing on a console, you will note early on if the X button has no use whatsoever, and be, perhaps, less-than-surprised when it turns out that that’s the one that activates the Magic you encounter in act II.

Obviously there are ways to maintain that level of surprise, but nothing quite as obvious (and effective) as simply not letting the player be aware that there is a surprise coming at all, by having the mechanical interaction completely secret until it comes to pass. Now, this needs a controller figure, be it the computer or, in the case of a tabletop, a GM figure who is there to let you know that, no, there’s magic now.

What I like about Candy Box for this, and this is a bit of a spoiler if you haven’t played for a while now, is that the ability to go on quests and use the sword is suddenly present where before, it wasn’t even noticeable by its absence. The game didn’t feel as if something was missing before (though it was, to be sure, extremely simplistic, sort of a “My First Game” introduction to coding assignment). It’s not re-using old rules in a new way, it’s just suddenly deciding to be DIFFERENT. It goes beyond merely not allowing the game to be spoiled by its interface, and into actively altering what the player thought the game WAS.

Imagine an RPG that begins with players sitting around a table, rolling dice and telling stories, and suddenly there’s a wrinkle in the plot, magic exists and also hand in your character sheets, we’re doing a diceless LARP now. It’s an utter change in what was expected, demands a complete new understanding of what’s going on. There’s no going back. Whether that’s welcome or not, who can say?

Candy Box is weird. That’s true enough, but it’s also brilliant, and it keeps throwing out surprises, just when you think you know what’s going on it turns into something entirely new. Neat. Friggin’ neat.

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