One of the hackneyed games journalist points these days is to compare things to Dark Souls, which is usually done by people who want to evoke a comparison to a control scheme and fixed animations, and maybe some exploration. Who am I to fight a perfectly good trope, then?
Dark Souls is kind of like La-Mulana.
La-Mulana is a single-screen platformer puzzle adventure game where you explore an enormous ruin with a whip in your hand, using a retro computer and your wits to pick up upgrades, unlock routes, overcome monsters with increasing ease, and die. A lot.
An innovation Dark Souls brought to this formula of exploration and death was relatively convenient reloading, dispensing with a classic limited-slots save-game system. In La-Mulana, as a nod to pre-1990s computer technology, you can only save at specific key points, and this makes the game much less forgiving than the otherwise fluid Dark Souls. There’s also an ‘experience’ mechanic in Dark Souls, where you can spend resources to get better at dealing with the enemies you face, and every time you save the game, it refreshes your resources. Not so for La-Mulana.
For some context, as I go on: I’m not good at La-Mulana. I didn’t finish it. I’ve put a few hours of work – and it was work – into this game, and didn’t feel I was making any headway. Also, the person who gifted me this game is very good at this game.
Up front, though, despite not liking this game, I want to say that La-Mulana is not a ‘bad game.’ It’s vast and there are people for whom its particular movement and mystery are exciting and interesting. There’s a ton, a ton of stuff going on, bosses are varied in a lot of different wild ways, there’s a deep lore, riddles and NPCs and a True Ultimate Boss that – I assume – rewards thorough exploration and mastery.
Really wasn’t for me, though.
So let’s talk about colonialism.
The traditional conversation about the sort of ‘archaeological adventure’ story winds up invoking a lot of colonialism. The basic idea is that explorers entering old ruins tends to be built out of Age of Colonialism ideas, where you’d arrive in some place with a really, really old building and go check it out and it turns out that there’s some ancient civilisation that maybe relates to aliens or magic or something that explains why the ruin is there in the first place. The mystery, the allure of the ruins tends to be that these ruins were made by someone, but never seemingly the people living nearby, because those people are usually simple peasants or fisherpeople or, overwhelmingly often, black.
This narrative tends to be the work of people we’ll shorthand as colonisers (mostly the English, but the Dutch and French are here too, and America turbo-charged it) interpreting things they find in colonised spaces as not belonging to the colonised people. Who could have built these vast palaces? These stunning temples? These pyramids? It must have been aliens, because the people around here live in grass huts!
There’s also the way that these stories tend to be framed as a Coloniser coming to an ancient ruin, finding something too valuable to leave alone and taking it out of the ruin. Sometimes they use it for themselves, sometimes they sell it, and it’s sometimes framed as very noble to put the thing in a museum. That’s a lot of ways to frame ‘I found something and took it’ as noble. It’s even more obvious when the ruin has all sorts of locks and traps and guards set up to keep you from taking it. It’s basically at that point, burglary.
That’s not to say every game about exploring old ruins has to be like that. Without giving too-indepth spoilers about the plot of La-Mulana (as explained by a wiki, because, like I said, I haven’t finished the game), Professor Lemeza is kind of a member of the La-Mulanan diaspora, and he’s kind of returning to his home culture, to find it alienating and damaging because of pre-existing cultural framing that he was deprived of his whole life. At the same time, the wiki tells me that Lemeza Kosugi is a half-Japanese ninja archaeologist, which
you know what
Calling the space of La-Mulana a Coloniser-style ruin is tricky too, since the myths expressed in the ruins of La-Mulana range from Egypt to England with also, some Tibet and China, probably actual ninja as well. It’s not really about a place as it is about stories about that place. You could say it’s very postmodern, with everything being representations of things that don’t exist, simulacra all the way down.
The fantastic vision of what ruins might hold in these adventure stories is often at odds with the morbid realities of what they do hold. In the real world, horrifying ruins filled with traps and maybe a monster tells you about the people telling the story who want to feel good about plundering a tomb for the rings on a corpse in a box that smells of dead farts.
In La-Mulana you can go into the ruins and find actual ghosts and actual demons and actual gods from multiple different myths, some of which are pretty inimical to human life. Maybe that’s trying to justify the exploration of the ruins. Elder Xelpud does get mad at you for stealing, apparently, but at the same time, all life including yourself come from La-Mulana, I guess, kind of, maybe?
It’s not that this doesn’t bear up to framing as either good or bad, it’s just who cares. It’s just bringing to bear the Indiana Jones Is A Total Dick toolset on a videogame that’s built around Indiana Jones. Like, well done, you found the references to source material, you rumbled them.
What is interesting about La-Mulana is literacy.
I am not good at La-Mulana. I’ve played it for a few hours, got some advice, read some wikis, came back to try and play it some more, and decided that it felt bad and I didn’t like playing it. With that information in hand, I stopped. And freed from the understanding that I didn’t need to understand or solve the puzzles or learn how the clunky movement or tough out the probably hours of work this game would ask of me to finish it, I went and watched some speedruns and let’s plays.
What I learned is just how much I didn’t know about what this game expected me to know.
It’s how games work, you know. Each game teaches you how to deal with the game. Things that games do that genuinely surprise you tend to be rare, because when you’re making a game, making genuinely new, out-of-context kind of problems is really hard and it’s just rare for developers to do it. Most videogames, especially big videogames, are going to build on the same ideas over and over again. I mean, it’s what a tileset is!
In La-Mulana, there are secret passages that are literally just blank walls and you can just walk straight through them. There are secret passages you find by attacking them. There are secret passages you find by attacking them with specific weapons. There are secret passages that give you different audio information when you bump into them. There are switches that do nothing. There’s numerous places where you can spend a puzzle key and it’ll kill you.
Knowing that the game might do that, and knowing how it does that is important.
La-Mulana does a lot of stuff to tell you no, don’t do that. Go too far left? Here’s a huge boss covered in eyes. Go too far right? Here’s water that will kill you. Go too far down? Here’s a trap. To speak charitably about it, there are numerous times the game obscures your advancement, in order to force you to play cautiously.
The biggest problem I had playing La-Mulana, though, is that the game and I couldn’t talk to each other. I didn’t know if I was making progress or not. I didn’t know if I was wasting my time, or if I was bad at what I was doing.
And the game had no way of telling me if I was doing okay or not.