Hadean Lands: How Failure Works

I was making no progress on this game all day, and was all set to make a post about being stuck, when I had a sudden breakthrough involving an alteration to a ritual. This was a ritual that clearly needed an alteration — it did the exact opposite of what I needed. But there wasn’t an obvious substitution of ingredient or incantation that would invert it, even after I tried a quite a few possibilities. Ultimately, I realized that a promising substitution could be made at an earlier point in the process, in the ritual that created one of the ingredients for the ritual I wanted to change. This was pretty satisfying, once it was all over. Oh, sure, during the process of futilely trying things out, it seemed like I was desperately grasping at straws. But in the light of eventual success, it seems more like the sort of tinkering and experimentation that’s entirely appropriate for an alchemist.

Seriously, when I think about it, this is a really good choice of role for an adventure game of this type. It makes sense of a lot of the sort of adventure-game activity that that you just have to pretend not to notice in most games. If a detective spends most of his investigation driving back and forth through the same six locations, re-asking people the same trivial questions, and visiting places to just scrutinize the furniture and then leave without having learned anything, it seems wrong. But this kind of repeated failure is part of the alchemist archetype, as is the unshakable faith that there is a solution, if only you can find it.

When you perform a ritual, you can generally tell when it’s going wrong. Each step produces a visible effect. If you’re doing it right, components dissolve, liquids clarify or change color, powders cling to substrates, mysterious inscriptions appear on the surfaces of things. Effects are vivid and definite. Whereas rituals done ineffectively, with the wrong components or with the wrong environmental influences, produce weak effects: the glyphs lack definition, the powders fall off and blow away, the liquids congeal into oily sludge. Even the incantations have alternate descriptions that let you know that they’re not generating the intended influences on the operation. This means there’s a bit of excitement when you do an experimental ritual correctly after repeated failure and see each step along the way happening the way it should.

Anyway, I’m pleased that experimentation of this sort is becoming a large part of the game again. In my first post, I talked about how it tutorializes the possibility of altering recipes, but after you’ve done that in the game’s first puzzle, you can go for a very long time without doing it again. For a while, I was thinking that it was a fluke, never to be repeated, and that, contrary to my initial impression, the rest of the rituals in the game were going to consist of simply following directions, the challenge being made by directions that are unclear or incomplete, requiring you to seek additional information elsewhere. And there’s certainly a great deal of that still going on, and that alone can produce a significant “Aha!” factor, when you realize that the “passive sealing” referenced in one ritual is defined in another, or that you actually do have multiple items capable of exerting a fiery influence. But there’s a whole extra level of “Aha!” when you’re not just performing the rituals handed to you, but proactively thinking of what rituals you need but don’t have. It engages with their content in an entirely different way, turns it from “What does alchemy want from me?” to “What do I want from alchemy?”

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