I recently played The Room. My son is currently obsessed with it. On its face it seems to be a puzzle game, but as I played with it, I realized that it was actually something quite different. It's a discovery game.
The setup is this. There is a finely crafted safe sitting in an otherwise empty room. Sitting on top of the safe is a note giving you a bit of a narrative push. You're off. You work various ornate mechanisms to obtain access to the safe. Once inside, you reveal even more ornate mechanisms. This pattern continues until you begin to question the internal volume of the original safe. New stuff just keeps popping out of these contraptions. Clearly there are some tardis-like shenanigans going on here.
What struck me as interesting while playing it was that there doesn’t seem to be any actual puzzles in this “puzzle” game. Nothing makes you think very hard, or reason out a solution to a problem. The methods of opening, cranking, or manipulating each of the devices are handed to you. If you manage to get hung up for more than a few seconds on any device, the games hint system will just flat out tell you what to do next. The game succeeds or fails based only on discovery.
It got me thinking about a lot of other games or game systems that use discovery to keep you playing. I did what I usually do when something like this strikes me, I combed the internet for articles written by smarter people than me. Turns out that studying the effects of novelty (novelty seems to be the commonly accepted term) on brain chemistry is pretty popular. Novelty, or discovery, drives our dopamine production in a big way. Novelty seeking behaviors, and maybe full on novelty addiction, seems to be hardwired into us. If I had to guess, I would think that novelty addiction doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone reading this. You are, after all, reading this on the internet, which is, more or less, a novelty factory.
The word addiction brings up a lot of negative connotations. I suppose you could say that people are addicted to conversation and social interaction, since we don’t actually require them to survive, but most of us would suffer from severe mental and physical withdrawal if they were taken from us. Novelty, it seems, is of similar importance. Our brains reward us for doing things that are good for us, like eating, by producing dopamine. You know what else causes our brain to produce dopamine? Discovering new things. Novelty.
I’ll extrapolate a bit. Learning new things makes us happy.
So here we have a game, that challenges the player in no real way, and yet, is compulsive as hell. There are a lot of other games that incorporate discovery as one of it’s systems. Usually, games will oscillate between a discovery phase, early exploration in civ for example, and a strategy phase, like dealing with your cities in civ. The Room does away with any other phases and focuses only on discovery, or novelty. And it works.
So what did I learn? I’m not exactly sure. Investigation is ongoing, but I do know that I will be considering discovery as game mechanic from now on.