Three Things Other Games Can Learn from Secrets of Rætikon
Note: The following contains somewhat mild spoilers for Secrets of Rætikon, a game that centers on exploration and discovery.
Secrets of Rætikon (referred to as Secrets of Raetikon throughout this article for the sake of convenience) is a 2D open world platformer in which players must collect glowing triangles and deposit them in large stone sculptures in order to make a beautiful world unveil its secrets. If this sounds boring, that’s because on its own, it would be- Secrets could’ve just been a boring fetch-quest, but as its title implies, there are many wonderful secrets lurking beneath the surface of the game.
In Secrets, you play as a mysterious winged creature- a bird of some sort, it seems. You’re in the Alps- a gorgeous, atmospheric, mountainous realm surrounded by a vibrant natural world full of danger and mystery and excitement- there’s no dialogue, but a story of sorts unfolds as you play. While the game is in some ways aesthetically and thematically comparable to Shelter, ultimately it sets itself apart with a unique visual style and original story.
Here are three things that other games can learn from Secrets of Raetikon.
1. A Little Effort For a Unique Aesthetic Goes a Long Way
That unique aesthetic mentioned earlier is part of what initially drew my attention to Secrets of Raetikon- it’s the reason I remembered throughout its development. In between my having heard of Secrets and its final release, I was very busy with many games. The game stuck with me, though- I kept thinking back to “that nature game that looked like a Picasso”.
Not only are the game’s distinct graphics particularly memorable, but the setting itself is rather uncommon as well- a metroidvania set in the Alps in which you play a bird- that’s different. The lesson? A unique look can go a long way to make a game stand out. If you’re a developer, I’m not saying to give up on your 8-bit dungeon-crawling roguelike- what I am saying is that by investing in a unique look for your game, you’ll imprint it in the minds of people who see it. There’s nothing wrong with simple, 8-bit characters- they can be used successfully with a unique aesthetic for stunning results. Realistically speaking though, without a creative approach, forgettable visuals can result in a forgettable trailer and screenshots and will result in a game that’s forgotten before it comes out because it looks like everything else.
For instance, take a look at The Testament of the White Cypress- at the time of my writing this article, the game had been put on Steam Greenlight rather recently. It’s a project I had been following, however, for several months prior. The game itself is unfinished- much like Secrets was when I found it. Still, it’s a project that caught my attention with its unique look alone- it made me want to see what the game was about. I’m not going to talk about gameplay here- you can check out my first impressions of the game in another article.
The lesson? While having worthwhile gameplay is critically important to the ultimate success of a game, a unique aesthetic can help make sure that a game is remembered by both players who love the game as well as onlookers who have yet to try. A unique aesthetic doesn’t need to be complicated- the art style of Superbrothers, for instance, is incredibly simple but extremely distinctive. Find something that works, and stick to it.
2. Less is More
The first part of Secrets of Raetikon enthralled me; I fell from the sky with no explanation, and with a few simple words was told what I could do and how to do it. Within moments I went from floundering about to soaring through the air, snatching rabbits away from the earth and seeking to piece together the mystery of the whole game.
The first level served as a tutorial not only to the game’s mechanics, but to the game’s spirit. The purpose of the first level, simply put, was to show me how to play the game, and a major aspect of Secrets is unprompted exploration. Secrets showed me that I can grab things in my claws- it did not tell me what I should pick up, however. I soon discovered that the strange, multicolored “rocks”, as I thought they were, were actually eggs.
I also discovered that the tall, skinny plants topped by thorns could be carefully plucked from the ground and made into weapons. I had a massive advantage over the vicious hawks that tried to dash me from the sky- taking up the thorny little stick was the smartest thing I could’ve done. Of course, with great power comes great responsibility- after fending off a particularly aggressive raven, I dropped the thorny stick from the sky. After looking to figure out where it landed, I soon discovered that I had accidentally caused a minor ecological disaster by killing a pond full of fish.
In Secrets of Raetikon, I discovered the mysteries of both life and death on my own.
This idea of “less is more” ties into the concept that game designers shouldn’t hold the hands of players. That’s not to say that players should always be dumped into game environments with no context or idea of what’s happening; what it does mean, however, is that it feels a lot more rewarding to discover things independently, and it’s a lot sadder to kill a pond full of fish with an irresponsible accident.
I don’t think I would’ve cared much about the fish if I was given some warning that dropping the thorny stick would’ve resulted in their untimely demises. I was being thoughtless, and they paid the price. I wasn’t punished, and I didn’t lose anything- I just felt kind of bad. In this case, the absence of a narrative around the fish allowed me to form my own which was simple and wordless but ultimately one of the most memorable moments of the game.
3. Create and Violate Expectations
As I played Secrets, I grew used to the idea that everything that wasn’t smaller than me was out to get me- this was after I was hit by hawks, chased by jackdaws and slain by a lynx on more than one occasion. I was certain of the fact that besides the tiny, harmless sparrows, I was alone in the beautiful, unforgiving alps.
Then, I found the foxes.
After navigating through a windy maze of thorns, I wound up in a very quiet place. Wounded from my excursion through the thorns, I soldiered on, uprooting saplings for health, and I stumbled upon the den of the foxes. A group of napping little foxes and the (massive) mother lay between me and the rest of the area. Gingerly, I kept going forward in spite of my injury; I managed not to let sleeping foxes lie. I snuck past without waking any of them. I made it through to the next area but, alas, Mama Fox’s great tail was blocking a little rocky alcove, within which was an important item!
I ran away, too scared to try and fight her and her little foxes. I navigated back through the gusty, thorny tunnel and sought out adventure elsewhere. I never forgot the foxes, though.
Eventually, I tried the foxes again. After getting past the thorns, I flew up to the first fox pop. It awoke and sat straight up, staring at me through a pair of piercing blue eyes. Boldly, I awoke the rest, and Mama Fox began to stir. I steeled myself for a, no, for the boss fight, and…
It never happened. Instead, she politely pulled her tail aside. Cautiously, I flew into the alcove, grabbed the glowing rune, and got out. And that was that.
Waking up foxes to make them do things doesn’t sound like an award winning game mechanic, but it violated my expectations of what the foxes would do. The game taught me to be scared of big creatures- the fox showed me that they wouldn’t all be bad.
This, I feel, is something that other games can take advantage of in other ways. I’m not sure of what the violation of an expectation in gameplay should be called- in storytelling, that sort of thing is referred to as a “plot twist”. While plot twists regularly occur in game narrative, gameplay itself could stand to see a few twists of its own. It doesn’t necessarily have to happen through unexpected mechanics- it can be subtle as a sleeping fox.
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