Once I believed that games like Nigoro’s La Mulana are all about innate skill and twitch reflexes. Now I’m convinced the demands of such games are primarily psychological. Granted, established videogame vocabulary is an important barrier of entry, but perhaps more important is sheer force of will and a simple willingness to sign up. Like Dwarf Fortress, La Mulana expects and rewards devotion. It embraces the obscure and the difficult. It asks you to learn a set of skills completely, backwards and forwards, like you would a close friend or potential love interest. It wants you to fight the queasy apprehension mortality plants in our bellies, to resist the voice that tells us we must play, see, watch, read, hear everything, but there’s so little time. La Mulana wants you to slow down. It isn’t needy. It doesn’t crave your approval. If you’re not willing to make time for La Mulana, then it isn’t interested in you.
So let’s borrow some time and look at level design.
La Mulana drops you off in a village with a sharp, retro color palette, full of wild greens and foreboding blue-blacks. The game quickly establishes that it’s not the sort of side-scrolling love letter that makes you travel in one direction. It’s the other kind. Ghostly translucent villagers pace with pots on their heads. A pink child gleefully sprints the width of the screen. You can go right, or you can go left.
La Mulana teaches without tutorials. It will devise devious tricks for you later, but your first lessons are straightforward. You’ll learn that pots drop coins, just as soon as you take the initiative to break some pots. Shortly thereafter, you’ll unmask exactly three coin-holding pots in the entire jungle. The first sits one screen to your immediate left. The second waits another two screens over. The third lies back to the far right, up a few ladders, at the edge of some rapids that whisper like amplified static.
Pots drop coins in tens, so you’ve now got thirty coins in your possession. A glance at the village shops reveals that’s enough to buy almost nothing. A map costs exactly thirty coins. For twenty coin, you can afford a tool that resembles a firearm and bears the ambiguous label of “hand-scanner.” Another ten will buy you a floppy disk thing called a “Game Master.” Two mysterious objects are better than one boring map, you wisely reason, so you forgo the map and head for the bargain bin. A quick scan of the manual tells you what your new toys can do: save the game, read signs and examine corpses.
The coins you collected in the jungle don’t respawn like they do in the ruins, so their number resonates. La Mulana expects you to spend the coin before you enter the ruins, providing you with just enough currency to purchase a handful of modern amenities most games take for granted. La Mulana reduces literacy and observation to peripheral objects and makes you an active participant in narrative exposition. Reading and looking around are abilities you have to earn, just like opening locked doors or throwing knives or breathing underwater. But these tools appear early enough so they accompany you for the majority of the game. La Mulana’s gods are harsh, but not cruel.
The screen above teaches you two of La Mulana’s most important lessons: momentum and anticipation. The area contains four different levels of elevation, each one split by gaps. The small gap in the bottom left is narrow enough to encourage you to jump straight up, adjusting your momentum in mid-air. La Mulana is unlike Mighty Jill Off, in that a jump of this kind is atypical. The heavy controls make it difficult and impractical to adjust from a static position once you’re in the air, but you need to learn that this is possible, and sometimes necessary, to get through later puzzles. While the gaps teach you to move, those slithering sky-blue snakes school you in the art of war. Like many other enemies in the game, they speed up when they get close. Your whip attack, like your jump, is slow and deliberate. You’ll have to sneak up behind the snakes or anticipate their moment of acceleration and time your strike. Frantic button-mashing won’t suffice. The auditory cues help with timing, as well, as the harsh swoosh of an empty strike vividly contrasts the muffled explosion of an attack that connects.
The above entrance to the ruins offers advanced lessons. The arrangement of the bird enemies forces you to consider every mechanism in the attack motion. As you climb the ladder and reach a horizontal plane equal to the bird at your far right, the bird is gonna pull a GIRP and dive bomb yo leprechaun-lookin ass. Meanwhile, the above bird shuffles slightly to the left, leisurely blocking your ascent. As the far right bird approaches, you feel a sense of urgency. You want to get off that ladder, but the lethargic guardian above blocks the way. You can’t jump from the ladder and you don’t want to climb down, so your only option is to experiment with the whip. You could try to intercept the attack, but the bird moves too quickly. After a few tries and some blind thrashing, you might notice a vertical wind-up that precedes the usual horizontal whip motion. By placing yourself at the top of the ladder and facing to the left, you can easily dispatch the above bird simply by striking at nothingness, then climb to safety just as the other bird reaches the ladder. The birds teach you that every part of the whip motion is relevant. You can’t directly swing upward, but you can use the pre-attack animation as an indirect, vertical attack.
After dispatching those foul fowls, you can concentrate on breaching the entrance. If you’re anything like me, your first attempt will prove unsuccessful. Since the gap between the middle platform and the space next to the front column is so narrow, you might be inclined to simply fall forward. But the game doesn’t allow you to adjust momentum while falling. Even if you just need to move slightly forward to reach a lower platform, you have to start with upward momentum. This lesson in videogame logic affects leaping trajectory for the rest of the game. Falling is helplessness. Forward movement is only allowed if you jump first. Avoid careless plunges.
The jungle on the surface presents temporary boundaries to entice you with promises of further exploration. To the far left of the map lurks a hulking blue giant that you can dispatch after obtaining a certain item. To the far right flow rapids that drain your health. Visual cues, like the old man’s hut next to the giant and a bird suspiciously hovering above the rapids, hint at secrets that can only be uncovered by plunging the depths.