Tell Me Lies

La-Mulana and the art of faking it.

By: Jason Johnson

Filed Under: Editorial Indie Psychological


Last Thursday, the Spanish publisher EnjoyUp released La-Mulana for Wii, a tough game about a whip-cracking archaeologist, not unlike Indiana Jones. The remake of the legendary Japanese indie game was announced for the West way back in 2010, but the original publisher dragged its feet. It sucked that publisher went back on its word, but broken promises come with the territory. So do a lot of lies.

The irony is, La-Mulana itself is a lesson in being lied to. As I made my way through its Sumerian ruins protected by arrow traps and angry goats, I was repeatedly tricked into a false sense of security, when in fact I was one step away from death. Yes, it was annoying, but the tricks of La-Mulana taught me that the truth is seriously overrated.

Before getting into how the game lies, I’ll be honest. If you have a low threshold for self-loathing, La-Mulana might not be for you. There are more than enough devilish platformers with adorable characters in the world, a genre I compare to teddy bears with needles in them. And La-Mulana has influenced almost every single one. When it was originally released as freeware in 2005, indie games weren’t even a thing. Derek Yu cites it as an inspiration for Spelunky. Likewise, the devious Fez, which the New York Times called “a Finnegans Wake of video games,” owes a lot to its booby-trapped mines. But La-Mulana lacks the economy of Phil Fish’s design. Its twisting corridors branch in dizzying directions, and the game refuses to tell you which way to go. It took me an hour of getting nowhere before I came around to googling a FAQ, only to find, to my dismay, that there weren’t any.

What I appreciate most about La-Mulana is that it lies to me. That might sound like an odd thing to say. Who likes being lied to––especially by a video game? Games are about figuring out what to do, and then doing it. Here, that strategy will backfire on you. The game has a way of convincing you to make the wrong move. One time, the path I was following came to a drop-off, so I jumped down––right into a spike pit. It’s as if La-Mulana was programmed by deviants with no ethical code. (I can just picture a snide Japanese teenager smirking as he designed the traps that kept dumping me into hot lava.) The silver lining is that there are hints scrawled on the walls of just about every room, but they seem to purposely misguide you. (The other possibility is that whoever wrote the hints doesn’t know English very well.)

I must admit that I find such dishonesty refreshing. Games are typically more trustworthy than Abe Lincoln and a St. Bernard combined. And even if they bend the rules, I know when they are bluffing. For instance, I Wanna Be The Guy: The Movie: The Game, a hack created from old NES games, would be clinically diagnosed as a pathological liar. There is never any doubt in my mind that I am being lied to. It’s like listening to Mitt Romney. The same goes for Portal. By now, who doesn’t know that the robots of Aperture Science are lying through their artificial larynxes? I nod along and grin and say, “Okay, sure. I believe you,” like talking to my friend who always has the most amazing nights at the bar, which somehow involves doing coke with a midget, when I’m not there.

But La-Mulana is a good liar. I’m never quite sure when to take its word. A switch on the ground could open a treasure chest, or it could drop a crate of snakes on my head. As a result, I’m scanning the screen for anything suspicious. Each point of interaction becomes a possible lie. It’s like having a conversation, when sincere thoughts quickly become a meta-game of successive lie detector tests. A flag goes up, and then you’re analyzing every other word for inconsistencies. Meanwhile, the liar begins to suspect you are onto the little white lie, and is trying hard to change the subject, or scrambling to explain it away with a bigger lie. Lies make us think on our feet and arrest our attention. They can also be manipulative (rhetoric), entertaining (the big-fish story), and fun (bullshitting).

The truth is, I’m in favor of lies. Games don’t lie enough. I want them to explore a new frontier in telling lies. I want to look my Wii straight in the face and tell it that the reason I haven’t been using it is not because the Xbox has been taking up my spare time. I want someone to figure out a way for the game to not know what button I’m pressing, so that I have to think about whether it is aware of my next move. I want Super Sonic to tell me he’ll call me the next day, and leave me falling asleep by the phone.

In short, I want to be lied to more often. Let’s hope La-Mulana is the beginning of a revolution in dishonesty and lies.

Filed Under: Editorial Indie Psychological

About the Author:
Jason Johnson is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Gamasutra, Unwinnable, GameSetWatch, FingerGaming, WSJ Speakeasy, and The Guide to Classic Graphic Adventures. He owns 27 Sun Ra albums.

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