I haven’t been to a proper museum in a long time — it’s been solidly on the list of activities I felt were inadvisable during a global pandemic. But even when I visited museums on the regular, I’d never been to one quite like Johnnemann Nordhagen’s Museum of Mechanics: an interactive museum built in a video game to showcase a specific type of game mechanic. In this case: lockpicking.
Nordhagen has a heck of a resume behind him: he’s been a QA tester for Sony, worked on the PC port of BioShock 1, and served as a programmer on BioShock 2 and The Bureau: XCOM Declassified before leaving 2K to co-found Fullbright Studios in Portland, where he helped make Gone Home. He then returned to the Bay Area and founded Dim Bulb Games, where his team made Where the Water Tastes Like Wine.
But after Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, Nordhagen’s list of big projects hit a bit of a lull. He did some contract work for other indies, and put together some prototypes to pitch to publishers, but didn’t get anything accepted. During this time, he saw the following tweet from journalist Nat Clayton:
A virtual museum of fishing mechanics
— nat clayton, space mom (@its_natclayton) June 22, 2020
And Nordhagen replied:
OK this is a brilliant idea, but I want to see it for all common game mechanics. A museum of conversation mechanics. A museum of lockpicking. Hacking. Crafting. This would be incredibly useful for developers https://t.co/fRmsd0Bff4
— Johnnemann 🌹 (@johnnemann) June 22, 2020
At the time, one of Nordhagen’s contract projects tasked him with building a conversation system, a process which involved a lot of research into other games’ conversation systems to learn what made them good. Clayton’s tweet began to stick in his head, and he eventually felt compelled to make an interactive museum as a side project. Of the options in Clayton’s tweet, Nordhagen settled on lockpicking because it was “relatively constrained” in terms of the types of games that include it (largely stealth, immersive sims and RPGs) and most systems could be mimicked with a simple, flat user interface that was easy enough to manipulate and make assets for.
Nordhagen’s museum was, initially, just for him and any fellow developers who might find it interesting. But as the museum kept growing, multiple people encouraged him to spruce it up and sell it on Steam. Nordhagen eventually hired artists to replace his programmer art, telling me he felt compelled to “make it a real game.”
He then laughs, recalling discourse around Gone Home, and acknowledges that the definition of a “real game” is a fluid one. “[Museum of Mechanics] is a work with a purpose, and that purpose is different from most games’ purposes, even the weird ones.”
Nordhagen’s description is apt. His museum is, aside from its virtuality, very much like what I would expect from a pleasant afternoon visit to any real-world interactive museum. It consists of multiple long halls filled with different lockpicking exhibits, organized by genre. I can try out approximations of the lockpicking mechanics in everything from Dungeons & Dragons (yes, just a dice roll) to Thief to Skyrim to Mass Effect. Each includes exhibit cards with insight and explanations as to how the mechanics work and tidbits about the game they’re from. I can also, if I’m feeling brave, try the looming door at the front of the museum that serves as a challenge gauntlet of continuously changing locks from across the entire museum. I’m bad at it, but it’s a fun showcase of the sheer lockpicking variety on display.
None of the locks look precisely like the systems I remember, of course. That’s because they’ve all been approximated by Nordhagen, who did not work on any of the games in question and obviously couldn’t just borrow their code or art. But for him, figuring out the puzzle of how the locks were made was part of the thrill of making Museum of Mechanics, and ultimately, he believes, made him better at game making.
“It felt like good practice, especially as I was trying to exercise my design muscles more, was to look at these games and the ways they have done them, and sit down and think, ‘How well does this work? What is this game trying to accomplish by putting this minigame in here? How well does it fit in with the rest of the game? How well does it accomplish what I think they were trying to do? How quickly can I look at something someone else has done and make the same thing, roughly, in Unity?'”
If you just want to learn really quickly how to make games, try to implement Frogger. The very first thing you’ll find out is that this is way harder than it seems.
In fact, Nordhagen suggests a similar strategy for anyone new to development who wants to take a crack at making their own games.
“Forget the difficult things of trying to invent your own ideas,” he says. “If you just want to learn really quickly how to make games, try to implement Frogger. Try to implement some other classic arcade game from the 80s. The very first thing you’ll find out is that this is way harder than it seems like it would be…but if you can do that, and especially if you can finish it, you’ve learned a bunch of useful skills. Not just programming and how to move a frog around, but how to finish a project and how to release things, how to document, all the steps that go into making a game.”
Of course, Nordhagen learned more than just development skills from Museum of Mechanics. Obviously, he learned a lot about video game lockpicking. He tells me he was surprised at the sheer number of lockpicking games out there — he has a spreadsheet to keep track of which games he has and hasn’t implemented. He was also caught off-guard by the types of games he found lockpicking in beyond immersive sims, especially that there was an entire genre of puzzle games that included it (such as Testament of Sherlock Holmes). He was also fascinated by the selection of digital locks in games like Mass Effect, which he suggests is more like hacking than proper lockpicking but still got a spot in the museum.
Deeper than that though, Nordhagen has come to understand the ways in which lockpicking is about selling players on a fantasy: you can break into something, steal what you want, and be a sneaky thief. It also adds friction to games, gates off content players aren’t meant to reach just yet or need certain skills to reach, and can tie in with in-game economies depending on what’s behind those locked doors and how much you can sell it for.
Nordhagen notes that Museum of Mechanics was originally intended for fellow developers to learn from, so prospective players should temper their expectations. It seems obvious, perhaps, but he emphasizes that this really is a game for people who specifically find the idea of trying out a virtual museum of lockpicking mechanics interesting. “This is small, this is niche, your expectations going into this should not be that this is similar to other games you’ve gotten. This is its own experience.”
I ask him if its status as a virtual museum had made him think of it as a form of game preservation, too, and Nordhagen’s response is full of nuance.
It acts like a container for some experiences that you may not be able to have.
“I think it makes older games accessible in some ways,” he says. “I think it exposes people to games they wouldn’t have necessarily encountered. It acts like a container for some experiences that you may not be able to have. On the other hand, I think context is really important for a lot of this stuff, and this is not at all an attempt to capture the totality of playing one of these games and encountering lockpicking in it.
“I also obviously took none of the assets and none of the code from any of these games. It’s all just made up from my own head. So I wouldn’t want to claim that ‘This is exactly how Wolfenstein’s lockpicking works.’ No, this is just the way I interpreted it. In a way it ties back to Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. The lockpicking is the original stories, and I’m telling a folktale of those. Storytelling is preservation, but I wouldn’t go to the Video Game History Foundation and say I preserved these things, because I don’t know that I have.”
The title “Museum of Mechanics” with a colon after it seems to presume that there might be more down the road, and Nordhagen acknowledges he’d love to do a museum around hacking mechanics, the aforementioned conversation systems, or even the most popular ask, fishing. But he can’t for now: he’s just been hired at Ubisoft Stockholm as a technical narrative designer, so personal moneymaking projects are off the table. He’s glad he was able to release Museum of Mechanics before he took the job, though, and “get one last thing out under the wire.”
That doesn’t mean it has to be the end of Museum of Mechanics, though. Nordhagen has released the source code for the Museum on GitHub, and wants to encourage others to take on similar projects if it’s of interest.”
When I started this project I hoped that other people would take up the torch of making Museum of Mechanics, because I know that I don’t have the time or energy or frankly desire to cover every mechanic that’s ever been done in video games,” he says. “Hopefully someone will play it on Steam and decide to make their own Museum of Mechanics about something else.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.