Now and again, a game comes around whose experience is so vulnerable to spoiling, that it seems merely whispering a single detail could annihilate sales. Reviewers and enthusiasts who would ordinarily wax lyrical about a beloved game find themselves in the awkward position of trying to recommend the game without, uh, mentioning what it's about. You've probably heard of Alexander Martin's Starseed Pilgrim, right? Or maybe you haven't, considering we're not supposed to talk about it. Shhhhh.
But what if something exists beyond those spoilers, something else that we should talk about?
Michael Brough’s Kompendium is a suite of nine competitive two-player games released to little fanfare two years ago. I'd heard good things about it, but only recently played it for the first time. It doesn't need controllers as players duke it out on the same keyboard. I can confirm Kompendium is clever, crafty fun but there’s something special in its design which gives me pause about whether I should tell you anything more about the games themselves.
The thing that makes Kompendium a bit different is that it doesn't really care about whether first-time players understand what to do. In some cases, the instructions are borderline gibberish. Behold, an image example!
Some games explain themselves pretty quickly and the players will have no need to recall the instructions. But others are like the ruins of an ancient civilization and you'll be struggling to divine understanding from what unfolds on the screen. I remember talking with my friend Gregg about what he remembered of the instructions of “Ora et Labora” because it seemed kind of pertinent. Here is what Ora et Labora looks like.
We were locked in a duel with unknown rules – so we talked rather than competed, exchanging theories about what we were supposed to do. Even though each game in Kompendium is a fight to the win, the ambiguity of its rules means players often start out in a cooperative struggle against a common enemy: the opaque system.
Of course, there’s a dangerous point after this where the fog lifts more quickly for one player than the other and they acquire the knowledge to win. I figured out “March Eternal” before Gregg did and had to consider whether to explain to him what I had figured out. I considered it and then I destroyed him. That underhand upper hand wouldn’t last of course and eventually I educated him on what I had learnt, feeling pretty pleased with myself. There’s a question mark, then, over whether that “cooperative” phase is actually a race to see who can attain enlightenment first.
Sure, all multiplayer games involve a struggle of improving skills and figuring out tactics, but Kompendium is more like being given two bats, a net and a ball and being told to work out Tennis as the umpire keeps score of your floundering about in the rules-space.
If I told you how my favourite Kompendium game plays, I would be robbing you of the joy of unravelling Kompendium's rules with a friend. That’s the kind of thing that was written about Starseed Pilgrim in article after article. (Except for John Walker's I Cannot Figure Out What To Do In Starseed Pilgrim.) Reviewers were clearly in some distress trying not to tell you anything about the game or its final goal. I wrote a non-spoilery something about it myself at the time, to partially lampoon the art of the reviewless review, but then I followed up with the ultimate death by spoiler: everything you wanted to know about Starseed Pilgrim but didn’t know who the Hell to ask.
It's possible that long-time readers will sense something a little Groundhog Day at this point and that's because a little-known writer called Kieron Gillen brought this up on Rock Paper Shotgun four bloody years ago. He pointed out that revealing how certain mechanics work can negatively impact the experience for the first-time player. He had no fast answers about what constitutes a spoiler that reviewers should walk away from, although ended on this note: “If you’re writing a buyers guide, I’ll urge writers to bear in mind – if only in a passing thought – that people still have to play the game after reading your review.”
Obviously revealing the story of games that are principally about story is a bad thing. If I tell potential players the story of David T. Marchand’s When Acting as a Wave or where everybody went in Gone Home, I'm no doubt going to wipe out the motivation to play those games.
It's also clear cut when the very rule-fabric of the game is a spoiler like in Ian MacLarty’s short jam game Booot. But there's life in both Starseed Pilgrim and Kompendium beyond the spoiler. Knowledge does not destroy those games.
The thing about Starseed Pilgrim is that so much word-blood was shed over trying not to spoil the experience of exploration that little was devoted to what happened next. At times, Pilgrim makes a player feel like they’re inventing arbitrary goals, like it’s the player’s own game. That’s all very special and the more I spoil, the more I take those moments away from you. But once you've figured out what Starseed Pilgrim expects you to do, your goal switches from exploring its systems to mastering them.
Yes, it turns out the biggest secret of Pilgrim is that it is a difficult, brutal game. I came close to calling it quits many, many times for fear that it was going to bring on a cerebral haemorrhage. It's arguable that I spent more hours trying to defeat it than exploring it. In this light, a review that described Pilgrim purely as a game of wonder and gardening would be incomplete. Beyond the spoilers is something else.
Now let's turn back to Kompendium. What do you think happens once two players have figured it all out? Do they walk away bored and consider the game “finished”? If Kompendium is only interesting when players are exploring its systems, then I should label it more of a mystery a la Terry Cavanagh's At A Distance rather than a “two-player competitive game”. But the truth is Kompendium is more than mystery.
I think in cases like these where secrets give way to systems that are challenging to master, it's okay to spoil a little here and there. Even more so in the case of Kompendium – because veteran players will want to introduce the game to fresh blood and it's going to be impossible to let that new player wrestle with mystery while the veteran wins every game.
I feel quite comfortable telling you “Chang Chang” was my favourite game of the pack, best described as speed chess, except that some pieces have orientations, you can move them anywhere you want, the piece you get to move is chosen randomly and the board is a lot bigger than 8x8. Oh, and you can't move through your opponent's laser beams. Pretty much speed chess, though.
I used to despair at any spoiler and was never particularly happy with writers arguing that we were all so post-spoiler in the age of the permanent electronic connection. But I'm mellowing in my old age. As long no one reveals who dies in the next series of Game of Thrones or the existence of Kompendium's secret tenth game, then I think we're okay.