“Explore Mandagon, a world inspired by Tibetan theology and philosophy. With a focus on life and death, discover what it means to make a true sacrifice…” – Mandagon’s store page on Steam
That sounds exciting, doesn’t it? Sounds like a video game I would write about. And available for free on Steam? Too good to be true! I just had to download and play Mandagon. The game is relatively easy to understand: you move your totem-block avatar through what I think is the most beautiful pixel-art landscape I have ever seen. This game is gorgeous.
It seems fairly straightforward: you find stone tablets to insert in the shrines, and in doing so unseal the big temple door. Along the way the player also finds several cryptic messages in a series of steles:
The mechanics are neat, especially the statues that enabled short-range flying. Other things like unlocking the elevators was just challenging enough to make it feel like a game without making it difficult. There are also lots of seemingly-significant symbols scattered throughout the world:
There is just one problem in all of this: I don’t get it. The game was a fun little diversion and I loved the art. But the world itself remains just as much a mystery to me as it did when I read the description before downloading. I suppose I might have been able to piece something together if I wrote down all the cryptic messages from the steles. But I without an in-game incentive it was hard to find enough determination to figure it out. I just cruised through the world and did what I was incentivized to do: get the tablets to break the seals to unlock the big fancy temple door. Where is the theology? Where is the philosophy? Perhaps over my head, perhaps I passed it by, but wherever those things were it didn’t hit me. I didn’t get my mind blown any more than I did when I played through Hook, another simple almost-free game I picked up looking for a simple diversion. It was peaceful, fun, then over.
This is one thing I hope to avoid in my own work: being too clever, too subtle, for my readers/players to get it. While I might strive to write a video game or a tabletop adventure for “everyone” I still have to remember that I can only reach people who come into the experience with a similar enough set of tropes in their mind. I found Mandagon to be good, but I lacked the context to be able to appreciate anything deeper than the simple game of matching the tablets to the shrines. Perhaps I will have to find some references, read up on Tibetan Buddhism, and try again. But for now, I still have to admit that I just don’t get it yet.
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