Jan 14, 2022 - Technology

A museum of virtual lockpicks

Screenshot of a sene from a video game showing an old lock mechanism
Museum of Mechanics: Lockpicking showcasing the lockpicking system from Thief 4. Screenshot: Dim Bulb Games

An unusual new PC game this week features more than two dozen recreations of other games’ approaches to virtual lockpicking.

Driving the news: Museum of Mechanics: Lockpicking, which can be completed in about 30 minutes, lets players move through a virtual museum where each exhibit is a playable lockpicking system.

  • Some parts, recreated from such games as Splinter Cell and Risen 2, require players to fiddle with a lockpick to manipulate a tumbler.
  • Others are more abstract. For example: the lockpicking in 2007’s Mass Effect, which plays more like a circular game of Frogger.

What they’re saying: The interactive museum was created first and foremost to help game developers, its lead creator Johnnemann Nordhagen tells Axios in an interview.

  • "Something like this could help someone, maybe sometime in the future," he says.
  • Nordhagen says developers working on familiar concepts often want to check how older games handled those concepts first.
  • But doing so requires hunting for YouTube videos of the right moments or playing stacks of games. That is time-consuming and makes comparisons difficult.

Between the lines: Nordhagen conceived the game in mid-2020 as he was doing contract work on a story-driven game and found himself wishing there was an easy way to check how older games implemented interactive dialogue.

  • He saw a games journalist float the idea of an interactive museum showcasing various games’ implementation of fishing.
  • He was inspired and decided to make some sort of playable museum in his spare time.
  • "I chose lock picking," he says. "It seemed like there were only a few games that did it." (He’d soon discover he was wrong.)

Making the game with a small team has turned Nordhagen into an unofficial video game lockpicking expert.

  • He can cite trends, like how game designers gradually switched from lockpicking systems geared toward mouse and keyboard controls to ones made for controllers.
  • He has inferred designer intent, noticing that the simple lockpicking mini-game in the classic Thief adds tension by keeping the player exposed and still in a game in which you want to be hidden or on the move.
  • The toughest lockpicking system he’s found may be from 1980s computer game Hillsfar, which involves matching key shapes while racing a fast timer.

A more personal goal: Nordhagen says he is trying to be more relaxed about this game's release, paying less attention to immediate sales and reviews after years of hard work. 

  • "With any game launch, it's unavoidable to sort of have part of yourself bound up in it, and to take it personally to an extent," he said.
  • His previous indie release, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, struggled, but even if it had been a huge success, Nordhagen says, he wanted to change his approach.
  • He wanted to detach his ego from the project, or at least see if that was possible. "Is it possible to sort of divorce myself from my work in a way that shelters me a little bit more?"

What’s next: After toiling as an indie developer for several years, Nordhagen is returning to big budget game development with a job at Ubisoft.

  • He’s unsure if he’ll be permitted to continue adding lockpicks, but he hopes others will make museums of their own or even expand his game.
  • He’s released the source code on Github so other designers can have at it.
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