Object Oriented #01: Keys
Updated: Jul 15
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Games mentioned: Bioshock (Irrational Games, 2007); Castle Wolfenstein (Muse Software, 1981); Citadel (Superior Software, 1985); Deus Ex (Ion Storm, 2000); Dishonored 2 (Arkane Studios, 2016); Dizzy series (Oliver Twins, 1987 – 2020); Doom (id Software, 1993); Doom (id Software, 2016); Guacamelee! (Drinkbox Studios, 2014); Half-Life 2 (Valve, 2004); Hitman series (IO Interactive, 2000 onwards); Hollow Knight (Team Cherry, 2017); Machinarium (Amanita Design, 2009); Metal Gear Solid (Konami, 1998); Prey (Arkane Studios, 2017); Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (FromSoftware, 2020); Spelunky (Mossmouth, 2012); Super Metroid (Nintendo R&D1, 1994); The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (Bethesda Game Studios, 2002); The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011); The Pharaoh’s Curse (Synapse Software, 1983); The Secret of Monkey Island (Lucasfilm Games, 1990); The Witness (Thekla, Inc, 2016); Thief: The Dark Project (Looking Glass Studios, 1998); Zork (Infocom, 1980).
Welcome to the first entry in a new series about exploring videogames through objects. Born from the getObject podcast, Object Oriented emerges out of a conviction that objects can be used as a powerful lens through which to think about what makes games work, how we interact with them, and the ways that they reflect elements of our culture, society and politics.
Starting with keys as a way into this series is perhaps a little too on the nose, but I promise I haven’t picked it as our first object so I can talk about it “opening the door on the series” or “unlocking our understanding of videogame objects”. I’ve chosen keys because this is an object that allows us to take a broad overview on an object and it’s relation to games over time, which I hope, will be a nice way of easing in before we delve into specifics and get a little more focused in articles to come. Different objects will require different approaches, so expect this series to shift as we move through it. I hope you enjoy the approach I’ve taken here and that you'll follow along to see where Object Oriented goes next. Enjoy!
SECRETS & TRANSGRESSIONS
When I was a child, I had a key that I used to play with. I didn’t know what the key was for and that, of course, was part of the appeal. It had an ornate, curved handle. It was old. A key like that could only be for something important. For something magical. I had read The Secret Garden. I knew there were such hidden things that could be unlocked.
My attraction to that key, my fantasies about what a key like that could represent, was at least in part down to me being influenced by the prevalence and power of the key as a symbolic object in our culture. It’s resonances with the hidden, the unknown, the forbidden, the valuable, the stolen, the dangerous. The secret that hides behind the lock. The unmistakable allure of these concepts perhaps helps to explain why keys have been such a prominent part of videogames throughout their history: early text adventures like Zork featured keys, UK readers might remember them from BBC Micro title Citadel, The Pharaoh's Curse on the Commodore 64 would have you hunting for keys in caves, they’re in Castle Wolfenstein on the Atari 2600, the Dizzy games, Deus Ex, Thief, Spelunky, Skyrim and Prey.
As my former getObject co-host Rosie remarked, we can also explain their prominence by considering our position in the virtual worlds we visit. We are often placed in the role of interloper; the keys we use are never ours – they are stolen, found, bought, or borrowed. We are Agent 47, finding ways into private spaces we should not be in in Hitman, the outsider arriving on an island in Morrowind, a survivor stumbling into an unknown dystopia in Bioshock, an agent behind enemy lines in Metal Gear Solid. Our role as trespasser, infiltrator, invader, aggressor, necessarily brings us into contact with locked doors. The key is a device for transgression in these places we are not supposed to be. An expression and enhancement of our role as interloper, letting us go deeper into the forbidden. How delightfully appealing.
DEATH OF THE KEY
Though keys exist across the span of videogame history, that doesn’t mean the way they have been used has remained consistent. The changing relationship of the key to the videogame environments you can find them in tells us a lot about how games, and our expectations around them, have changed over time. We can find an example that encapsulates this shift perfectly in the evolution of the first-person shooter.
Keys are vital to the structure of 1993’s Doom. Levels feature up to three coloured key cards – yellow, red and blue – which open locked doors of the corresponding colour. These locked doors provide a way of slowing your progress and forcing you to move through other parts of the level to find the necessary key. These keys are placed in a way that makes little logical sense: they are hidden behind secret walls, or placed on plinths surrounded by toxic waste. This is a reflection of the game’s attitude more broadly when it comes to its fictional setting. There are some gestures to the idea that you are supposed to be on a secret research base on Mars, as the game’s paper-thin plot dictates, but the space is not structured in such a way as to make that convincing. Developer id Software is not concerned with hiding the fact that you are guiding your characters through videogame levels. The way the game uses keys are just another way in which this is laid bare. That keycards are a tool that structures your experience of the level is always abundantly clear. We do not believe, nor are we asked to, that there is good fictional justification for them to be there, or for them to be found in places that makes logical sense. Players at this time did not necessarily have those expectations; we all knew we were in a videogame level and we all knew that the keys exist solely as an excuse to block our progress and make us go looking for them.
Fast-forward the release of Half-life 2 in 2004 and priorities have changed completely. Where Doom’s spaces are transparently videogames levels, Half-Life 2 does everything it can to make you forget that fact. City 17 is supposed to feel like a real place. It draws on real-life architecture and urban planning. You are in apartment buildings, town squares, train stations, laid out like those places would be in real-life, as opposed to the surreal and illogically-intricate labyrinthine corridors of Doom.
Where are the keys? Interestingly, they are nowhere to be found. I would suggest that this is because Half-Life 2 is invested in hiding its seams in a way that Doom is not. To confront you with locked doors and then force you to backtrack to find the key would risk drawing your attention to an underlying structure that would remind you that you are playing a videogame. It’s possible to find keys lost or hidden in real places, but common? No. Half-Life 2 can’t put you on a loop of finding keys and opening doors if it wants you to suspend your disbelief. It doesn’t what you to feel like you are being given tasks by the developer, or even being told where to go. Half-Life 2 prefers using design tricks to funnel you in the right direction, giving you the impression that you are in a space far more open than it really is, where you are under the false impression that you are making choices about where to go solely of your own volition, rather than finding the right way through a level.
Of course, there are still ‘keys’ of sorts – you need to find a heavy item to help you complete a physics puzzle, open a gate that’s blocking your hovercraft, pull out a plug to deactivate a forcefield. Half-Life 2, however, ensures that that there’s a variety that helps hide the joins and always tries to root its progress-blockers and progress-unlockers within the fictional context of the space you are in and the thing you are supposed to be doing there. It gives you narrative reasons to do these things. You need to find the resistance group, you need to save Eli. Not just open the locked door because you know that’s how you get to the end of the videogame level.
We are speaking in generalisations here and you can find exceptions to all these trends. However, I think it’s worth noting that the 2016 Doom reboot, a conscious attempt to return to elements of old-school first-person shooters, still paid heed to the design philosophies embodied in Half-Life 2, at least to some degree. Keycards make a return, but they felt far less integral to the experience and can now be discovered in contexts that make sense – on the bodies of deceased employees, in research facilities trying far harder to convince you that they are real places than in the game’s predecessors (I want to be clear that I am not suggesting this is inherently better, merely noting the difference).
In the early days of gaming, the key could do a lot of heavy lifting. A simple silhouette of a key is enough for us to understand what that object’s function is without the need for a tutorial. It served as an impetus to explore at a time where narrative was often lacking, stimulating our inherent curiosity about what was behind the door it opened. They were an easy way of providing structure at a time when games were necessarily sparse and small. A combination of a shift in design ethos and technological development has undercut all this. Games are detailed and complex enough to make all kinds of objects and interactions easily readable, and tutorialising is standard. Narrative hooks and environmental design are far more likely to be a factor pushing players to explore further than a key and lock. The same goes for a game’s structure. We typically expect our game environments to feel like real places and we also have the technical capacity to do that more easily. A videogame level littered with keys and locked doors is far less appealing. The key is very much out of fashion.
WHEN A KEY IS NOT A KEY
Of course, though keys may not be as common as they once where in games, they still exist – I’ve pinched them off the waists of guards in Dishonored 2 and I needed one to get to that fucking Ape in Sekiro. However, if we conceptualise the key as an object defined by its function, rather than as a copy of the real world object, then they have remained as prevalent as they always have been.
Adventure games, from Monkey Island to Machinarium, have long locked off the next area or bit of narrative with “keys” of sorts – there’s not really any functional difference between clicking on a key and using it on a lock or clicking on a rubber chicken and using it on a cable. Super Metroid, Guacamelee, Hollow Knight, and scores of other metroidvanias are full of locks and keys. They’ve just found a way of making them more interesting: the key is an ability which can be played with, no longer an object to be used passively on a locked door, but a verb that adds new possibilities to the way we interact with a game. It’s an uppercut that can be used to reach a higher platform or send an enemy soaring, or a cloak that helps us dash over previously uncrossable gaps and dodge attacks. It’s a key elegantly tied to the experience that a metroidvania is trying to create and all the more effective for it.
One of my favourite examples of “keys” in a “keyless” game is, I think, The Witness. In this puzzle game, primarily about drawing lines through mazes, shapes and signs change the rules of each puzzle. The “key” is your conceptualisation of what these shapes and signs mean, which can then be applied to successfully solving the puzzle and unlocking every-greater portions of the mysterious island the game is set on. In this instance, it’s not just that the key takes other forms; the key doesn’t exist in the game world as an object at all. Instead, the island offers only prompts that help the key slowly come into being in your own mind. The key is a moment of revelatory epiphany. A feeling, as well as the end of the mental process.
I close on this example of keys in a keyless game to say that if I seems like I have tried to suggest that the history of videogames is one of phasing out the key, then I want to offer a corrective. Even when it looks like they are absent, a bit of digging will show countless examples of videogames morphing them, obscuring them, recontextualising them. There are always going to be things that need to be unlocked.