In Clive Thompson’s excellent book, Coders, he describes the earliest wave of computer programmers as paragons of radical openness. “When MIT authorities locked cabinets with equipment they needed to fix the computer, they studied lock picking and liberated the equipment,” Thompson wrote.
“The white-shirted, buzz-cut IBM types who had kept computers locked behind doors enraged them,” he continued. The hacker ethic, as Thompson describes it, believed that everyone should be able to access information and hardware freely. The more playful the usage of these tools, the better. These early tinkerers rebelled against university edicts to use a $120,000 piece of equipment for serious things, like solving complicated math problems. They wanted to make games instead.
Decades later, even as coding culture at large has become mainstream, video games themselves have kept that spirit of “freeing” resources alive, often in the most literal way possible. Games — which are constructed by programmers — often include lock-picking and hacking minigames, usually as a way to give players multiple ways to solve a problem. A lock in a game almost always means something is waiting inside. Much like spotting a waterfall, every lock you encounter in a video game is a temptation.
The ubiquity of locks means that a number of studios have designed their own takes on the mechanic, whether that’s an old-fashioned pin and tumblr situation, or a new-fangled digital gate. Video game developer Johnnemann Nordhagen, who has worked on Where The Water Tastes Like Wine, decided to commemorate the industry’s love of breaking into things through a digital museum that anyone can download and play. It’s called the Museum of Mechanics: Lockpicking, and it recreates lock-picking minigames from all sorts of famous franchises, from Fallout to Deus Ex. Each minigame is housed within an old-timey lock.
“I tried to choose things that were unique or offered a new commentary on the mechanic,” Nordhagen told Polygon in an email. For the sake of context and history, he also included takes on lock picking from sources like Dungeons & Dragons, a hugely influential source for video games.
The idea, as reported by Rock Paper Shotgun, initially came from a tweet postulating that it would be cool to make a museum of fishing mechanics. Nordhagen saw the tweet and decided to craft his own museum of mechanics. Since he was in the middle of designing a new project, he was surveying how other video games have solved problems he is facing right now.
“It’s a lot of trouble to dig up old games and play them until you find the pieces you want,” Nordhagen said. While he could load up YouTube videos to see previous attempts by other games, it’s not the same as experiencing the minigames firsthand. So he built the mechanics from scratch and put them in a museum he could interact with, ultimately uploading it to the internet so other game developers can use it as a resource.
The process, he says, was revealing. Some lock-picking minigames weren’t as good as he remembered them. And sometimes, he’d find a creative take on the mechanic from an unlikely source.
“It turns out that the Frogwares Sherlock Holmes games have some really interesting puzzles framed around lock picking,” he said. The whole thing was also a good exercise for pinpointing larger trends and “common lineages” that filter down through games of all stripes.
Lock picking, Nordhagen argues, is a constant motif within video games because it can help sell different types of fantasies and roles. You can’t be a master thief or assassin without knowing how to break into places.
Part of it comes down to lineage, he continued. “Because tabletop games like D&D made it a big part of the experience, that got incorporated into things that took inspiration from roleplaying games, like the original Fallout games, video game adaptations of D&D, or the Elder Scrolls.”
But the most convincing reason why video games love lock picking is probably the simplest.
“It’s a cool thing to be able to do!” Nordhagen said. “It’s a piece of a power fantasy that games can pretty easily give players, and from a design perspective it’s an easy way to gate certain areas or change the pacing of a game.”
Best of all, the video game lock pick museum is not a one-off — the itch.io page notes that Nordhagen plans to make other digital museums for popular mechanics down the line, too.