Mu Cartographer review impressions

I first heard of Mu Cartographer during the Experimental Gameplay Workshop at GDC this March. The EGW is a (relatively) long-running GDC event designed to highlight truly weird game design — bizarre and strange and never-before-seen kind of stuff.

Real risk-taking! Bleeding-edge innovation! Sometimes, the stuff you see at the panel is so vast or odd or art-installation-esque you could never fit it in a house. Sometimes, it’s weird stuff that eventually gets released and played widely enough that you might now recognize it — games like Mushroom 11 or Starseed Pilgrim or Spaceteam, which all appeared at the 2013 EGW.

Is the stuff at this event always that purely weird? No, not always — particularly recently, it’s started to seem like there’s less and less truly “experimental” stuff on stage. Mu Cartographer by Titouan Millet, however, definitely lived up to my (arbitrary, probably) standards for “real experimental gameplay,” so I’ve been keeping it at the back of my mind for a while now.

Mu Cartographer pitches itself as a game about learning to use a kind of mysterious control panel to go on a treasure hunt. You’re given a screen cluttered with draggable interface elements — spare clusters of shapes and lines and wiggles and dots. The center of the screen is dominated by a circular slice of 3D topography that changes shape, color, and position based on the adjustments you make in the interface. The topography represents, it seems, a strange, profoundly un-earthlike world. It’s not always quite clear whether your machinery physically changes the world outside, or whether it merely alters your perspective of this world so dramatically that it looks like your interface is changing the world outside.

The most important interface element is a text browser that allows you to move between three libraries of extremely short, evocative text snippets written by the story’s three central characters. They write and behave like classic, khaki-and-pith-helmet-wearing British wilderness explorers, so that’s what I’ve assumed they are; the story is so carefully pared-down to their single-sentence diary entries, however, that we never quite get any of the context necessary to be sure about this.

Most of their writing is focused on this weird, alien dimension they’re trapped in — they express tweet-length bursts of excitement, awe, and horror. Selecting a text snippet in the browser makes the interfaces change; they’ll start to give you hints and clues about where to go and what to do to find the next chunk of the story. The rest is up to you.

Mu Cartographer, at first, is frustrating. There is no tutorial, and at no point does the game ever tell you in English what you’re looking for — or when, while exploring a branch of interface setting combinations, you’ve found everything there is to find.

Playing the game made me think quite a bit about the unwritten design language that underpins a lot of software interfaces in our world. We’re familiar with the power sign, with save icons, and even now with the “hamburger menu” icon frequently found in phone app interfaces. We are familiar with certain ways of depicting a scroll bar. We know that red and X shapes mean stop and close; green buttons frequently tell us we’re confirming something, or telling something to start. The interface in Mu Cartographer doesn’t use any of these! It has its own language, and you’ll have to learn it.

You’ll also have to do a lot of experimenting yourself. The various interface elements sometimes affect one another in non-obvious ways, so you’ll have to stay sharp and pay attention to small changes. You might also get stuck. I’ve come across at least three different moments when I came up hard against some totally inscrutable problem that kept me stumped and stuck for a while and required a leap of imagination to break past. This is the core goal of the game, really: for the player to have an “eureka” moment or two. There are not a lot of clues; you just gotta make the leap yourself.

I genuinely liked this experience. I also liked the story told in the text snippets; it’s very simple, but quite atmospheric. The story and the music and the cosmic humming and the topographical weirdness in the center of the screen create an environment with a really solid mood of trans-dimensional sci-fi mystery and epiphany. Which is astonishing, really, because there’s not a lot in this game — just a small number of obscure but simple systems, a library of tiny texts, and few suggestive sounds. Titouan Millet has created a very expressive game out of what sometimes feels like almost nothing. It’s genuinely brilliant.

I was occasionally frustrated by moments of difficulty that seemed accidental, or somehow not part of the designed challenge: for example, there’s at least one map setting that makes certain hidden objects the same color as the background they’re set against. Largely, though, Mu Cartographer is a carefully-built little game; I don’t have a lot of examples like these.

If you are looking for something low-key and genuinely experimental — Millet calls this game an “experimental treasure hunt” — Mu Cartographer is probably your jam. “Cosmic mystery” is a mood that a lot of games have been aiming to capture recently, No Man’s Sky chief among them, and it’s very, very cool to see such a small, spare game capture that feeling so well.