It’s magic, you know
A very, very long time ago, some Egyptian workers, skilled at making fake gold and silver, began to wonder if they might have it in them to produce the real thing. And so alchemy was born: an unlikely combination of an ancient, mystical art with an experimental, almost scientific method. Seeking to achieve perfection in all substances through chemical processes, alchemy captured the imagination, persisting for 2000 years before it was discarded as foolish superstition.
A history buff with an affinity for the stranger parts of the past, I ought to be pretty pleased that alchemy has found a firm home in video games. Sneaking in by way of the now-ubiquitous red health potion, it’s become the more fantastical counterpart to blacksmithing, a crafting mechanic in untold scores of RPGs.
But the thing is, video game alchemy usually feels like an afterthought, a sideshow to dabble in, nothing to write home about. Instead of a powerful form of occult knowledge, it ends up, like most crafting mechanics, feeling just a bit dull. I don’t normally champion historical accuracy in fiction, but in my opinion video game alchemy would be more interesting if it looked to its roots.
Take the Witcher 3 as an example. In the Witcher universe, potions are an important way for Geralt to augment his supernatural monster-slaying abilities. But though the game’s concoctions have interesting effects and evocative names, they’re fixed; their recipes are always 100% accurate, with no room for experimentation, discovery or disaster. Alchemy in the Witcher, and in so many other games like it, isn’t magic – it’s a hard science, the formulae set in stone long before you even showed up.
Or look at Skyrim. Its implementation is better in some ways, allowing you to perform alchemical experiments. Through the unorthodox method of scoffing down ingredients, you can discover their properties, then combine them to produce your own potions.
The trouble is, while Skyrim’s alchemy process is more interesting, the potions themselves are not. Merely raising your skills or boosting your damage, they are uninspiring, lifeless, and not even particularly powerful. It’s a regular problem with video game alchemy: the results are ever so generic, and you can get by just fine without them.
Real alchemists had grander aims. They sought powerful artefacts: named substances, like the universal solvent that could dissolve any matter. Their ultimate goal, the Philosopher’s Stone, was a purifying force that would work on humanity as well as on metal, healing any sickness and creating gold. Isaac Newton believed he could use alchemy to prove that God was running the universe. Alchemists of yore weren’t trying to grant themselves a 50% resistance to fire damage; they were trying to shatter the fundamental laws of nature and find hidden truths about the universe.
Of course, they didn’t manage it. In reality, no matter how many people claimed they’d made the Philosopher’s Stone, alchemy just didn’t work. And if in a game you made a system where it always did, you’d have a major problem of balance. With such vast power, how could there be any challenge?
Nolla Games, creators of the game Noita, have found a solution. They’ve taken their cue from the alchemists themselves who, to conceal knowledge from the unworthy, would encode their writings, and they have made their alchemy system a secret.
The quest for alchemy
Noita, a procedurally generated roguelike in which every pixel is physically simulated, is full of chemical reactions. When explosives are involved – and they often are – it’s full of chain reactions. Wood, oil and gunpowder burn; liquids evaporate into clouds which then condense; a single drop of water can purify a whole lake of toxic sludge.
The game also boasts an entire basketful of Easter eggs, buried so well that you could play for hours and miss every single one of them (I know because I did). Unlockable shortcuts allow entire levels to be bypassed; parallel worlds hide behind seemingly impenetrable rock walls; a mirror image of the game’s underground cave system hangs high in the sky. And then there’s alchemy.
There are hints that there’s more to Noita than meets the eye. Most notably, cryptic messages can be found on emerald scrolls scattered throughout the game world. “That which is below is like that which is above,” reads one. These are a reference to the Emerald Tablet or Tabula Smaragdina, a text about the Philosopher’s Stone which was translated from Arabic in the Middle Ages, and helped the study of alchemy to explode across Europe.
These virtual emerald tablets had a similar effect within Noita when the game entered early access in September last year. The fanbase was sure that these items, which otherwise have little utility, were a clue to some great alchemical mystery, and they were determined to unlock it.
Some players scoured the tablets, searching for hidden meanings within the words or mapping out the game world to try to find more of them, while others began mixing different substances together. Performing experiments is tricky in a game where monsters lurk in the shadows, and the only way to move objects around is to shoot or kick them, but Noita’s budding alchemists hollowed out crucibles using drilling spells or bombs and got to work.
Talking to some of the game’s earliest fans revealed more about the process. According to Discord user GrandFragReturns, they were getting nowhere when someone chanced upon a huge discovery. All of a sudden, screenshots of a golden coloured liquid called the Draught of Midas were doing the rounds on Discord. “It appeared out of nowhere, on stream, once, and people were all over it.”
Like the legendary Philosopher’s Stone, the Draught of Midas made gold. But it seemed to work on everything, not just metal, transforming rock and soil into glittering splendour. If it could be reliably recreated, it would be possible to dissolve entire levels and gather infinite cash.
“By replaying the same 20 seconds of footage over and over, we saw exactly what happened,” GrandFragReturns explains. “I believe it was a pool of oil next to coal, with blood in it. As soon as the player fell into the oil, some of the oil and some of the coal became a deep blue liquid that had never been seen before. It became, after mere seconds, the Draught of Midas.”
However, when other people mixed oil, blood and coal together, they got nothing more than yucky oily, bloody coal. The magic didn’t work for everyone.
Theories and answers
Once it was clear they were onto something; players pooled their resources. They passed around screenshots and save files, verifying each other’s claims and gradually putting together a database of any reactions that successfully produced the Draught. Their efforts were determined and methodical, but there was a problem. The formulae were different for different players, and no pattern could be found.
It wasn’t long before another substance emerged. “Lively Concoction” was a vivid green colour and fully healed the player, invaluable in a hard-as-nails roguelike like Noita. But it was more difficult to experiment with, evaporating within seconds, so players had to be quick to screenshot their efforts. And as with the Draught of Midas, the recipes seemed to change with each run.
All kinds of theories were put forth to explain what was going wrong. Everything from in-game weather, real-world time of day, the character’s health, or even the position of the stars was suggested. Some delved deep into the texts on which the emerald scrolls were based, hoping the teachings of real-life alchemists might help in their quest. Others began to wonder, half-joking, if it was just the result of a bug.
The solution came without warning. A fan broke into the game’s files and found that each recipe was simply randomized according to the world seed, along with the formula required to predict the recipes. The secret was out. Suddenly, the powers of alchemy could be harnessed by anyone.
According to FuryForged, a Youtuber covering many of Noita’s secrets, the big reveal was a touch anticlimactic. “The search was over too fast,” he says. Everything was uncovered after just seven days of feverish activity. “That first week was a blur since I was working on this stuff non-stop and didn’t sleep much.” It may have been over quickly, but it was one hell of a ride.
By dressing their alchemy system in the trappings of history, Nolla Games created an extraordinary experience for their community, full of mystery and teamwork. Noita’s alchemy now resembles a set of extremely roundabout cheat codes, but it’s far more exciting than typing ‘Motherlode’ into the console could ever be.
There are signs that Noita’s alchemy has not yet run its course. Other recipes have shown up in later updates, producing new substances whose purpose is still unclear. FuryForged is confident the devs have more surprises in store. “They are very good at hiding things, even from people who access the code.”
And of course, the average player doesn’t have access to the code and won’t know about the formula. They will be left to stumble across the Draught of Midas or Living Concoction for themselves, as I did, one of those rare moments in games where your initial expectations are eclipsed, leaving you puzzled but intrigued, burning to know what else lies in wait. Pure gold indeed.