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The Oldest Game Mechanic?

March 17, 2009

How the Scots — well, the Irish too, — ok, both of them together — well really it was the Gaels, their common ancestor — invented one of the oldest game mechanics: the hint.
Brenda lately highlighted Cuchulainn, legendary Irish hero of myth. In her description, she mentioned he is sometimes known as Finn McCool – an Anglicization of the pronunciation of his Irish name. This is not entirely accurate! Finn McCool is actually an Anglicization of Fionn mac Cumhaill, another hero of Gaelic legend with similar characteristics to Cuchulainn. Cuchulainn’s adventures figure into what is called the Ulster cycle, a “collection” (if you will) of tales centering on him and the Ulster region and people. Finn’s, or Fionn’s, particular tales are called the Fenian cycle, named for him and his followers, the Fianna. The Fenian cycle is one I know well because it is common to both Ireland and Scotland, and I am of Scottish descent.

The Fenian and Ulster cycles are very similar, and Fionn’s life is much like that of Cuchulainn: born under mysterious and violent circumstances, a life of hunting and war, unlucky in love, and so on. Probably that is why they are blended together in modern interpretations – Cuchulainn and Fionn were of the same mythological archetype, and today it is easy enough to see them as personas rather than characters. But there is one tidbit from Fionn mac Cumhaill’s life that I remember, and that suddenly struck me today as being relatable to game design. During his boyhood, Fionn is being trained in all the ways of the professional warrior which, in that culture, included poetry. He is studying under Finnegas, a leprechaun who for years had been trying to catch a fabled Salmon of Wisdom, the eating of which would grant the diner all the world’s knowledge. When he finally succeeds, he orders young Fionn to cook it for him, and while the salmon is on the spit Fionn touches it and burns his thumb. From that day forward, Fionn has the magical power to gain a flash of wisdom and insight by sucking on that thumb – a trait which figures into many of his subsequent adventures. Now, if you consider what that ability provides him from the perspective of an adventurer (or designer of adventures, as we game makers are), that burned thumb could fairly be described as the first instance of the hint! Whenever Fionn got stuck or needed to make an intuitive leap to solve his present predicament, he could suck his thumb and get a little knowledge that was directly and specifically relevant and would otherwise be impossible to discover, instantaneously.

If you draw a line from myth-spinning to game-making (as is natural), I daresay you could claim the Fenian cycle is an early example, if not the first in Western recorded history, of the hint.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 18, 2009 8:05 pm

    I wonder, if you had a hint system where the main character had to suck their thumb, would players avoid using it when possible?

  2. March 20, 2009 11:31 am

    Particularly if people laughed at you! When I was reading it, the first thing I thought was, what is to stop people just using it constantly. But then I thought, am I just being cynical and naive. Any player can look up the solution to any problem on the internet, and the players who want the reward, will use it properly.

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