Transcript — In Search of Mystery

This is the transcript of a Youtube video, which can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/UY9n4CuwzKE

I’d like to share something that happened to me while playing Ghost of Tsushima, a game I picked up a few months ago. Despite my well-documented reservations about AAA open world games, I liked this one — a lot. So much so that, a few days in, I sunk myself into a chunky five-hour play session in which I luxuriated in everything this game has to offer. I stabbed loads of Mongols right in their faces, I wrote haikus, I pressed Square to reflect on my father, I completed tons of fantastically written and acted tales, I galloped through fields of swaying flowers and gently falling leaves with the guiding wind in my hair and the sun setting in the distance. And I had an absolutely lovely time.

But then something weird happened. I wrapped up my hefty play session, went to bed, and woke up the next day with no motivation to ever pick the game back up again. I felt done with it, which didn’t make much sense to me because I was only half-way through the story, I’d only explored a fraction of the island and I’d just the previous day been having such a great time with it. So I left it for a while, hoping the desire to return to Tsushima would come back, but it never did. And while I was trying to puzzle out why the magic had left so suddenly, I happened to stumble across the answer by accident, in a blog post called ‘We Are Explorers’ by Tevis Thompson.

The article is a treatise on mystery in games. Not mystery as in a story that contains a specific mystery that you have to solve, but mystery in the more general sense — a vibe, a feeling, that difficult to pin down something that grips you and refuses to let go. The blog post opens with, “my favourite video games are the games I don’t fully understand”. And as I read it, it suddenly dawned on me exactly why I had no desire to return to Tsushima. I already knew exactly what I’d find when I booted the game back up — more cinematic stories in which you follow muddy footprints and stab Mongols in the face, more rolling fields, more masks and charms and banners and artefacts to collect, more watchtowers to light, more of everything I’d already seen. All of it polished and gleaming to a kind of sterile, predictable perfection.

It had no mystery.

And the more I thought about this concept of mystery, the more things made sense to me — why certain games continue to have an irresistible pull years after we’ve played them, why older games have a magic to them that today’s AAA titles can’t touch, and why most modern open world games feel so inert and unfulfilling to me.

So here’s my own treatise on mystery in games, an essay that attempts to answer the question: What is it about certain games that makes us unable to ever feel finished with them? What makes them continue to seem unknowable no matter how many times we rinse them through and through? And is it even possible to devote an entire video to describing a concept defined by its very indescribability?

Hidden Things

Nothing whets the intelligence more than a passionate suspicion, nothing develops all the faculties of an immature mind more than a trail running away into the dark. -Stefan Zweig

If we’re talking about games that obscure, that tantalise, that ooze intrigue from every pixel, we may as well start with the granddaddy of them all. Team Ico’s Shadow of the Colossus is the story of a protagonist who travels to a barren, light-drenched land and proceeds to slaughter sixteen majestic creatures. The sense of mystery arises not just from its conspicuous emptiness — its sprawling fields and bleached deserts and hushed forests — but the suggestion that there was once something here, magnificent structures and monuments, temples and dams and at least one entire city. It’s all decay now — lonely columns, moss-covered stones, archways to nowhere. Shadow of the Colossus’s mystery, at least part of its mystery, comes from the fact that it’s willing to draw a heavy veil over what you’re told, to suggest and conceal, to deliberately imbue clues into its dialogue and environment design, and then refuse to provide a full explanation.

Then there are games that are mysterious almost completely by accident. Twenty years after I first fell through a church roof onto a bed of flowers, I find myself pulled back to Final Fantasy VII because of design elements arising almost completely from the Playstation 1’s hardware limitations. Take the pre-rendered 2D backgrounds, a technical compromise which allowed the devs to avoid having to create 3D playable spaces. Every one of these low-res backgrounds lives forever in my heart — the way the water falls and the light flickers has this hazy impressionism that imbues these landscapes with a sense of ethereality — a perfect fit for a game about blurred memories and obscured identities and spiritual energies powering futurist cities. What’s more, because of the Playstation’s limits, locations had to be kept small, and so Final Fantasy VII’s playable scenes feel more like dioramas, entire locations condensed into two or three carefully crafted shots, making me feel like there’s a whole world behind the screen that I’m only seeing through a peephole. As it turns out, you only need a few dreamy stillscapes to create an entire world in your mind — an oppressive city of industrial smog, a desert wasteland, a vast frozen mountain throbbing with ancient magic. And somehow, this melancholy shot of childhood friends meeting at a well below a brilliant starlit sky evokes more for me than the entirety of any modern Ubisoft game.

This is the other part of Shadow of the Colossus’s mystery, because its hazy landscapes have that same dreamy texture. The game has its fair share of explicit mysteries too. I mean, you’ve come to a forbidden land to bring a girl back from the dead, and you never even find out who she is! But I think its most effective mystery-building lies in how it looks. One of the most striking aspects of Colossus’s visuals is its intense bloom effect, and it’s unclear whether that was an artistic decision or another technical compromise to mask the Playstation 2’s poor draw distance — maybe a mix of both. But regardless, it ended up giving the game its own singular aesthetic — an impression of unreality, of a journey through a harsh forbidding land under an eerie purple sky bathed by an unnatural, almost menacing light.

Here’s where I stop for a minute and wonder why most of the games I’ve ended up talking about in this video are older games. There’s something about them that seems to carry a certain kind of mystery that games with modern graphics struggle to achieve. And the more I think about it, the more I think there might be two different kinds of mystery that I’ve noticed, both of which obscure information but in different ways.

The first type, which I’ll call “expositional mystery”, is one that modern games can and do excel at — it’s when a game hints at something and then withholds a complete explanation. These hints can be given directly to the player, in a menu or an item description, or they can be more indirect — simply dropping the player into a world full of perplexing events, symbols, architecture or objects. As long as the full story is never laid out so clearly that there isn’t room for player interpretation, for rumour and speculation, for every answer to yield a new question.

The second type, which I’ll call “graphical mystery”, is one that tends to be embodied by older games, and it’s often simply the accidental result of hardware limitations or, heavy air quotes here — “bad graphics”. This is when a game’s visual style obscures something from the player, meaning that everything that’s depicted on the screen carries a degree of abstraction that forces the player to extrapolate and fill in the blanks with their own imagination, and allows f or aberrations in the game’s code to become aberrations in the world itself. This is true of the blurry haze that permeates all of Team Ico’s games, and it’s true of Final Fantasy VII’s small, impressionistic snapshots, creating a captivating sense of places imagined but always just out of reach.

I can’t not mention that Shadow of the Colossus and Final Fantasy VII have now both been remade, and while the remakes have their own strengths, they have lost one thing that made the originals the otherworldly masterpieces they are. Not only does Midgar now look like every other futuristic city ever, but Remake also takes the most mysterious and elusive character from the original game and front-loads a bunch of him to the player on a silver plate. The Forbidden Lands of the Shadow of the Colossus remake have shed their ominous beauty and become simply pleasant. The alluring bloom is no more; even the purple tint in the sky is gone. This doesn’t feel like a forbidden land, it feels like the kind of place I’d enjoy a nice picnic in. I can’t help but feel that, for all their achievements, both remakes have traded in their precious ethereality for plain, mundane realism.

I don’t want to chalk this all up to my own nostalgia — modern games can create graphical mystery, they just have to deliberately adopt an aesthetic which keeps visual information hidden, and which absolutely cannot be too detailed or realistic. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, maybe older games really did do some things better.

Strange Places

I have been a stranger in a strange land. -King James Bible

In The Final Fantasy VII Letters, an email chain between superfan Leigh Alexander and newbie Kirk Hamilton, Hamilton says this about the game:

Final Fantasy VII has a daunting opacity to it; there is a depth to its systems, world, and sidequests that feels somewhat unknowable, and certainly larger than any one person could hope to handle alone.”

He was writing back in 2011, but he could easily have been describing any of the games in From Software’s Soulsborne series released since then, games whose obscure mechanics, evocative item descriptions and crumbling environments have made it one of the most enthralling game series out there. The Souls games are drenched in this feeling of depth, as the player traverses civilisations once immeasurably grand, now fallen to ruin and despair, where every brick and stone feels like it holds an unknowable story, one larger than anyone could hope to understand alone. It’s a vibe shared with all three of Team Ico’s games, from Ico to Shadow of the Colossus to The Last Guardian — all of which are set in abandoned structures, desolate locations, places that sound like this, places which fill you with a kind of uncanny loneliness, a sense that you don’t belong here.

Much has been said about the daunting difficulty of the Souls games, but as many have pointed out, it’s not the difficulty itself that made Dark Souls revolutionary. The difficulty was just one component of a broader design philosophy — the willingness to construct a world that was in every way daunting and frustrating and that truly felt like it wasn’t built for the player’s gratification. But for what it’s worth, Dark Souls has nothing on the monstrous brutality of Rain World’s lush post-apocalypse…or, for that matter, Pathologic’s plague-ridden village that you, as a doctor, will fail miserably to protect. I’ve clocked Dark Souls three times — I have never managed to finish a game of either Rain World or Pathologic. But that’s alright, because these are some of the most wonderfully mysterious worlds I’ve ever had the pleasure of getting relentlessly destroyed in.

Naissance…Naissancee?…, a game dripping with mystery in which you explore jaw-dropping alien megastructures, features an endless staircase you can get stuck in forever, and even contains a corridor that tells you “not this way” and then self-destructs and kicks you to desktop if you proceed. Talk about being unfriendly to the player. It’s also, by the way, hard as nails. But although a harsh difficulty is an integral part of the design of NaissanceE, Rain World, Pathologic and the Soulsborne games, it’s not necessary, or sufficient, to create mystery — what matters is that design philosophy, one which manifests as a world that refuses to bend to the player’s will, refuses to be conquered and subdued and fully known, a strange and unfriendly world that will remind you at every opportunity that to trespass here was a sacrilege. Bonus points if the game features a language made up of a bunch of weird symbols or impossible architecture…or both!

I think it’s appropriate that all the worlds I’ve talked about so far contain my favourite feeling — the sublime combination of awe and terror that can be found in everything from Rain World’s bone-crushing rainstorms, to that heart-in-your-mouth plunge into an abyss of nothingness in Dark Souls, to the sixteen colossi you mount and take down in epic battles, to the disorienting hugeness of…this game’s (NaissanceE) superstructures. And even though in some regards Final Fantasy VII is a conventional numbers-go-up power fantasy… well, just look at this shot. Final Fantasy VII wants to make you feel small — consider the sudden opening up of the world when you leave Midgar, or what I can only describe as the cinematography, the use of a scale and perspective that makes you feel dwarfed — by a city-sized plate, a treacherous mountain range, an ancient dead city.

I believe Tevis Thompson himself said it best:

“Mystery [is] opposed to mastery. An alternative to domination. A surrender. Mastery subjugates the world to my will, temporarily. Mystery is an encounter with the world, whatever that world is”.

A Living World

At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us. -Henry David Thoreau

There’s another aspect to these games that strikes me, and that is that the forbidding nature of these worlds is reflected in their control systems. A lot of games attempt to create mystery by layering a baffling story over thoroughly humdrum mechanics, and it doesn’t work. That’s just a normal game with a thin veneer of mystery tacked on top, like wallpaper. Truly mysterious games are mysterious right down to their core. I don’t think it’s an accident that some of the games I’m talking about here are ones that don’t feel terribly…game-y. The simplicity of Shadow of the Colossus’s control scheme — jump, grab, stab — is no less remarkable today, and don’t get me started on the frustrating slipperiness of Rain World’s controls, a movement system that has caused countless players to quit in fury as their slugcat dies again because of a mis-timed jump or a failed grab.

Team Ico’s games are clunky in an entirely different way. The protagonists have this squishy clumsiness to them; they stumble and fall over and flail around and feel utterly vulnerable in amongst the vast imposing structures and towering adversaries. It’s not just your controls that are fickle but the world you’re exploring. Rain World’s predators are erratic and vicious, and your animal companions Trico and Agro feel truly animalistic, from Trico’s stubborn refusals to do what you want him to, to Agro’s often unpredictable movements.

At this point, you may be asking — Kat, why the hell are you talking about control systems in a video about mystery? First of all, how dare you question me, and secondly, here’s why. It’s because the movements, creatures and bodies in these games feel, above all, organic, in a way I’m convinced connects back to the key element of non-player-centric-ness. They’re willing to simulate things that are difficult to understand or control — the stubborn willfulness of an animal, the ferocity of a lizard-eat-lizard world, the unstoppable carnage of a plague. And the worlds themselves — their rhythms and oddities — feel alive. Rain World feels like a living breathing world — a fully realised ecosystem of predators, prey and terrifying weather cycles. But if we’re talking about places that feel suffused with their own life force, you can’t go past the village in Pathologic, which may be literally alive? It’s not just the villagers that fall sick with the “sand pest” — it’s the houses too. Its districts, named after body parts (The Gut, The Flank, The Marrow, The Spleen), contain buildings that look like they weren’t so much built as that they sprouted from the ground one day.

These worlds seem to simply be, not for you but for their own sake. When you push at them, there’s something at the other end that pushes back. And they are worse than hostile towards you — they’re entirely indifferent to you.

An Endless Search

The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery. -Anaïs Nin

There’s one final aspect of these games I want to mention, and that is that their mystery is as never-ending as the worlds themselves feel, stoking a kind of obsessiveness in a portion of their player base that only seems to get stronger the longer their questions go unanswered.

What gets me about these fan bases is the almost religious fervour with which they pursue their endless quest for more mysteries to unravel. Shadow of the Colossus developed an entire community called the Secret Seekers to uncover hidden content in the game there was no evidence for, such as the existence of a secret seventeenth colossus. Rain World’s fanbase has dedicated thousands of hours to mapping every corner, deciphering every piece of lore and chronicling every finicky moveset in the game. I’ve heard Pathologic fans described as a cult, not least because playing it certainly feels like some kind of torturous initiation ritual. And do I even have to mention the notorious dedication of the Souls community? We’re talking about a group of fans who launched the ‘Root Chalice mapping project’, a passion project that involved generating and exploring every one of Bloodborne’s 2,300 procedurally generated and totally optional Chalice Dungeons, out of pure curiosity.

The gruelling project to map all 2,300 Chalice Dungeons took two years and countless painstaking hours of play, but the Prospectors did it. They mapped out the layout of every possible dungeon, documented every enemy and item on every floor, and the feeling at the end of it all? Bittersweet. Here’s Trin, one of the Tomb Prospectors:

“For me it meant that we will finally get to truly see everything this game has to offer, discover and document all Chalice Dungeon anomalies and rarities…[But also] it meant there is nothing more left to find.”

Another of the Prospectors, Zullie, notes that some players were against the project entirely, feeling that the game would be diminished by being ransacked so thoroughly, and it’s hard to disagree. We live in the age of emulators and mods and cheats that let players do obscene things to our beloved games, hacking them in every sense of the them, dissecting them into little pieces until there’s nothing left unexposed. it’s captivating and fascinating to watch, much like a real dissection I guess, but not the same as a living breathing intact body, not nearly. Games like Bloodborne and Shadow of the Colossus, now both definitively plundered of their secrets, are proof enough that the knowledge of what lies behind the veil is not without its cost.

When I asked people on Twitter for their most mysterious game, a few replied that they chose to ignore canonical information about a game and even stopped playing it altogether just because they preferred that open-ended feeling of not knowing. Clearly, for many of us, the feeling of inhabiting a riddle is more gratifying than actually solving it. Is it going too far to suggest that it’s an almost spiritual feeling — this compelling idea that there’s something bigger out there, something with a design and a purpose that will open itself up to us if we just find the right clues and connect the dots?

I don’t regret any of my time with Ghost of Tsushima, it was fun to play the flute and chase a fox and do cool samurai things. But once I release this video, I’ll probably never think about it again. For all its technical mastery, it didn’t spark my imagination, didn’t leave me wondering what was possible or whether I might find something in this world that I didn’t expect to find, something I might have to look a bit harder, push deeper to understand. That feeling of mystery and wonder that modern games are so bad at producing, the feeling we’re so starved for, we’re willing to make it for ourselves, the same thing I think the Tomb Prospectors and the Souls scholars and the Secret Seekers were, or in some cases still are, chasing — the feeling of standing on the edge that separates the known and the unknown, of reaching for something meaningful and transcendent that remains just outside our grasp. We, video gamers, are strangely compelled to continue dispelling the mist even at the same time as part of us hopes we’ll never succeed. Is it the answers we’re seeking, or is it the mystery itself?

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Twitter: @pixel_a_day

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Kat (Pixel a Day)

I make video essays on Youtube (Pixel a Day) where I critically analyse games and how they make me feel. I also write blog posts and articles.