Instead of being clear by presenting a definition of "mystery" up front, Thompson circles around the concept through a series of vague and complex statements describing what "mystery" is and what it isn't. This approach for articulation isn't good. It wanders and meanders around the concept of "mystery" in search of its meaning while never stopping at one clear concept. And along the way Thompson's own conflicting views and limited understanding of games are exposed.
The following is a list of all the "mystery" statements organized by what it is and what it isn't.
What Mystery Isn't...
- "Mystery is not a puzzle. I do not solve mystery."
- "Mystery does not arise from the vague, the convoluted, the simply confusing."
- "Mystery is not the same as video game 'content'."
- Mystery "is not a ride. It does not have me off to the next thing, distracted, consuming, consumptive, desperate. It does not offer loot. I do not regret it the next morning."
- "Mystery is not a style. It's not wallpaper or mood lighting or a gravel-voiced narrator. It can't be added in post-production. It can't be sprayed on, like a tan."
- "Mystery cannot abide formula."
- "Mystery is not excellent."
- "It's not eternal and unchanging."
- "Mystery is not merely the unknown."
- "Mystery cannot abide formula."
What Mystery Is...
- [something] "I enter in, I explore, I am held captive, I doubt, I am disarmed."
- "Mystery is about something. It has content."
- "Mystery asks me to dwell."
- "Mystery lingers. It sticks, resonates. Sometimes I only recognize it much later."
- "Mystery comes from person. When I sense a human presence behind the game, the not- quite-dead author."
- "Mystery comes from the machine."
- "Mystery, like art, cannot be exhausted. It deepens with reconsideration... Replay is required."
- "Mystery is the residue of wonder."
- "Games excel at worlds, and a world is a mystery."
- "Mystery resists. Mystery refuses. It will not yield. Not to me."
- "Mystery resists closure. It resists completion and clean getaways."
- "Mystery is not mystical or superstitious. It is hardheaded. It is ornery. It is, though, about experience. It demands interpretation. It requires of players, and especially critics, a more rigorous subjectivity."
- "Mystery is not just something in games. It responds to how we approach games, our attitude towards play."
- "Mystery requires human transaction."
- “It is the impossibility of knowing and yet the continual attempt to know. It is unknowability itself. It is futile and essential.”
- "Mystery is a dialogue, and insatiable"
Based on the above statements, its hard to understand what "mystery" is or how to create a game that has the "mystery" Thompson searches for. Here's where we have to examine the rest of the article to see if we can better understand "mystery" from a game design perspective. Using a Critical-Language, I will address Thompon's article out of linear order for the purpose of presenting his ideas in clear categories.
[source 1] Mystery comes from person. When I sense a human presence behind the game, the not- quite-dead author. Sometimes in the handcrafted details, sometimes in pure vision, sometimes in raw vulnerability. I am thinking of Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP and Fez and Dys4ia, one of the only games to make me cry.
Here Thompson identifies one of three sources of where “mystery” comes from. The problem is, he proposes an objective source but then immediately switches to his subjective point of view. If mystery comes from people and the art people craft, then all video games have this quality. Video games are an artifice, virtual spaces and worlds where every detail is created or allowed by a human "author" (whether they consciously realize it or not). Often times, when people do not have the language to more objectively articulate their thoughts and feelings, they use vague concepts to make their point. I simply do not understand what Thompson means by “pure vision” or “raw vulnerability.” Seems like an subjective distinction Thompson is trying to draw for these games that he likes. Like like arguments for "true" skill or "real" gameplay, these are simply words that need to be unpacked. If there's more insight and objectivity to Thompson's statements, it's certainly not articulated here.
Still, I think I know exactly what Thompson refers to because he listed Sword & Sworcery and Fez as games have this authored “mystery" quality. I've played both of these games, and both ended up on my list for most disappointing games of 2012. One of the final points I ended on in my Fez review is that Phil Fish is the final dimension in understanding Fez. As the driving creative force behind the game, we are exposed to Fish's mind and character in a very detailed and intimate way. We get to see exactly what kind of designer Fish is. Unfortunately, Fish is not a good game designer, and this is evident in how Fez subverts gameplay in attempt to create a meta level experience. I articulate this idea in detail in the fifth part of my series About That Indie Feel.
If "raw" and "pure" mystery comes from designers who break new ground in video games by ignoring or subverting gameplay and quality game design, then this is one example of how Thompson is anti-games-as-art.
[source 2] Mystery comes from the machine. The procedures generating a Minecraft world, the behaviors governing a Spelunky ecosystem. Understanding the code would not dispel the eerie delight that comes with happening upon a magnificent cave entrance designed by no one. Or setting off a ruinous chain reaction with the toss of a single stone. Chance and consequence, daily mystery.
This paragraph is odd. Part of it seems to support the games-as-art trigon view, yet the other part leans in the opposite direction. If we interpret this “mystery... machine” as gameplay systems, then we can express the governing “behaviors” and “ruinous chain reaction[s]” in a game like Spelunky as its enemy, level, player, and powerup elements including all the rich dynamics that make its world so deadly and so fun. This seems like great support for game-as-art. But within the text is an alternate, opposite meaning.
The two examples listed are Minecraft and Spelunky, two games that feature random procedurally generated game environments. On the one hand it sounds like Thompson enjoys the gameplay of these games, yet I think he is more enamored with the novelty or newness that comes from procedurally generated content. This idea of encountering something new that is “designed by no one” is mostly an illusion. Though the designers wrote code that shuffles the individual bits of the game world in different ways, I wouldn't say that these random environments are designed by no one. To design the code that governs possibility is to design all possibilities.
As I've explained in my review of Spelunky, there is a method to the madness that is the random environments. There are rules to the way it works and plenty of other guaranteed elements players can plan for. And if you've played as much of the game as I have, some of the rarest combinations of elements become somewhat regular, as the whole experience is smoothed over from player experience. This is why I've said that the random level generation isn't a high form of level design. Instead, by sacrificing a large degree of tuning, polish, and a coherent player learning experience, randomly generated levels sustain a certain kind of freshness that fades as players gain experience.
So perhaps Thompson isn't championing gameplay here. Perhaps he just likes the idea of a world that no one knows better than him as he explores it (not even the designers). This kind of designer-second, player-first view aligns more with the games-as-business trigon view. Creating such unique gaming experiences is tricky because this feeling of freshness is derived from player ignorance or perceived unknowability.
And like we've seen already, Thompson is searching for an idea like "unknowability" to latch onto and believe in. I find it very telling that in this section, Thompson supports a kind of anti-intellectual approach to appreciating games. Like I said, Thompson is sustained by a kind of perceived freshness, newness, and uniqueness based on his current understanding of a game. The idea is once you know more about how games like Minecraft and Spelunky work on a technical level, the freshness becomes less so. Thompson is afraid of losing this difficult to sustain sense of newness and “mystery.” He's afraid that learning more about a game will kill the “mystery.” So it's telling when Thompson explains how learning a game down to its code can't dispel the “mystery;" “understanding the code would not dispel the eerie delight.” It's as if Thompson believes he has found an unsolvable truth about mystery that makes efforts to know more useless.
Mystery comes from the total work [source 3]. When a design team obscures the person [source 1] and the machine is more predictable [source 2], a game can still be shot through with it. Demon's Souls and Mario, explorations of power and gravity, trafficking in misery and delight, both trembling with mystery. Their worlds alive, present, total."
The final source of “mystery” is what Thompson calls “total work.” And this final source can produce "mystery" in a game despite it following a formula or being more "predictable". Thompson doesn't explain what “total work” is, he gives us two examples and some short descriptions for us to glean meaning. Apparently Mario has “mystery” because the game itself allows players to exert "power", explore concepts like "gravity", and offers a chance for failure ("misery") and success ("delight"). So, put another way, gameplay is a source of “mystery.” Perhaps this is the strongest evidence for Thompson's support of gameplay and games-as-art.
Mystery, like art, cannot be exhausted. It deepens with reconsideration. A well I draw from again and again. Replay is required. I can't possibly experience everything the first time. Mystery demands second quests.
Or perhaps this is the strongest evidence for Thompson's support of games-as-art. He even says “like art” right in the statement. In fact, this paragraph aligns well with the games-as-art Trigon theory. Delving deeper into the art of gameplay is its own kind of endless pursuit; “cannot be exhausted.” Gameplay experiences reflect us in a very real way, often exposing our weaknesses and highlighting our strengths. In this way we can use games as systems to measure and understand ourselves at our convenience; "A well I draw from again and again." We have to embrace games and learn their rules and systems to uncover its meaning; “it deepens with reconsideration.” This leaning requires repetition, practice, and more exposures; “replay is required.”
As we know from my writing about the trigon theory meaning, depth, complexity, and artistic expression are goals that video games achieve in ways that are different from other mediums. Games don't need fancy graphics, stories, sound effects, or even concrete-real-world representations to qualify as art or to reach these artistic goals. I've been saying this for years and proving it by digging deeper into the games I play with Super Mario Bros. as my cornerstone. So, if games are art, and “mystery” is art (among other things), then we now have map to guide us to uncovering the biases that Thompson holds that have shaped his beliefs and thoughts into a contradictory view of video games.
In part 3, we look at how Thompson aligns with the games-as-business and games-as-technology views.