Mystery cannot abide formula. Over time, the iterative nature of most games kills mystery. It's not just the story questions answered in a sequel. It's the world and mechanics that are already known, given, expected even.
A videogame sequel begins with most vital questions already answered. Who am I? Where can I go? What can I do? How does the world work? What are the limits?
Instead, I only ask: What's different this time? Is it better than the last one? Can I dual- wield?
Videogame sequels traffic in features and upgrades, keeping pace with the times, meeting fan expectations. Their logic is that of the genre novel, of repetition with variation. Their pleasures are those of the tweak, the nuance. They reward the discerning palate with shades of difference. It is the death of mystery by a thousand refinements.
Thompson in this section is clearly against the view of games-as-technology. He even speaks to the pressure created by the technology curve when he says that the changes in sequels keep “pace with the times.” We still don't know exactly what “mystery” is but apparently it doesn't coexist with "formula." Games-as-technology looks to engineer and refine over time. For this to happen, designers work within parameters or formulae to build off of existing advancements. This trend of refinement isn't as strong for the view of games-as-art which upholds singular, unique products of human expression. In some ways you don't refine expression. In other ways, craft techniques for conveying ideas and experiences through a medium are like formulae. Saying that mystery and formula don't go together doesn't get close enough to what I think Thompson expresses here.
Not all sequels are alike. Yes, players can already be very familiar with a game's core mechanics in a sequel, but this is the same way that we can be familiar with the work of a particular music composer or a genre. You go in using whatever knowledge you have to shape your expectations. And designers can anticipate these expectations to surprise and communicate ideas in ways that were previously impossible. Sure, some see sequels as an opportunity to go through the same motions again. But I see these motions are a key history, process, or even language to experience something entirely new; at least with good sequels. I explain as much in my article talking about New Super Mario Bros 2.
I don't think the “vital questions” Thompson speaks of are completely known in sequels. Even with a few rule tweaks, the gameplay possibilities in sequels can be very different. Simply balancing out a game allows for the expression of previously useless playstyles and strategies. The design spaces of games can be so large that small changes can influence players to explore entirely new functional spaces that were always there. And this isn't even considering changes to narrative or non-gameplay elements.
“What's different this time?” is an important question to ask. And the answer can be anything form very little to a little of everything. Repetition, variation, tweaks, and nuance come with refinement as games attempt to better express ideas. So whatever “mystery” is, it doesn't involve refinement and cumulative understanding.
Limbo appears suffused with mystery. It demands that I admire its grainy noir. But to actually play Limbo is to encounter a thin, incoherent game. A stylish paintjob can't redeem sluggish verbs and puzzle potpourri. In fact, it makes it worse.
When something appears mysterious, when it points beyond what we see or understand, we want to believe.
But when the there is not there, when there's nothing behind the curtain, we rightly call it fraud. We call it hoax. And our belief in actual mystery suffers.
This group of paragraphs is tricky. Having played Limbo, I know that the game isn't "incoherent." Some of the puzzles are a little obtuse in how they hide necessary elements far off screen. But these challenges are clear and simple enough that that right path is never too far away from the players range of easily exhaustible possibilities. It's a bit of outside the box (or should I say 'screen'), thinking that works well enough in puzzle games.
More importantly Thompson speaks to a potential disconnect between Limbo's visual, aural, narrative elements and its gameplay challenges. The vague, undefined, and yes, mysterious black and white world of Limbo is indeed disturbing and strange. This setting and presentation works with the puzzles in a way that juxtaposes the mysterious world setting with the mental challenge of solving deadly environmental puzzles. Along with the game's title and the abrupt and ephemeral ending, Limbo relishes in its mystery. I see nothing wrong with Limbo's design approach. So the real question is, what' the difference between Limbo's mystery and Thompson's “mystery.”
It's clear that “mystery” enters through Thompson's eyes; “appears,” “grainy noir,” “stylish paintjob,” and “points beyond what we see.” In other words, “mystery” comes from more passive, non-gameplay elements and is then match up against Thompson's interactive experience. It seems that simply seeing something interesting sparks Thompson's belief. And I find it odd that Thompson states that when such beliefs are betrayed (most likely due to lacking interactivity/gameplay), that this experience actually hurts a gamer's ability to believe in and embrace “mystery” itself. This kind of odd irrational statement is the same kind of fear that we heard in John's comments about Kirby in Critical-Casts Ep.2 Expression B-Side. Like Thompson, John couldn't untangle and articulate his feelings. Instead of embracing language and working through his thoughts, John adopted a defensive stance claiming that there's something “indefinable” about Kirby, simple games, and games in general as if putting up a shield against introspection. If our enjoyment of games could be permanently soured by disappointing games, then we'd all be in trouble. The fear is evident, and the betrayal is real to Thompson; “fraud,” “hoax,” and “suffers.”
The Super Nintendo had wonderful games, but it was a sequel system at heart. Its core classics were updates, not radical new vessels for mystery. Super Mario World, A Link to the Past, Super Metroid...they had their share of mystery, sure. It helped if you were new to each series. If you played their NES predecessors, then these sequels were mostly just great games. Rounded, handsome, refined.
They fulfilled their 8-bit promise. They were fairer, clearer, more rewarding, less jagged, more super. And less mysterious. Their auras diminished by excellence.
And mystery is not excellent.
In this paragraph "mystery" seems like little more than "new" game IPs. Though the SNES had plenty of new game IPs like Star Fox and Super Mario Kart, Thompon is focused on how many of the games were sequels to games on the NES. These games still had some "mystery," but as we've already revealed, Thompson like's for games to be as new, unknown, and therefore mysterious as possible.
The line I want to draw your attention to is the one about how being “new to each series” helped bring “mystery” to the games. Like his anti-games-as-technology view, Thompson takes on an anti-games-as-art view here. Making games more fair, “clearer, and “rewarding” or just more “super” makes them less “mysterious.” This is simply another way of expressing Thompson's dislike of "good game design."
Games excel at worlds, and a world is a mystery. It's not a hallway leading to a single end. Its measure can't be taken in one panoramic glance. A world threatens to overwhelm at every moment. To keep my bearings and maintain my HP-bound kernel of self, I must pay attention. I must pay complete attention. Metroid's first Zebes, the underworld of Ultima V, untold Minecraft depths. The threat of becoming lost everpresent.
We know that Thompson resists a clear, straightforward, and possibly linear gameplay experience. But what he values here leans on interacting in a virtual world rather than a focused gameplay experience. Thompson likes large game worlds; “can't be taken in one panoramic glance.” He likes complex spaces where simply being in them is a challenge; “threatens to overwhelm,” “I must pay attention.” And as we know from the nature of emergence, these large, complex, virtual worlds increase the possibility of players getting "lost," a state that's more akin to simulations than focused, aesthetically pleasing, artistic experiences. Like art, games-as-art and "good game design" priorities the clear conveyance of ideas. From the way the information is literally presented to the way ideas flow from one to another, clear conveyance is what makes art so moving.
A game can overwhelm with significant scope, size, or complexity. Or it can overwhelm players via challenge in a very structured way that allows them to develop skill. Some virtual spaces are large, possibly endless. And some gameplay design spaces are the same. But there's a big difference between simply being present in a space and embracing ideas or experiences. The bottom line is one can move through much virtual space and be mostly unmoved, but it's impossible to move through challenging gameplay while remaining unchanged. Read more on the difference being being engaged, challenged, and just interacting.
Mystery resists closure. It resists completion and clean getaways.
This idea that “mystery” isn't contained or finite with clear boundaries supports Thompson's appreciation of virtual worlds over straightforward gameplay experiences. Worlds exists. Worlds persist. Worlds contain events within them; events that are not wrapped up, framed, or presented as a complete utterance of expression. Like real life, in virtual worlds things just happen, and that's it. The meaning largely comes from what you make of it as you work to filter your own unguided, authored experiences. This is a stark contrast to how stories work and how art creates a frame (an artifice), to present ideas in such a way that embraces the abstraction of reality, only to present something about reality in a clear and appreciable way.
I understand that Thompson's idea of "mystery" leaves the door at least cracked, which allows us to wonder about possibilities and seek an end that never comes. This is an idea to keep in mind as we move on.
Concerns for value or content subside. I'm not at a buffet, shoveling it on my plate, down my throat. I treat it not as a balm or distraction or prop for my ego.
Here it appears that Thompson is anti-games-as-business. He even uses many of the same exact words I used to describe the Trigon view. When the player is catered to above all else, concerns about content, value, and merely consuming content become the trend. The analogy of stuffing oneself at a food buffet is apt. Likewise, Thompson is not concern with games in a superficial way to boost his "ego." Thompson doesn't want to be told how he feels. He wants a space to step into, stretch his mind and efforts as far as he can, and still not reach the end.
Every time I read about another disappointing E3 or gorgeous game that failed to live up to its screenshots, I know that the promise of videogames has not died. The promise of an experience unlike any other, a world beyond our imagining. Minds blown, faces melted. The future.
The disappointment means we still expect something amazing. Not the latest entry in a venerable series. Not hours of content “well worth your time”. Not new forms of badassery. But radical new experiences. A revelation.
It seems like Thompson and I have observed the same parts of the game design discourse. We've both noticed a particular kind of disappointment expressed by gamers in response to E3 and at other industry events. We both considered the source of this disappointment. We both identified that the disappointment stems from a hope or a “promise” of video games that is still unfulfilled for these gamers. But as I explained in detail with my Trigon theory, many gamers are games-as-technology gamers who wish that games would do more to simulate and sustain virtual worlds for them to escape into. And other gamers desire revolutionary, transcended, new gaming experiences. Thompson recognizes these hopes as well; “promise of an experience unlike any other, a world beyond our imagining, minds blown, faces melted, the future... radical new experiences. A revelation.”
And as I've explained, this desire for games to be virtual worlds or to continually be new and mindblowing is insatiable. It's also hard, possibly impossible, to please this desire over time. This isn't an issue of gamer preference and personal style choices. It's an issue of complexity and cost. Games cost a lot of money to make, and the more advance technology a game uses the more money it takes. Furthermore, in terms of visuals, to give people something "new" the industry has been working toward photo realistic, CG graphics. Such visuals are easy to appreciate, but there's nothing that keeps these visuals fresh. I can't tell you how many "meh" impressions I read over the PS4's graphics. For these technology focused gamers, if there's something better out there, anything less becomes unwanted.
So for gameplay focused gamers, delievering something new comes at a cost. The price is study, repetition, practice, and time. This is how we delve deeper into gameplay systems and the meaning they convey. So for the gamers who don't value gameplay and who aren't willing to take these steps to investigate it, the result is a culture of instatiable gamers with big demands and even bigger expectations.
We've had those watershed moments, when the future of gaming seemed boundless, the rapture imminent. For me, it was at a Pizza Hut in 1987. The destructible environments of 1-2, the shells bouncing back, from offscreen, a world with real presence and weight.
As if taking material straight out of my article series, Thompson explains how Super Mario Bros. for the NES was a “watershed” moment when the “promise,” “the future,” and the hope of what games can be was satisfied. Like I said specifically here, Super Mario Bros. is an example of a game that simultaneously appealed to gamers of all three Trigon views. It's clear that Thompson and I are looking at the same problems, games, gamers, and cultural trends. The biggest difference in the conclusions we've drawn is that Thompson's lack of language developed a lack of understanding that has entangled everything he has tried to express about himself and video games.
In the 4th and final part, I finish going through Thompson's article and pull everything together.