On Mystery and Mastery
Everyone recognizes the first screen of the Legend of Zelda. The lone cave, the slight asymmetry, the edges opening to the north or east or west. But the most significant edge for me was always at the bottom. South. The place I could not go... It's a forever-locked area. An area that doesn't exist outside my imagination.
I believed something was there, south of first screen... My gaming life is shot through with longing for places I cannot go.
Again it's clear that Thompson is a “seeing is believing type.” These statements explain that Thompson forms beliefs based on what is shown as it hints to what is hidden. This is an important detail to understand about Thompson because it gives us insight to his mental and experiential process of embracing games. Visuals are his door in, as I imagine is the case for most people. As designers, we can use insight like this to help bridge other mysterious areas of our games that gamers wouldn't notice otherwise.
Game spaces are particularly good at evoking wonder. We see before we arrive, and the views are often stunning.
But wonder is only a beginning. Once you've come, seen, conquered, what remains of that feeling? If wonder does not give way to mystery, I have little reason to return.
Mystery is not merely the unknown. It is the impossibility of knowing and yet the continual attempt to know. It is unknowability itself. It is futile and essential.
Thompson "wonder[s]" what is "around that corner." Exploring the unknown is wonder, and Thompson claims that it goes away when we play games and gain knowledge of what's actually there. Thompson is driven to discover that which is hinted at but never fully revealed in games. He likes content that proves to be too wide for his perception when he tries to wrap his mind around it. For more passive, visually stimulating experiences, "mystery" is sustained when players can't explore every area they see. But for many deep or emergent gameplay systems, the "continual attempt to know" is the road to mastery, a stage like the full experience that may not exist or have an upper limit. This is why I'm surprised Thompson has such a negative view of mastery.
Once you find "it", you'll see many more in this image.
Mystery, as 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, and with others.
Mystery, not mastery, breeds love. I do not love a game because I have conquered it. That moment of victory is instead the most dangerous of our relationship.
From "aura" to "wonder" and now to "mastery," Thompson moves so quickly through these undefined concepts that he complicates his message. Thompson's statements on mastery illustrate his fear of knowledge and understanding once more. In his contrast he draws mastery is described in a negative tone through words such as “domination,” “subjugates,” “conquered” and “dangerous.” I find it more telling that he contrasts mastery with “mystery” claiming that “mystery breeds love.”
As I explained in my series A Defense of Gamplay and the follow up series The Verdict on Video Games, it's the art side of games and gameplay that molds players to better conform to the system; that this real-transformative-squeezing process is what forces players to embrace concepts in a way that is otherwise impossible. And by doing so players can best see eye-to-eye with developers and other players. This mutual, humbling, transformative process as players master gameplay systems is what develops a specific kind of common ground for respecting, relating to, emphasizing, and understanding others. Thinking of games-as-art, as a discipline, as moving meditation, as a martial art is what produces these results. Thompson describes mystery and wonder as being a "feeling," but I present gameplay as being an attitude or way of life/play.
Games-as-art is about overcoming or "conquering" oneself first and foremost. This idea is echoed throughout the history of games because most games take real skill, skill takes learning, learning is work, and self discipline is the best way to make the whole process work. This self-destructive process is the real "surrender," not how Thompson depicts "mystery." If Thompson's "mystery" is really the opposite kind of experience to mastery, then what can be said about its positive qualities? How does love come from turning virtual corners, chasing fleeting feelings, and searching for images to satisfy the eyes rather than mold the one's character? Thompson's “mystery” doesn't breed love, it perpetuates unknowable strangers who will continually fail to communicate with others...
When my object is encounter not victory, surrender not sovereignty, awareness not oblivion.
Primed for mystery, I am vulnerable to transformation. I am curious about every odd reaction in myself. My senses are on fire.
I want to believe something is there. I offer the game a chance to earn my belief. I open myself to my own experience.
I hope videogames push us into deeper contact with the world, and ourselves. There is mystery there, in the dark places, in our everyday experience, and we are explorers.
...Then again, the way Thompson describes “mystery” here aligns well with how I describe games-as-art. There is a sense of being “vulnerable.” There is “transformation.” There is the intrinsic drive of curiosity. Gameplay that creates sculptures out of human thought is, in itself and for itself, a kind of metacognitive experience; “curious about every odd reaction in myself...I open myself to my own experience.” Games-as-art is about listening, being quiet, and giving game designers a “chance” to move you. Perhaps Thompson's shouldn't think of "encounter" and "victory" as being so different. It makes more sense to think of these experiences as being on the same path.
On Communication and Culture
When something appears mysterious, when it points beyond what we see or understand, we want to believe. We push and we want something to push back.
When a game resists me, when it denies me my little plot of scorched earth, my will is provoked. I sense another will at work, in the machine. And the encounter becomes, painfully, more real.
The "mystery" Thompson describes here is gameplay. Embracing gameplay and abstraction is the way to get closer to what Thompson calls “mystery.” Notice in the sections above how many gameplay like descriptions he uses. “We push and we want something to push back” is interplay. In other words, interplay is when we test a system by making a move for the goal, and the system gets in our way, pushing back to stop us. Such gameplay systems convey to us that the gameplay world isn't so easy to overcome; that great success and deeper meaning require a lot more from us than mere effort. That real skill is needed and this makes video games "more real" than most think.
Each time, I marveled at the weird and wonderful experience I was having with controller and screen. I crave mystery in games because it foregrounds the mystery of virtual experience itself. Immersion is never total. I don't forget the body holding the controller or the world framing the screen. I am both in and out of the game, at once, and it's a mystery how I manage.
Yes, interplay and challenge provoke our will. And by playing games we engage in a kind of silent, breathless dialog between ourselves and the game system or human opponents. Even for single player games, this other “will at work” is the designers you come to understand better as you learn more about the systems.
half-real The duality in video games of a real set of rules governing how the game is played and a fictional world that the player imagines. ~ Jesper Juul (half-real chapter 5)
In another insightful move Thompson describes the unique and odd sensation of the half-reality of playing video games where the player is real, the game world is virtual, and yet the experience exists in the space inbetween where both parts come together; "immersion is never total," "I am both in and out of the game." This is a fantastic detail for Thompson to mention that tells me my thinking isn't too dissimilar from his.
Why do we diminish our own experience? Are we afraid of not connecting, of confirming our solitude? We retreat to structure, design, quantifiable entanglements. All important but also insufficient, incomplete. We think subjectivity means only opinion and bias.
Yes, our experiences are unprovable. That is why we voice them.
What resonates as mystery for me will not be the same as for you. This is wonderful and necessary.
I don't understand what Thompson refers to here when he says that gamers “retreat.” As I've outline previously, Thompson has a particular kind of bias against “structure” and “good game design.” But I don't think that's an issue here. Perhaps Thompson is merely pointing out that in the quest to talk about what's meaningful in gameplay experiences, many use poor or inadequate means like achievement points, raw scores, and other quantifiable measures without taking the time to contextualize their experience or feelings further. I like how Thompson's states very clearly that structures, design, and quantifiable entanglements are important but “incomplete.” I really like how Thompson puts pressure on the issue of subjectivity and argues that to get at what's meaningful about games and our experience playing games, we have to go beyond what is “only opinion and bias.”
Clearly, Thompson supports player expression. And like Matt Fairchild explained in Critical-Casts Ep3: Trigon B-Side we should all put time and effort into expressing ourselves. Not by creating games necessarily, but by articulating our gaming experiences and what we find meaning to others. Whether we can prove our experiences or not, voicing them is important.
We lack the vocabulary for videogame experiences. They are so strange and diverse and fugitive. But we must dare to reach beyond our grasp and wrestle with these experiences we can barely articulate. Mystery is a dialogue, and insatiable.
It's amazing how insightful and how correct Thompson is here. Sure, his concept of “mystery” is contradictory and it was delivered in a very poetic manner, but everything he said hinted at a more accurate, clearer truth especially when viewed through the Trigon theory. This is what I most wanted to articulate in this critique.
Like us all, Thompson has his biases and opinions. Unlike most gamers, Thompson put a lot of work in articulating his thoughts and appealing to the culture of gamers. In this way Thompson and I are very alike. But video games are complicated. It's not easy to see how the various parts of video games work for or against each other. The trigon view helps us understand this, but it wouldn't do us much good without a Critcial-Langage to back it up.
Expressing ourselves is and important and challenging task. But it's even harder for designers to create games that balance what we need, what we want, and finding a way to educate us about what's impossible. In some ways Thompson is searching for "mystery" in games in a way that is hard to find and difficult to sustain within our current industry. In other ways, Thompson highly values gameplay experiences and the "mystery" created therein. His appreciation for games is part visual, part passive elements, and part gameplay focused. This is what I suspected at the top of this series when I said that Thompson uses multiple value scales. The conflict between embracing gameplay and looking for exclusive gameplay qualities elsewhere is why his article has so much internal tension.
Thompson is a work in process, as we all are. And after 8k words or so, I find that I can relate to him more than I could when I first read his article. I find that it's a much for fruitful exercise to attempt to see how people with opposite views are more similar to you than otherwise. I think Thompson and I could get along just fine, and even show each other a thing or two on how to get more enjoyment out of games.
The statement on our culture lacking game design vocabulary is also true. The industry as a whole lacks the vocabulary to talk about gameplay, game design, and therefore the meaning that is only conveyed through these things. But I find no fault in Thompson for trying to express these complex, intersecting ideas. I just hope that he embraces the language where he finds it.
We are explorers, all. Game creators, game writers, game players. We are still in the early days of the medium. And these are vital days.
We are explorers. Searching for mystery, for meaning, for a connection between ourselves and the world; for the art of games. Yes, we're explorers alright. And these are truly vital days. For if we don't learn how to value games-as-art, then this precious “mystery” will fade away. If we don't study game design and understand gameplay, then we'll continue to navigate the dark, blindly chasing the impossible promises of “the future.” If we don't get it now, we'll never escape this Trigon Era.