My favourite video games are the games I don’t fully understand. They stay with me after I stop playing. They ask questions I cannot answer. They resonate with mystery.
I get little satisfaction from completing a game. How boring, the feeling of 100 per cent, all content exhausted, all achievements earned, all collectibles collected, all endings ended. If I see all there is to see and then put the game away, satisfied, then the game has failed me.
I can no longer stomach good game design. Wherein I am led, step by step, through a litany of features and abilities, all while being made to feel strong or smart or cool. I am rewarded with unambiguous feedback and steady progression. I am assured that every puzzle and challenge, every problem, is solvable in the end.
But the most interesting problems aren’t solvable.
What I seek is a game that feels alive, that is more than the sum of its well-oiled parts, that makes me believe. Because once I believe there’s something really there, some roiling, churning presence, a coded will — I play differently. I act as if. I reach out, once again, to encounter the reality of my experience. To make contact with mystery.
Mystery is not a puzzle. I do not solve mystery. I enter in, I explore, I am held captive, I doubt, I am disarmed.
Mystery does not arise from the vague, the convoluted, the simply confusing. It’s not a fog, some atmospheric condition. Mystery is about something. It has content. Though not video game ‘content’.
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.
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. We push and we want something to push back.
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.
Mystery asks me to dwell. It 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 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 video game 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?
Video game 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.
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.
Mystery lingers. It sticks, resonates. Sometimes I only recognise it much later. That game of the year has deadened in the mind. Its scripted glory did not last. While another game, flawed and cranky, keeps buzzing in my head, all gadflylike. It won’t let me go.
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.
Mystery comes from the machine. The procedures generating a Minecraft world, the behaviours 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.
Mystery comes from the total work. When a design team obscures the person and the machine is more predictable, 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.
These sources of mystery are not exclusive. The Binding of Isaac comes from all three. Its faecal cuteness arises from person, its blithe randomness from machine, and its total vision signals a singular work, right down to its stillborn weapons and fetid lingerie powerups. At its monstrous heart (your mom’s) is one of the most heinous and inexplicable stories in the Bible, which is saying something. I play it over and over without unravelling its dark core.
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.
Everyone recognises 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.
The place I can never go. It’s not just a locked area awaiting a dogged keymaster. It’s a forever-locked area. An area that doesn’t exist outside my imagination.
I believed something was there, south of first screen. Part of me still does. It’s not just old games and some willful naivety. The single screen of this year’s ZiGGURAT is equally fringed with ache. My gaming life is shot through with longing for places I cannot go. The screen edge, the clouded map, any background just out of reach. 30 years of gaming and their power is undiminished.
Game spaces are particularly good at evoking wonder. We see before we arrive, and the views are often stunning. Across that field, down that path, around that corner, behind that door, the world unknown.
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 the residue of wonder. It’s what remains once the initial feeling has faded, once knowing has flooded in but not drowned my questions. It’s what survives of Shadow of the Colossus to this day, after the awe aroused by its landscapes and each appalling encounter has passed into memory.
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.
Minecraft evokes world and mystery with its fullness and consistency. No false walls, all stuff between heaven and hard bottom. A profoundly material world, like ours, every single thing unearthed and shaped from raw landscape. Its unbounded scope impossible to domesticate.
Mystery resists. Mystery refuses. It will not yield. Not to me.
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.
I cannot maximise or respec or stunlock and be satisfied. I cannot resort to the gamer’s war of attrition: the grind. I adhere to a strict no- grinding policy these days. Which means I sometimes lose.
I’ve come to accept this as the real end to some games. Perhaps I was primed by incomplete endings of old. At the conclusion of Phantasy Star II, on a pitiless dungeon ship, after Dark Force, after Mother Brain, you are suddenly attacked by several hundred earthmen. Your party responds with insults, threats, philosophy. “You have shown me the ugliness of continued
existence.” And then…nothing. No comfort, no closure.
Phantasy Star II asked, “I wonder what the people will see in the finals days?” Final Fantasy VII asked a similar question 7 years later. The ending as open wound.
Mystery resists closure. It resists completion and clean getaways. It, instead, insists. I’m not done with you yet. Get back over here.
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.
What actual masters know are their limits. The old Socratic model: she who knows what she does not know.
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.
Mystery contradicts. It draws me in while pushing me away. It confides and distances, seduces and blueballs. It upends and roots, at once.
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 video games 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.
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.
And in 1996, at a Toys’R'Us, walking into the screen and around foes, taking control of Lakitu’s camera.
And six years later, amidst the unscripted collisions of Liberty City.
And last fall, in the kingdom of Boletaria, as my brain soaked in a chemical bath of fear and disgust and, finally, pity.
And this spring, when I spent my first night in a hollowed hillside, standing in the dark because I didn’t know how to make torches or beds, listening to gurgles and moans while watching the stars dip below the horizon.
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.
But I do, as everyone does. The basic experience of media is mysterious, from video games to that ancient technology, the written word. Marks on the page and how they still conjure.
I am reminded of the Club Silencio scene in Mulholland Dr, which asks: How can a faked experience produce real emotions? How can an illusion, which we know as such, lead us to some truth?
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. When my object is encounter not victory, surrender not sovereignty, awareness not oblivion. I am plunged into the very weirdness of virtual experience with my body intact and my whole nervous system alight.
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.
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.
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. We cry nostalgia at the first hint of feeling.
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. Because mystery requires human transaction. It’s not eternal and unchanging. The experience of mystery depends on time and place and person and context. Just as the experience of a game does.
We lack the vocabulary for video game 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.
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.
I hope games do not arrive soon. I hope we are not satisfied with what we have. I hope video games 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.
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.
I came upon a lone Minecraft island a while back. A tiny patch of sand just above the waterline. I climbed up to rest and noticed a single square hole that dropped into a colossal cave system beneath the ocean. I gazed down into it a long time before deciding to descend. I thought: no one built this but here it is. It looks like an island, but it’s an entrance to a whole other world. This is mystery and I am going into it.
Tevis Thompson is a writer of fiction and essays, and David Hellman is an artist of comics and video games. They are currently raising money for their joint graphic novel project Second Quest. You can see more of their individual work at tevisthompson.com and davidhellman.net.
Art by David Hellman.