On Storytelling: The Promise of Mystery

Words: 1871 Approximate Reading Time: 12-18 minutes

A game I finished playing a while back was Subnautica. It’s a game I had heard of for a long time, but essentially avoided because I hadn’t really known what it was. It was after talking to a friend about things like survival mechanics, puzzles, and open-ended vs. goal-oriented gameplay that they suggested Subnautica. And so I gave it a shot. Since I don’t do reviews I won’t be going over the game point-by-point. Instead, I wanted to use a particular problem I had with the game as a jumping-off point.

The game is actually fairly engaging, and as someone who generally doesn’t care for survival crafting games, the premise was enough to keep me playing for the 25 or so hours needed to finish. The way that you as player (and player character) have a clear end goal which is broken up into smaller sub-goals that are doled out as you progress helped keep things together.

The issue came with part of the big goal. You need to leave the planet that you’re stranded on, but to do that you need to deactivate a big alien cannon which, unfortunately, does not want to be deactivated. Why? The planet you’re on was placed under quarantine because of a highly infectious bacteria discovered there. To make sure it couldn’t threaten anyone or anything else, the aliens that had previously been on the planet made sure that nothing could escape (and also to shoot down anything that got too close). As long as you’re infected, the cannon will prevent you from leaving. So you need to cure your infection first.

Now the premise of curing the infection is neat. The aliens were researching a cure, and had discovered a possibility, but they all died off before they could fully realize it. So you are going through alien ruins to seek out bits and pieces of information to help explain how the disease works and how to synthesize a vaccine for it.

The problem is that all of the information you gather is meaningless. Not in the sense that it does nothing. Rather, from a gameplay standpoint, whether you collect that information or not doesn’t matter.

Because the solution to finding a cure is just simply “progressing.” Get to the next facility, get the keys, go to the next facility, get the keys, etc., etc. Eventually you reach the final bit, are told to collect some items to create a special key, and then that unlocks the cure. Job done.

And it is that payoff that feels like such a letdown.

So I wanted to discuss the ways in which video game narratives can set up the idea of a “mystery” and then drop the ball, and why I think it’s important to keep in mind how the premise should be supported by the game’s mechanics.

Mysteries and Puzzles

Mysteries are notoriously difficult to write.

Much of the fun of mystery stories comes in two forms. There is the surprise of the reveal. When all of this information is collected and the main character shows that Mr. A must have killed Ms. X, because these particular pieces of evidence were left behind. In order for that surprise to feel real, the explanation itself must not only feel valid, but all other possibilities must feel valid as well. If the solution is too obvious, then there’s no real surprise.

But good mysteries also need to be solvable. Not in the sense that the main character needs to be able to solve the mystery, but the audience needs to be able to solve it. This doesn’t mean that every member of the audience must be capable of figuring out the solution. Rather, it means that with all of the information provided to the audience, it should be possible for some members to piece together the narrative and “predict” the outcome. If information is hidden from the audience until the last moment, then there is nothing distinguishing the solution from “deus ex machina,” and the thrill of the mystery is removed.

So it’s a tightrope. You don’t want to make the mystery too easy and ruin the surprise, but you also don’t want to make it too hard and prevent people from being able to solve it.

But in presenting a mystery to the audience, the audience is primed to think that the mystery is something to be solved. We do not engage with mysteries merely to be told the answer, but because they are interesting puzzles that we can try ourselves – if we succeed, we get joy of solving the problem before it’s revealed; if we fail, we at least get the joy of the surprise.

I bring this all up because this is where some games fall short.

The frustration I have here with Subnautica is one I have long shared with Bloodborne. While I personally enjoy Bloodborne the most of the FromSoftware games, I have been most frustrated by its story. Because its narrative premise is undercut by its gameplay. While the starting goal is to essentially “figure out” what is going on, that “figuring out” gives way to just killing monsters. The goal, ultimately, is to just progress. You solve the mystery by progressing. And once you progress enough, the mystery is solved.

I would also bring up Persona 4 in this same context. The game’s story is quite literally a murder mystery, but the nature of the mystery is such that once you hit the point where you need to “solve” it, the answer is a bit too…obvious. Not in the sense that it’s impossible to pick the wrong answer, but that you don’t really need to rely on gathered information: the basic rules of logic eliminate so many suspects that there’s only one possibility remaining.

And so these games – and plenty of others – all fall short in trying to meld the narrative with the gameplay. Instead, it feels like the narrative and gameplay exist at odds with each other: cases of ludonarrative dissonance.

I think the premise of so many of these games, especially Subnautica and Bloodborne, is that the “mystery” being solved is lore. That is, an explanation of what happened before, or an explanation of what is going on around you. In this sense, there is a mystery you can piece together, and the information can lead to an interesting story. In Subnautica, it’s a mystery of figuring out how this highly infectious bacteria hasn’t just wiped out everything on the planet. In Bloodborne, it’s a mystery of figuring out why everything has become so messed up and what’s really behind it.

But the problem is that none of that information serves any gameplay purpose. If you were to never engage with those pieces of lore, you would still be able to beat the game. And not even because you were just brute-forcing puzzle solutions. Rather, because that information just doesn’t matter to win.

This leaves the fun of solving the mystery to those few who really want to stick with the game and discover everything and piece together the bits of information the game doles out. And meanwhile, there’s no longer a proper moment of reveal, that surprise when everything comes together and all of the information that’s been collected is pieced back into a cohesive picture. You can still have fun mechanics and a goal and everything that goes with those things…but the mystery element just falls flat.

But there’s no reason why this should need to be the case. Games can absolutely make use of the basics of design to put in compelling mysteries that can and indeed must be solved by the player. There are plenty of existing mystery games already, although plenty of them can be bad for a variety of reasons. Again, good mysteries are difficult to put together.

I think there may well be a fear that if a game has a genuine mystery, then you have to make the player solve it, and that means that a bunch of players will get frustrated and stop playing. I think that fear is valid, but is something that must ultimately be overcome. Mysteries are, by their very nature, puzzles. Puzzles in general lend themselves to a certain kind of thinking and engagement that some players won’t get. Just as some games will require skills related to coordination or memory that some players won’t succeed in. Every challenge will be alienating for some group of players, but the solution is not to try to remove all challenges period. Rather, it is to make those challenges engaging, to have a wide variety of different challenges across different games to appeal to different players, and to make sure that players are not invalidated because they can’t overcome very specific types of challenges.

In the context of games like Subnautica or Bloodborne, it’s about blocking progression at certain points until a player uses the information they’ve been gathering in some important way. Perhaps they need to locate a hidden switch, or perform a ritual, or provide a password. Whatever the case may be, as long as the information is provided to the player – and the game is set up to make sure that the player should have that information at the point when they need it – then the challenge is such that the player can be reasonably expected to solve it. Whether the player does is then up to them.

We could imagine, for instance, that the solution to the cure in Subnautica could involve reading through alien archives, scanning various different kinds of animals and plants, and then figuring out what things might be immune to the bacteria and putting those things together into a vaccine. Maybe the game has a special alien facility to manufacture a cure, and by putting in different combinations of ingredients the game will tell you if you’ve found the right combination or not. In this sense, as long as the game has given you the information you need about what ingredients you should be looking out for (without being too obvious), then it can send you out and say “go solve the mystery” without needing to fear too much that the player will have no clue what to do.

Concluding Remarks

As I play more and more games over time and absorb so many different systems and stories, I find myself really wanting to find games that integrate their mechanics with their narratives. The height of video games is when how you play determines what story you get told.

And so it is with these games that have this ephemeral promise of a mystery to be solved that I become frustrated, because how you play doesn’t really matter for the story. You can ultimately just keep going forward, never bothering to learn about the world around you, and get to the end of the game without issue. The bits and pieces of information that you need are about how to get to the next progression point, rather than how to synthesize information, and as such these games draw a sharp line between the gameplay and the narrative. And yet, there is no reason why things need to be this way.

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