Friday, May 17, 2013

Preserving the Mystery

FRONTIERS is about exploration, and exploration is largely about mystery. And mystery is about guessing without knowing. It's about sensing the shape of things - it's that lump under the blanket in the garage. Is that a handlebar? It sort of looks like a bike but what's that blob near the back? Wait, did it just move? The game knows what's under the blanket but you don't. And long as that tension exists you want to keep guessing / playing. Take away the blanket and suddenly it's just a raccoon sleeping next to a rowing machine. Sure you get that momentary thrill of discovery but there's no reason to keep looking at it.

A few months ago I realized that this is going to be a problem. Here's why:

Dramatic vs. Backstory Mystery

Mystery comes in two forms, dramatic mystery and backstory mystery. I completely made up those terms so if there's a third form, whatever. It's not relevant to this problem.

Dramatic mystery is about plot resolution. Who's behind [x]? What happened to [y]? Will [a] stop [b] from [c]? All will be revealed in the dramatic conclusion! 

Backstory mystery is what happened before you showed up. By accident or design every game has a bit of this as you get acquainted with the world. Most games want you up to speed ASAP - Hello, welcome to Mass Effect, humans made friends with aliens, we use super-luminal spaceships, yadda yadda yadda, here's a gun, GO! Some games (eg Anmesia) are a hybrid, doling out backstory at dramatic moments - I lump those the dramatic column since functionally they're the same.

But the biggest difference between the two is that dramatic mystery is covered by the Spoiler Code*, while backstory mystery tends to be treated as lore and casually swapped. Oh that weird symbol you see everywhere? Yeah that's from the blah-de-blah dynasty 6000 years ago, it represents zoo-be-zoo. Here, check out the wiki. For most games this is a positive thing - playing a game with a mapped out backstory makes it feel more real, more lived-in. It's not spoiled, it's enhanced.

So why are my panties in a bunch?

Because FRONTIERS with a mapped-out backstory is like a rowing machine without a blanket. (Okay, it's slightly more interesting than that, but you get the point.) Sure there's dramatic mystery, and the Spoiler Code covers that, but the backstory mystery is the real draw - and that will be swapped with impunity. And unlike most games, contaminated players may end up enjoying FRONTIERS less. Because exploring / learning / discovering more is pretty much the core mechanic.


That's my first world problem. How to solve it?

  • Nail the blanket in place. (Sorry, racoon.) If the mystery is unsolvable there's no problem, right?

Nope. That's even worse. Unless you're a master of ambiguity (see David Lynch) a mystery demands answers. Not getting them is just fucking irritating. And answers can't be too spaced out, either. It should be a steady drip.

  • Reveal what's going on, but make the goings on mysterious.

Oh boy, you've done it now. This is the LOST / Battlestar Galactica approach, and we know how well they worked out. In their case mysteries were created without answers in mind - FRONTIERS won't have that problem, scout's honor - but the result is the same whether intentional or not: you pull off the blanket to reveal a nightmare manifestation of illogic. Shapes undulate and squirm in your mind's eye like a cubist Lovecraftian terror by way of Escher, driving you slowly mad as you contemplate them, because there is no answer. LOST (and to a lesser but no less irritating degree Battlestar Galactica) will forever remain mysterious, sure, but only because there is literally no way to resolve all the dangling threads.

I call plots like this a PLOST.

But as bad as that is, it's still not the worst case...

  • Reveal what's going on, make the goings on logically consistent, and hold back most of it.

Aw shit. Worst case is when you put in the effort to keep your ducks in a row but you're too stingy with your answers and it ends up looking like a PLOST anyway. Some stories can get away with this because they're designed as a puzzle and expect you to derive enjoyment from the hard work it takes to figure them out (eg, Primer). But for most it's just the worst possible way to fail. That leaves:

  • Be an amazing storyteller and reveal enough to give players resolution while holding back enough to keep the world mysterious.

Well when you put it like that it sounds easy.

Full disclosure: I'm a bad writer. I've written four screenplays and all of them stink. I've made several short films and the story-driven ones are hard to follow. There is a very good chance I will fuck this up. Not the backstory part, mind you - that I've got under control. It's the skillful revealing of information that's got me sweating.

Typically this is where I'd tell you how I overcame that panicked lack of confidence and offer a bit of sage advice but the truth is I've got nothing... so I guess that wraps up this post.

*The Spoiler Code: Thou shalt not tell people what happened if finding out what happened was part of the fun. Thou shalt shalt exercise caution and use blackout / hidden text when discussing spoilers online. Thou shalt use a hushed voice when discussing spoilers in public. Thou shalt not depend on vagaries; they do not work as well as thou thinkest. Thou shalt not assume that you 'spoil nothing' by saying a thing; this is not true as often as thou thinkest. Thou shalt consider a plot point a spoiler until it has entered the realm of public knowledge; whether a plot point is public knowledge must be decided case by case. Lastly; be vengeful toward those who spoil maliciously, but forgive those who spoil unintentionally, for they know not what they do.

No comments:

Post a Comment