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February 24th, 2012 / 11:59 am
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Vidja Games and Mystery

Narrative is rarely any fun without mystery. You can get mystery in a lot of ways. In a creative writing class my senior year at Butler, my teacher Susan Neville passed a story around the room. I don’t remember what the story was. I think it was about two people in a car. I think they were young people. Susan pointed out that though the characters were taking turns speaking, neither one was responding to what the other person had to say. She said that if you listened to the way people really speak to each other, this turned out to be mostly true. We don’t listen: we wait for our turn to speak. What she didn’t point out was that this stood in stark contrast to the way college students tend to write, wherein a pair of extremely attentive conversationalists trade ideas and information in the collaborative pursuit of synthesis, consensus, etc. What she also didn’t point out was the way that this corrodes the mystery of the story: when two characters with ostensibly different interests agree completely on the direction of a conversation (or even on the terms of their own disagreement), the writer’s intent becomes glaringly obvious. So there is one way of creating mystery. Make your characters talk past each other.

Another way is to present an image so breathtaking, so rich with implications, and yet so beyond our grasp, that mystery can’t help but form. Another way is to create a character who makes interesting decisions that make us wonder why they made the decisions. Another way is to make thoughtful, sublime choices in language. Another way is to make thoughtless, sublime choices in language. And so on. Another way, but often a rather blunt instrument, is simply to withhold information. If your reader doesn’t know what’s going on, who’s doing it, or why, that counts as mystery, right? Well, sure. But maybe not the good kind.

The old Nintendo games tended to be naturally mysterious. There were many reasons for this. One is the graphical limitation of the system. NES games could only display a small number of colors with limited animation. It didn’t have a lot of pixels to work with, either — it was a very low-res system. This made the system’s representations abstracted, and, as such, a little mysterious. Sometimes (often) you literally couldn’t tell what you were looking at.

Furthermore, the systems in games at the time had to operate by an extremely abstracted logic. The NES couldn’t possibly simulate anything like real life, and so developers had to invent rules that would govern their worlds. Many of these choices have since become conventions that people no longer question (for instance, the ability of your character to effortlessly pass upward through a platform so long as it is thin, or the convention that monsters usually die if you can manage to jump on them), but at the time they rarely seemed so natural. I remember discovering that sometimes, if you made Mario jump into thin air, his head would hit an invisible block, which would give you a coin or a 1up. It was a startling concept. Many games were basically incomprehensible. (The puzzle rooms in Goonies II, for instance.) You did the best you could with what they gave you. Kids traded secrets on the playground. (Or so I am told: I didn’t know any kids who played — I was home schooled.) You could call the Nintendo tips hotline and pay for the answers. (Or so I am told: I never tried it. I imagine those were the most awkward phone conversations in history.)

There was also the mystery of another culture. We needn’t descend into Orientalism to note how difficult it could be to understand Japanese ideas and stories through the veils of poor translation, low-res graphics, and weird game logic. Japanese origins explain less than we sometimes think; to me, Super Mario Bros. seems more generally surreal than specifically Japanese. But the barrier was there in a way that it really isn’t anymore. I’m no expert on Japanese culture, but at this point there’s enough cultural exchange that I can mostly keep up.

I suspect that the richness of mystery in NES games has a lot to do with their persistence as objects of fascination. Nostalgia plays a part in it too, of course, but I don’t think you get things like Brian Oliu’s video game lyric essays out of simple nostalgia. There was a strangeness and a mystery about these games, about our desperate searching for secrets and strategies, that created a long-term fascination. My favorite NES game, Metroid, actively pursued this sense of mystery. Others (Zelda, for instance) came to it half by accident, half intentionally. In many cases, it was a total mistake. A lot of very bad games are more interesting than they have any right to be simply because they do not make much sense.

Games today struggle with too much explicitness: with an absence of mystery. As the videogame industry has become a major financial success and a relatively mainstream pastime, the need to maintain old logics of gameplay and storytelling for the core audience without alienating newcomers (the legendary Wii-playing grandma, etc.) has led to a frequently irritating balance wherein the games still make little sense, but explain themselves constantly: every Zelda title now comes with several hours of exposition and careful, repeated explanation before you can do anything at all. Signs, chatterbox companions, NPCs, and the game itself are so helpful that it makes you want to puke. The truth is that I can’t play Zelda games anymore. It would shock my childhood self to hear this, but I’ve completely lost interest in the series, because they just can’t seem to shut themselves up and let me play.

Combine this with high-res graphics and an industry-wide incompetence in storytelling (when the Dragon Age series is known for its unusually good writing, you know you’ve set the bar low) and you get games that err on the side of divulging themselves too fully.

There are a few exceptions. The games of Fumito Ueda, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, became instant classics because they knew how to evoke mystery. In Ico, there is very little dialogue, and your character understands almost none of it. You are a horned boy, cursed, whose tribe has brought him to a castle and left him to die there, in a tomb among many rows of identical tombs presumably containing the corpses of many generations of horned boys. You find a girl. We call her a princess more or less because that’s what girls are in video games. You don’t understand a word she says. You can hold her hand. You can lead her out of the castle. You can save her from the queen. Very little of what follows is ever really explained, except by environmental storytelling: clues in the environment, and in the incidental actions of other characters, of which there are very few, that suggest how things might have come to be this way.

In Shadow of the Colossus, you have to kill sixteen colossi in order to bring your girlfriend (a princess? perhaps) back to life. It is not clear where the colossi come from. Some of them seem to be good, some of them seem to be evil, and many seem to be more like landscape than anything, barely even aware of your presence. It is heart wrenching to kill them because it feels like you are ending a beautiful mystery. Your character never speaks. Neither do the colossi. By the end, you probably feel bad about what you’re doing, but you’re not sure why: it is a sort of nameless dread.

These games are artfully made. They tell their stories with grace. But not every game can or should look or act like Ico. Others need to operate by a more frankly game-like logic. Demon’s Souls, one of these games that needs to look like a game, came upon a solution both ingenious and stupidly blunt: turn the lights off.

When you start to play Demon’s Souls, the game prompts you to adjust its brightness to suit your TV. Your goal is to turn the brightness down until you can’t quite make out a certain image. When you have blinded yourself, the game begins in earnest.

Demon’s Souls is notoriously difficult, but I think this somewhat misses the point. After playing through to the final boss over the course of several months of frustrating stops and starts, I recently restarted the game with everything I had learned and plowed through it in a couple of weeks. I killed most of the bosses the first time I saw them, and usually without too much effort. Why? Because I understood how my stats related to my damage output with different weapon types (a surprisingly obscure subject). Because I better understood how to upgrade my weapons and which weapons should be upgraded. Because I knew what was valuable. Because I looked online for help when I needed it, so that I could find certain characters, learn certain miracles, and so on. The challenge of Demon’s Souls usually comes from a scarcity of information. And this is intentional: it is central to the game’s design.

This withholding of information is partly an attempt to recreate the sense of community and sharing among players. Just as in the NES days, gamers feel more like real adventurers when the game is hostile to them, especially if that hostility is sometimes arbitrary or unfair. Demon’s Souls is unusual among even modern games in that it includes a tip system — a method of information sharing — through its online multiplayer element. When you play Demon’s Souls with an Internet-connected PS3, you don’t usually encounter other players in the flesh. Instead, you see the messages they’ve left behind. These are brief snatches of text that warn you about things you would otherwise never see coming — for instance, a certain dragon who will appear from behind and roast you on a certain bridge, unless you are warned. You also see their ghosts, which reenact their own deaths. You can watch these ghosts to avoid their mistakes. Most of the time, this doesn’t tell you anything very useful. But watching these spirits fight the empty air, ultimately falling dead, creates a very effective sense of mystery and dread. Who or what was this ghost fighting? Will you survive it?

I dread the thought of playing Demon’s Souls without an Internet connection. Its mechanics are woefully obscure. There is a boss who waits for you in a church. She’s called the Fool’s Idol. She isn’t that hard to kill once you work out how to tell which of her many copies is the real thing. But even when you do kill her, a voice from some unseen source mocks you. Next time you come back, the Fool’s Idol is alive again. This is, in a Demon’s Souls playthrough, just about the worst thing imaginable — a boss who comes back. Eventually, you may find, or remember finding, a seemingly harmless old man who sits in an unremarkable room overlooking the sanctuary, contemplating a magical glowing. You may realize that this old man, who says he is harmless, is actually the idol’s worshipper — that he is the one bringing her back. So you go and you kill the old man. Without the hint system, this might take you quite a while. If you are lucky, if the right players have left you the right hints, then you will know to kill the old man before you set eyes on his idol, and you will only have to kill her once.

The game is truly oppressively dark. The most frightening level, the Valley of Defilement, features wretched enemies who seem barely worth killing (they give you very few souls for your trouble) and bosses swarming with maggots, with flies. You spend much of the level’s difficult second section literally wading through poison. And, worst of all, you just can’t see very far: mysterious lights glimmer in the distance, treasures and small fires, but you can’t find them. If you aren’t very careful, if you don’t follow the right path, you will become quite lost. A common scenario in Demon’s Souls is to be forced to enter an ominous, dark room or enclosed space. You don’t know what’s in there, but you’re pretty sure it’s bad news. One particularly bravura section requires you to stumble through an increasingly narrow series of passages, alternately traveling into darkness and mysterious orange light. Ancient bones line the tunnel walls: spines, rib cages. And the molted skins of giant caterpillars. What little visual information you can glean from your surroundings feels extremely valuable. You have to pay attention to survive.

And while the game’s menus and interface are generally legible, they too seem to turn down the lights on their underlying systems. I really did need quite a while to figure out how my weapon’s damage was determined. In my first playthrough, I kept upgrading my character’s strength and dexterity, asking why on Earth it didn’t raise my scimitar’s damage. Well, that weapon’s damage was largely based on my magic stat, which was crap. I just didn’t know.

Turning off the lights and obscuring basic facts of gameplay are blunt instruments, crude paths to mystery. Demon’s Souls is often clumsy. As in the old NES games, sometimes that clumsiness works in its favor. Sometimes it doesn’t. But there are also moments of truly graceful storytelling. For instance, there is again the Valley of Defilement. You know, from game text and NPC dialogue, that the Valley is the home of the Maiden Astraea, who watches over the wretches of the Valley, and loves them in spite of their filth and sickness. This provokes a vague sense of guilt in the player, perhaps: do these miserable creatures, devoted worshippers of Astraea, deserve to die? Or do they attack because they know that if you pass, you will kill the one they love? Ultimately, my revulsion at their bodies, and at the bosses (a conscious maggot pile in a pit of slime and shit, a stinking humanoid colossus swarmed with flies), was sufficient to make the act of killing them feel good. But the level’s final boss, Maiden Astraea herself, proves a haunting encounter. There is something sick about a woman who lets these creatures worship her as they wallow in their filth, rather than try to cure them. In her chambers, a valley beneath the Valley, hideous worshippers convulse with holy pleasure as they look down on their maiden. There is a purple waterfall of filth. If you fall into the water, weird children rise up from the muck to kill you. What Astraea has made here cannot be okay. It cannot be good to let people live like this. Killing them feels a genuine mercy.

To reach Astraea, you first must kill her loyal bodyguard, Garl. This is not very hard so long as you are smart about it. But Astraea herself will not fight back. When you approach her, you see a luminous woman in a white dress seated at the bank of the river of filth that flows from the waterfall. She is very clean — except for the hem of her dress, which she has allowed to slip into the river. It has been well established that the fear of corruption transcends culture, time, and place. What she is doing is sick, it is wrong, but her refusal to fight you, though she houses a powerful demon soul, again raises the question: in the Valley of Defilement, are you the villain? But the question itself is not that interesting. It is the mystery of the lovely woman in the bad place, letting her dress get so dirty. It is the mingling of opposites. I still feel some weird, primal thing move inside me when I think of it now.

A simpler example, from early in the game, the first boss that you will kill:

In the Boletarian palace, you must overcome a series of challenges in order to open a gate. There are switches to pull, dragons to avoid, soldiers to kill, and so on. You don’t know, the first time you play, that your goal is to open the gate. And you certainly don’t know what lies behind it. So when you pull the second switch, when the game cuts to the gate, when the gate rises, revealing only a darkness — when suddenly a spear launches from that darkness, a very large spear, and it lands with its cruel end lodged in stone, so that it stands upright at a 45-degree angle to the ground, you can only ask yourself, “What could have thrown that spear?” And you know that you must go there now to see it. And you know that whatever it is waiting in that darkness, you are going to have to kill it.

(The monster that lies in wait there, all bristling with spears, is every bit as weird and menacing as one could hope, one of the best designs in the game.)

Ultimately, I think that Demon’s Souls withholds too much at times, or rather, it does not select what to withhold smartly. And sometimes the decision to turn down the lights is not enough: there is mystery in seeing clearly too, which the game usually does really not know how to evoke (with the exception of its gorgeous, massive final monster). Often, in fact, there is more and better mystery in seeing. But I do think that this is ultimately what makes it one of the most important games of its generation, and an important step forward for the form. Demon’s Souls is a game that plays very much, and shamelessly, like a game. But it knows the power of narrative lies in mystery, and it has some ideas — several of them quite good — about how to make mystery in a game.

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