Editorial: Intriguing Mystery

Lets hope that Dark Souls 2 maintains this sense of mystery.
The Souls series loves to play with expectations.

Mystery and suspense are popular for very good reason. They keep participants interested, they allow a greater manipulation of their feelings and they can ultimately be the key ingredient to some of the best entertainment in any form. In videogames, unfortunately, this aspect seems to be falling off to the wayside. The worst part about this, however, is that mystery in games is not only limited to the story but can be a part of the gameplay as well. There is a fine line a developer must straddle between being obscure and being frustrating. Not letting the player have all the answers, especially with gameplay, can be a potent tool for delivering on a sense of wonder and mystery that modern games and the internet have done much to get rid of.

I feel like this particular series has gotten continuous mention around this site, but it should only prove the point that games that do not give the player all the answers can be games worth talking about for a long time. I am of course referring to From Software’s Souls series. The oft discussed challenge of the series is considered refreshing not only because mainstream games are typically quite easy, but because of the manner in which it challenges the player. While playing both games of the series I was given little clue as to my motivation, but I was reminded enough about it that it kept me thinking. The other characters in the story all clearly had a relation to the plot, but learning more about them or even encountering all of them was not something I clearly knew how to do. So when I did find a new NPC or performed one of the many seamless sidequests for one of them, the result was very intriguing. Because the Souls world seemingly refused to give up its secrets, because simply learning about an NPC or about some of the aspects of the plot were so obfuscated, I became even more motivated to get all the answers I could. From a withholding of information came a desire for more of it and a willingness to work harder to get it.

Maybe it's not for everyone, but I really liked it. Also, the battle system could be sped up a LOT by holding a shoulder button. More RPGs need this.
Metal Saga is a PS2 RPG known for leaving players completely befuddled.

While the story of the Souls series is often very unclear, the mechanics for its gameplay can sometimes illude as well. But just to mix things up I will use a different and more obscure game as my example here. Japanese developer Success released an odd little RPG in 2006 (in North America) for the PS2 titled Metal Saga. Though the game featured mostly straightforward combat, it also did very little to explain itself. Anything from acquiring party members, sidequests, items, or figuring out where to go were left up to the player to learn. When I began the game, from the very beginning, I was given a sidequest by a man with a rabbit head to collect a bunch of “big medals”. They would be strewn about the game, in towns and dungeons, but by the end I was unable to find all of them. When I finished the game I looked online and was stunned to find out that no one else had either. Apparently there may or may not exist the final medal in the game to complete the sidequest. A little frustrating, sort of a poor mark on the developer, but the game seems filled with things like this. The final party member, some kind of android, was rumored to be able to be turned into an item for use in battle. Several years later someone finally did it, proving one of the many rumors about this game true. It might seem unfinished or poorly designed, but the mysterious nature of the game inspired me and the dedicated community that once surrounded this game to find out as much as we could. The unclear and mysterious nature of the game turned what could have been a very mediocre JRPG into one of my favorite for a console known for great RPGs.

I will leave it off here, mysterious readers. A short one this week, but maybe you can add to it in the comments. Have you played any games, however obscure, that had a great sense of mystery that compelled you to learn more? Does obscuring something like gameplay add to the intrigue of a game or should it always be clear and apparent? Let me know!

3 comments

  1. I think it might be worth some time to look back into the pen and paper origins of RPGs. The best D&D hooks are mysteries, hidden plots and unknown dungeons. Even battles are that way. After the players know (or think they know) what the enemies and environment are capable of the entire thing becomes just a bunch of rolls to get to the end. One of the reasons that I often find PnP RPGs more compelling for exactly that reason. The GM can react dynamically to the players’ input and change things so that even when something becomes known, they can still be surprised. I’ve done exactly that several times in campaigns. It just makes things more fun.

    Compelling gameplay is the only acceptable substitute for a poor story, and the former is drastically helped by even minute refinements in the later.

  2. Very insightful, DiceAdmiral. And gameplay and story are most compelling when they constantly inform each other, I find.

  3. I’ve played some pen and paper stuff, but only some. And it’s very fun having the game (i.e. the DM/GM) react to your party’s actions to keep things interesting.

    As for story and gameplay, I find that I can put myself in a mode where I’m willing to ignore a game’s story and focus on the gameplay. Though all my fondest memories do come from games that had both a great story and gameplay. That said, while I can play through a game that I feel has a BAD story I cannot (nor do I think many others could) play a game I feel has BAD gameplay.

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