The Unknowable

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Games tend to offer us questions just so they can supply the answers. In life, a vast amount of information is lost forever. Most of it is unimportant: For most people, it’s impossible to know, say, what they had for lunch this day three years ago (much less what someone else had). We don’t worry about this, generally, because the information is unimportant. However, the second I ask the question, “what did you have for lunch this day three years ago? One year ago? One month ago? One week ago? Yesterday? Today?” it starts to nag at you a little. Not much, hopefully, but just by asking that question I’ve upgraded this information’s priority in your mind slightly. Maybe in the future you’ll be slightly more likely to remember.

A game won’t ask you a question like this unless it has a specific answer. The same is true of a lot of modern media. We have an expectation of art, nowadays, that everything be understandable, everything have a reason, everything have an explanation. Mysteries are created to be destroyed, consumed, their mystique drained away by the audience. If not in the book, in an interview with the author. If not in the movie, in the dvd extra features. We want to see the 80% of the ice berg that lies under the surface, or at least to see proof that it’s there.

It’s hard to keep mysteries as mysteries. Not only does the audience demand an unveiling but, when making a game and programming a consistent and underlying reality, it becomes possible for the mysterious functionings of our worlds to be uncovered by our audience, no matter how we wish to actually present that world. If we present a mystery, and the solution could possibly be derived by reverse engineering the game and collecting the pieces with a decompiler and hex editor, we can expect the mystery to be solved.

The exception to this extinction of mystery is when we refuse to even touch on the ‘solution’ – when we leave the information lost. If a character’s name is never spoken, but is attached to her model and voice files, it will be discovered. However, if the files are all generically named, if the game itself is agnostic, without knowledge of itself, its mysteries cannot be plundered.

On the flip side, there’s a danger in making mysteries even we, the creators, don’t know the truth of. If we just start making strange things happen, with no knowledge of what the truth is underlying them, we run the risk of letting the game become fragmented, disconnected from itself – the ice berg, under the water, shattered into separate chunks. From above it may seem similar to other ice bergs, but if weight is put on it it will sink.

It’s a game of espionage. One actor, the artist, has information he or she wishes to keep and to convey, but not to reveal, whereas the other actor, the audience, wishes to steal the information and reveal it. This becomes more difficult for the artist the more the work itself has to incorporate the secret – which is why any game with a systemic investment in that secret is doomed to have it revealed.

As I said, most games don’t bother, and it’s becoming progressively less common for other art forms to bother either. It’s not trendy. Hidden pasts are made to be revealed, secret deeds are done to be told of, and repressed fears and emotions and memories are crafted to be brought to the surface at a cathartic moment. The only mysteries which remain are those which the author never thought of as mysteries, questions they never thought to ask: What did you have for lunch, three years ago today?

Some things will never be known. It’s obvious and yet extraordinary, a piece of commonplace transcendence. Why not include it, just a hint towards the vast unknowable and ineffable ocean we swim in, instead of pretending that all is known, that everything is under control?

To take hold of the unknown, all you have to do is loosen your grasp on the known.

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2 comments
  1. Jōchō said:

    You bring up a fundamental point in fiction. In writing, it is always important to straddle the line between questions and answers. Characters and events have explanations, and maybe the majority of the events become clear over the course of the work. But if every event is explained, that is a significant weakness. The audience needs to have mystery so that they think about the material while and after they’re done with it.

    Take Lord of the Rings. In it, the actions of most of the characters are explained, and the plot resolves nice enough. But other things are barely touched on. Take the wizards, which Gandalf is a member. There’s a whole history behind there, but it isn’t delved into because it doesn’t relate to the plot. That mystery makes the reader think “I wonder what’s out there” in a way that the main plot doesn’t, because it’s resolved. Basically the whole reason so many people think about the lore of the Souls games. Or why people wonder about who Han Solo is or what he did prior to the series.

    But if nothing is resolved, then most readers feel like the work is too inconsistent. Like it doesn’t have a point. People like points, for some reason. Sword fascination?

    If the questions are big enough, they can’t be answered, can they? Even if the author answers, shouldn’t it continue to bother you if it’s big enough? “When is someone forgiven?” “Why do we hurt others?” “Do the things we do have meaning if nobody is affected?” Even if the narrative gives a good answer, shouldn’t the question linger? I guess it all depends on how it’s asked. Or how many times it’s asked.

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