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A Trigon Era: The Mystery of Searching pt.2

Instead of being clear by presenting a definition of "mystery" up front, Thompson circles around the concept through a series of vague and complex statements describing what "mystery" is and what it isn't. This approach for articulation isn't good. It wanders and meanders around the concept of "mystery" in search of its meaning while never stopping at one clear concept. And along the way Thompson's own conflicting views and limited understanding of games are exposed. 

The following is a list of all the "mystery" statements organized by what it is and what it isn't. 


What Mystery Isn't...

  • "Mystery is not a puzzle. I do not solve mystery."
  • "Mystery does not arise from the vague, the convoluted, the simply confusing."
  • "Mystery is not the same as video game 'content'."
  • Mystery "is not a ride. It does not have me off to the next thing, distracted, consuming, consumptive, desperate. It does not offer loot. I do not regret it the next morning."
  • "Mystery is not a style. It's not wallpaper or mood lighting or a gravel-voiced narrator. It can't be added in post-production. It can't be sprayed on, like a tan."
  • "Mystery cannot abide formula."
  • "Mystery is not excellent."
  • "It's not eternal and unchanging."
  • "Mystery is not merely the unknown."
  • "Mystery cannot abide formula."


What Mystery Is...

  • [something] "I enter in, I explore, I am held captive, I doubt, I am disarmed."
  • "Mystery is about something. It has content."
  • "Mystery asks me to dwell."
  • "Mystery lingers. It sticks, resonates. Sometimes I only recognize it much later."
  • "Mystery comes from person. When I sense a human presence behind the game, the not- quite-dead author."
  • "Mystery comes from the machine."
  • "Mystery, like art, cannot be exhausted. It deepens with reconsideration... Replay is required."
  • "Mystery is the residue of wonder."
  • "Games excel at worlds, and a world is a mystery."
  • "Mystery resists. Mystery refuses. It will not yield. Not to me."
  • "Mystery resists closure. It resists completion and clean getaways."
  • "Mystery is not mystical or superstitious. It is hardheaded. It is ornery. It is, though, about experience. It demands interpretation. It requires of players, and especially critics, a more rigorous subjectivity."
  • "Mystery is not just something in games. It responds to how we approach games, our attitude towards play."
  • "Mystery requires human transaction."
  • “It is the impossibility of knowing and yet the continual attempt to know. It is unknowability itself. It is futile and essential.”
  • "Mystery is a dialogue, and insatiable"



Based on the above statements, its hard to understand what "mystery" is or how to create a game that has the "mystery" Thompson searches for. Here's where we have to examine the rest of the article to see if we can better understand "mystery" from a game design perspective. Using a Critical-Language, I will address Thompon's article out of linear order for the purpose of presenting his ideas in clear categories.


[source 1] Mystery comes from person. When I sense a human presence behind the game, the not- quite-dead author.  Sometimes in the handcrafted details, sometimes in pure vision, sometimes in raw vulnerability. I am thinking of Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP and Fez and Dys4ia, one of the only games to make me cry.

Here Thompson identifies one of three sources of where “mystery” comes from. The problem is, he proposes an objective source but then immediately switches to his subjective point of view. If mystery comes from people and the art people craft, then all video games have this quality. Video games are an artifice, virtual spaces and worlds where every detail is created or allowed by a human "author" (whether they consciously realize it or not). Often times, when people do not have the language to more objectively articulate their thoughts and feelings, they use vague concepts to make their point. I simply do not understand what Thompson means by “pure vision” or “raw vulnerability.” Seems like an subjective distinction Thompson is trying to draw for these games that he likes. Like like arguments for "true" skill or "real" gameplay, these are simply words that need to be unpacked. If there's more insight and objectivity to Thompson's statements, it's certainly not articulated here.

Still, I think I know exactly what Thompson refers to because he listed Sword & Sworcery and Fez as games have this authored “mystery" quality. I've played both of these games, and both ended up on my list for most disappointing games of 2012. One of the final points I ended on in my Fez review is that Phil Fish is the final dimension in understanding Fez. As the driving creative force behind the game, we are exposed to Fish's mind and character in a very detailed and intimate way. We get to see exactly what kind of designer Fish is. Unfortunately, Fish is not a good game designer, and this is evident in how Fez subverts gameplay in attempt to create a meta level experience. I articulate this idea in detail in the fifth part of my series About That Indie Feel.

If "raw" and "pure" mystery comes from designers who break new ground in video games by ignoring or subverting gameplay and quality game design, then this is one example of how Thompson is anti-games-as-art.


[source 2] Mystery comes from the machine. The procedures generating a Minecraft world, the behaviors governing a Spelunky ecosystem. Understanding the code would not dispel the eerie delight that comes with happening upon a magnificent cave entrance designed by no one. Or setting off a ruinous chain reaction with the toss of a single stone. Chance and consequence, daily mystery.

This paragraph is odd. Part of it seems to support the games-as-art trigon view, yet the other part leans in the opposite direction. If we interpret this “mystery... machine” as gameplay systems, then we can express the governing “behaviors” and “ruinous chain reaction[s]” in a game like Spelunky as its enemy, level, player, and powerup elements including all the rich dynamics that make its world so deadly and so fun. This seems like great support for game-as-art. But within the text is an alternate, opposite meaning.

The two examples listed are Minecraft and Spelunky, two games that feature random procedurally generated game environments. On the one hand it sounds like Thompson enjoys the gameplay of these games, yet I think he is more enamored with the novelty or newness that comes from procedurally generated content. This idea of encountering something new that is “designed by no one” is mostly an illusion. Though the designers wrote code that shuffles the individual bits of the game world in different ways, I wouldn't say that these random environments are designed by no one. To design the code that governs possibility is to design all possibilities. 

As I've explained in my review of Spelunky, there is a method to the madness that is the random environments. There are rules to the way it works and plenty of other guaranteed elements players can plan for. And if you've played as much of the game as I have, some of the rarest combinations of elements become somewhat regular, as the whole experience is smoothed over from player experience. This is why I've said that the random level generation isn't a high form of level design. Instead, by sacrificing a large degree of tuning, polish, and a coherent player learning experience, randomly generated levels sustain a certain kind of freshness that fades as players gain experience.

So perhaps Thompson isn't championing gameplay here. Perhaps he just likes the idea of a world that no one knows better than him as he explores it (not even the designers). This kind of designer-second, player-first view aligns more with the games-as-business trigon view. Creating such unique gaming experiences is tricky because this feeling of freshness is derived from player ignorance or perceived unknowability. 

And like we've seen already, Thompson is searching for an idea like "unknowability" to latch onto and believe in. I find it very telling that in this section, Thompson supports a kind of anti-intellectual approach to appreciating games. Like I said, Thompson is sustained by a kind of perceived freshness, newness, and uniqueness based on his current understanding of a game. The idea is once you know more about how games like Minecraft and Spelunky work on a technical level, the freshness becomes less so. Thompson is afraid of losing this difficult to sustain sense of newness and “mystery.” He's afraid that learning more about a game will kill the “mystery.” So it's telling when Thompson explains how learning a game down to its code can't dispel the “mystery;" “understanding the code would not dispel the eerie delight.” It's as if Thompson believes he has found an unsolvable truth about mystery that makes efforts to know more useless.


Mystery comes from the total work [source 3]. When a design team obscures the person [source 1] and the machine is more predictable [source 2], a game can still be shot through with it. Demon's Souls and Mario, explorations of power and gravity, trafficking in misery and delight, both trembling with mystery. Their worlds alive, present, total."

The final source of “mystery” is what Thompson calls “total work.” And this final source can produce "mystery" in a game despite it following a formula or being more "predictable".  Thompson doesn't explain what “total work” is, he gives us two examples and some short descriptions for us to glean meaning. Apparently Mario has “mystery” because the game itself allows players to exert "power", explore concepts like "gravity", and offers a chance for failure ("misery") and success ("delight"). So, put another way, gameplay is a source of “mystery.” Perhaps this is the strongest evidence for Thompson's support of gameplay and games-as-art. 


Mystery, like art, cannot be exhausted. It deepens with reconsideration. A well I draw from again and again. Replay is required. I can't possibly experience everything the first time. Mystery demands second quests.

Or perhaps this is the strongest evidence for Thompson's support of games-as-art. He even says “like art” right in the statement. In fact, this paragraph aligns well with the games-as-art Trigon theory. Delving deeper into the art of gameplay is its own kind of endless pursuit; “cannot be exhausted.” Gameplay experiences reflect us in a very real way, often exposing our weaknesses and highlighting our strengths. In this way we can use games as systems to measure and understand ourselves at our convenience; "A well I draw from again and again." We have to embrace games and learn their rules and systems to uncover its meaning; “it deepens with reconsideration.” This leaning requires repetition, practice, and more exposures; “replay is required.”

As we know from my writing about the trigon theory meaning, depth, complexity, and artistic expression are goals that video games achieve in ways that are different from other mediums. Games don't need fancy graphics, stories, sound effects, or even concrete-real-world representations to qualify as art or to reach these artistic goals. I've been saying this for years and proving it by digging deeper into the games I play with Super Mario Bros. as my cornerstone. So, if games are art, and “mystery” is art (among other things), then we now have map to guide us to uncovering the biases that Thompson holds that have shaped his beliefs and thoughts into a contradictory view of video games. 


In part 3, we look at how Thompson aligns with the games-as-business and games-as-technology views.  

« A Trigon Era: The Mystery of Searching pt.3 | Main | A Trigon Era: The Mystery of Searching pt.1 »

Reader Comments (6)

I can see how Thompson's view on games is not aligned with your games-as-art pillar. And I am sympathetic to the view that self-imposed abstinence from investigation for fear of ruining mystery is not the best way to go about things. But I have a hard time making it through this articles series without feeling like I'm wasting my time. It just feels like you're beating a dead horse, and perhaps missing the point.

If it's something you want to engage with and write about, that's great, I don't mean to discourage you from writing anything. But if your goal is to persuade people like Thompson to consider a different viewpoint, I have to say you are totally missing the mark with your approach. You have to draw someone in, ease them into your worldview, and it's clear that this is not something you're eager to do right now. Which is fine. But I don't see you creating a lot of value for anyone else with these posts.

February 28, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteraxcho


Sorry to hear that. I thought I stated my goals clearly up front. I never said I wanted to change Thompson's mind about anything.

And I think there's a lot more interesting things here to pay attention to if you don't think of it as a "I'm right... you're wrong" approach. Did I not explain that each view of the trigon is cool in my book? Did I not express that "games" don't need "gameplay" to be great products? And yet you think I'm writing this out of some kind of self-promoted position. Aligning Thompson's statements to different views of the trigon in no way paints him in a negative way. It merely helps us organized his desires, motivations, and begin to understand Thompson better including what games he might like.

This is a design focused investigation.

This entire effort is about language, about communication, and about listening. I don't know how interested one can be about games and how they move us and not in some way be interested in what moves other people and how they express such an experience.

If someone makes the effort to articulate their thoughts sentence by sentence, then their effort is only respected and embraced sentence by sentence. Glossing over people's ideas because you don't think they "get" it or that they're just not on your "side" is not what I'm about. The issues of individuality, difference, and expression are on the table, and I see little effort in ignoring each other out of some false sense of respect.

Yes, it may seem a little nit picky at this point (something I already addressed) but I wouldn't have published any of this if I didn't think it would be for the better of myself and my readers.

It's only part 2 after all. This whole series is going to be a long one.

February 28, 2013 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

Yeah, I mean, I'm sorry to have such a negative reaction to your post! Not trying to discourage you, but I wanted to give you some sense of how it impacted me.

I don't have a problem with nitpicking. I can appreciate that, and I do appreciate that you clarified what you were trying to do up front. I also don't ascribe negative intentions to your writing the post in the first place.

I think it's more this:

"Aligning Thompson's statements to different views of the trigon in no way paints him in a negative way. It merely helps us organized his desires, motivations, and begin to understand Thompson better including what games he might like."

Okay, I guess it can be a useful exercise to try applying the trigon to lots of examples, and that's what you're doing as you're exploring this newly presented theoretical system. But what bothers me, I think, is that the way I understand Thompson's perspective, I don't think the trigon is a very effective way of breaking it down. It ends up suggesting that his preferences would be best described by games-as-business/entertainment, which lumps his favorite experiences together with things like FarmVille, and I don't see how this is any more valid than lumping them together with gameplay-focused things like Mario that you would put in a fundamentally different category. It seems that whether you look at it in terms of the trigon, or say, "indie games", or "art games" in the non-trigon sense, you are steamrolling over everything that defines his own subtle place in the spectrum of taste and ending up with something that has no real relation to what it is supposedly analyzing.

I'm not inherently against systems like the trigon - I appreciate the trigon for what it's good for understanding, and I enjoy thinking about personality type systems such as Myers-Briggs or the BrainHex player types. But they all have their limitations, and at a certain point it becomes harmful to force them onto situations that don't fit the mold. To me, it feels analogous to someone declaring "women are like this; men are like this" and squeezing their perception of the world into their own rigid categories without learning from the nuance of the real world and allowing it to reach back and inform their own understanding. I'm not accusing you of this! But there's more than a hint of that feeling, and that's what is provoking my reaction.

Anyway, I am curious to see how the series develops, and hopefully I'll be pleasantly surprised! :) But no worries even if I'm not.

February 28, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteraxcho


I'm glad you took the time to share your thoughts.

We'll see whether the trigon theory is good or bad for addressing Thompson's ideas. It may not be so good in the end, but we have to go through this process to find out.

I think the Trigon theory is a lot more flexible than FamVille lumping. As I explained, a single game can satisfy the diverse desires of each view. So there's no need to think about each view as being Simulation, Mario, Farmville. There's a lot more overlap and a lot more complexities to consider.

Part of the reason why I'm combing through the text so carefully is to better understand Thompson's view including his subtleties. The point is, if you really think about what he's saying the hard to express/understand subtleties become clear one way or another. I think the general idea you seem to have against summary, categories, lumping less we misunderstand Thompson is the wrong way to look at this. You could even go as far as saying that Thompson's own words misrepresent his own feelings about games. All mediums and systems have their limitations.

But the core to all of this is that to express what we feel while simultaneously understanding ourselves better in the process, we have to use mediums. We have to use pictures or games or words to express ourselves. And in this case, we have words. And that's the only thing we have to understand Thompson right now. There's nothing else we can understand about him outside of what his words mean. And looking closely at his words is the best way to do this... not getting a general gist or impression from it. How can we tell what he "supposedly" means unless we analyze it this way.

Maybe I didn't do a good job of explaining the Trigon theory. hmm.

I hope I don't let you down.

regarding the second source of where "mystery" comes from, this falls almost exactly in line with what I said in the first part about "immersion". This is partly why he dislikes puzzles in the zelda games from his equally horrid "saving Zelda" essay. Noticing a game is constructed breaks that immersion. He wants a world he can believe in. This is especially evident when he says "Games excel at worlds, and a world is a mystery." and how in the zelda essay he straight up dismisses level design. Level design and puzzles give the idea that a world is crafted instead of arbitrary and random like in nature which is why he dislikes almost every Zelda except the first two. This is even more evident by how only Wind Wakers "charm" and the "dark horror" of Majora's Mask are what nearly save them (not gameplay).

Regarding the last quote, it only sounds like he admires gameplay on the surface. Replaying a game is something a person who values gameplay would do to understand and appreciate it. But, that's not what he's talking about. He's talking about the details of the "world" and how the "world" works, not the game.

March 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Johnathan


*nods* sharp observations.

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