Mystery is, unsurprisingly, very mysterious. How it works is largely an unknown. What we want from it and what we like about it are both such largely ambiguous, impossible-to-define things that largely get relegated to something akin to “that feeling” (or dat feeling if you want to be contemporary about it). The unfortunate thing, though, is that we love it. It’s about as hard to pin down as the exact inner workings of love itself, and they’re both things we want to have in our lives.
Back in 2007 in the height of the Lost‘s popularity, J.J. Abrams gave a talk at TED about a box. He talks about a lot of boxes, but only one box really matters. As a child, Abrams bought a $15 grab bag of magic from a magic store called Tannen’s. He’s had it for decades and never opened it. It just sits in his office on a shelf and he’ll look at it every once in a while.
It’s a fifteen-dollar box of fifty dollars’ worth of magic. He loves magic. So why not open it and mine its gold? Because of one very simple yet incredibly complex notion: mystery. “It represents infinite possibility. It represents hope. It represents potential.” Really, it represents whatever you want it to represent because it is a mystery, and as we all know, mystery can be anything. As Abrams puts it, “mystery is the catalyst for imagination.”
This is because our brains are amazing at filling in gaps. More than anything, the human mind loves to find holes and plug them as if a leaky dam would be the end of the world. If you’ve ever encountered those little Internet things like where you can read a passage where all the inner letters of words are jumbled up (which, as it turns out, wasn’t a real study) or only the top halves are showing or entire words are missing and yet you can still flawlessly process the information, that’s because your brain is liberally applying spackle where it sees holes, and it applies it so quickly, you sometimes don’t even see the patching happen.
We do need, however, things to connect and things to fill. The box is a great representation of this. In fact, dress it up in wrapping paper and put a bow on it; that is the perfect metaphor for properly applied mystery. Interest is inherently piqued because it’s something you can’t see and more than anything, humans desire knowledge. So you approach the box. You peer all around it: to the left, to the right, behind it next to the Christmas tree. Hmm, interesting. You know the box is this big, but its contents could be any size.
Pick it up. It feels hefty. You know of a few things that have this weight to it, but you don’t know for sure. You shake it. It’s solid. Anything brittle leaves your mind. Everything about the box and what it contains informs you to believe it is one particular thing but you can never know because you don’t ever actually open the box. It is a mystery.
Mystery, though, and the permittance to allow that spackling happen seems to be where video games fall short so often. In movies, you often find yourself (or at least I do) thinking about the film long after the lights come up. In fact, I find the first half hour after I leave a theatre to be the most difficult to properly converse with people because all I want to do is think about the mysteries involved. Of course, not all films or television shows do this as some are bad or don’t aim to provoke in that way, but the hit ratio is so much higher in those two industries than I often find in video games.
Assassin’s Creed III, for instance, was the cap to three-plus games of mystery. The first layer lets you look at the box. The first Assassin’s Creed allows you to see it from all angles and the size of the mystery intrigues you. You see it from the front, at first, and it appears to be something of an odd sci-fi tale, but you turn to see it go so much deeper than you thought. Templars? Assassins? It’s a big box.
As the first game draws to a close, you begin to peer up over the top. There’s a little opening, a missed flap that someone forgot to tape down. As Desmond, you stand in your cell and Eagle Vision reveals markings on the wall. What do they mean? Could they lead you to ending this timeless, endless feud? But the game ends. The box is slammed shut. And the mystery? It’s heightened. It is pulled taut.
The second game (or rather, the trilogy of the second game) lets you play with the box. Shake it, roll it, toss it. Possibilities simultaneously appear and erode away, burrowing further into your brain. It does a mighty fine job of giving you just enough away to make the box seem so much bigger than it really is.
And then Assassin’s Creed III just opens it and says sorry. It’s a bummer.
It’s a bummer because when we open the box, all we get is an answer when what we really want is an answer and some questions. It becomes boring when we open the mystery and all we get is a note saying “here’s what happened, here’s why it happened, have a nice life.” It becomes frustrating when we pull off the ribbon and cut the string and inside is just another box that is exactly the same size as the last one.
Surprisingly, DmC Devil May Cry has one of the better reveals of recent memory. For a series best known for its action, it’s entirely unexpected for a revival from a new studio to turn in a success on nearly all fronts. It’s still a rather fresh release, so I won’t go into detail with the ending, but it plays the box well. When the sides fall away and everything spills out, we’re left with an answer…and a box. The answer is big enough to where you could tell it bulges against the sides a bit, but stuffed right in next to it is a smaller unopened box. Right before the game cuts out for the last time, it holds it up, lets you look it at, and then takes it away. One mystery is answered while another is brought to light.
That might be the secret after all to mysteries. It’s giving just enough vines for your brain to swing from but not so many that it’s a wall and not so few that it’s impossible. You need that exhilarating feeling of flying through the air, tethered on by a single thought. Each unproven notion is placed just at your fingertips as you let go of the previous one. There’s that moment where you’re connected to nothing and your mind is swimming, trying to fill the gaps of the mystery. Some games do better than others, just as some films do better than others.
But few do as well as a plain ol’ box.