Jake Elliot spoke Tuesday morning at GDC, chronicling the process of attempting to design mystery into the episodic adventure game whose first episode recently released, titled “Designing Mystery in Kentucky Route Zero.“
According to Jake Elliot, he and Tomas Kemenczy’s motto in designing point-and-click adventure game, Kentucky Route Zero was to not to design puzzles but to design mystery. They want the player not to feel like he is merely playing a game but like he is creating a story. They accomplished this both by creating a sense of place and by requiring the player to answer questions that she cannot possibly have the answers to. For example, early in the game, the player is asked to type in a password to access a computer and all the player is told is that the password is a poem– the player is therefore forced to write their own poem. Elliot is attempting to hand authorial intent over to the player, in essence making him an “artist.”
Early in the talk Elliot joked that when he was playing Mass Effect 2 he kept wondering why he had to “shoot all these robots” when all he really wanted to do was “make space friends.” So he and Kemenczy created a game where the focus is on economically depressed characters–their hopes, desires, and struggles. In order to do so, Elliot felt it was important that they not merely design puzzles but actually design mystery.
Borrowing from military thought-leader Gregory Treverton, Elliot defines puzzles as “something you can solve once you have all the information” and that the goal of most games is simply to gather information in order to find the solution. Mystery, by contrast, is something that we cannot be sure we have all the necessary information about and therefore can’t be sure that we will ever come to a solution. According to Elliot, we like puzzles because they make us feel empowered, but mystery is more true to real life. All we can do with mystery is attempt to frame it and come up with filters to try to understand it and thus mystery is a far more fertile ground for the stories of the disenfranchised.
Part of the impetus for Gamechurch is a conviction that everyone’s story is important. In our culture, stories of the wealthy and powerful often overshadow those of the less fortunate. Jesus was regularly seen investing in “the least of these,” people society has largely discredited or ignored like prostitutes and tax collectors. I think part of why Jesus did this is that he values all of our stories, so much so that he came to experience them and understand them. I played 30 minutes of Kentucky Route Zero this morning before Elliot’s talk. After hearing the talk, I am excited not only to play Kentucky Route Zero but to experience and create a story that is outside my immediate cultural experience.