mystery games and their tropes

in february 2019 I decided to write a blog post about how much I liked "exploration games". at first that sounded pretty straightforward, but the more I tried to do it, the more I realized that I didn't know how to define "exploration". was it synonymous with "open world"? with "detective games"? with... "mystery"? it would be easy to shrug it off as "there's no such thing as an exploration game, you just like certain games and there's nothing in common with them", but that didn't sit right with me. there certainly is a special feeling that arises in games like FEZ, dark souls and outer wilds, and my gut tells me that this feeling is pretty close to "exploration", whatever that may be.

since then I've thought real long and hard about what an exploration game is, and although I still can't offer a single definition, what I think I'm able to do is list the mechanical similarities between these games - the tropes, if you prefer. that's what this page is about.

also, I'm calling them "mystery games" now, because I think that's the feeling that connects them.

disclaimer: this is an exercise in subjectivity. this might sound like bullshit to you, but these games really make me feel similar feelings, and I'm trying to figure out why. maybe they don't make you feel that. that's alright! mystery still exists, and someday I hope that it finds you.

a secret

in real life, a secret is a piece of information that's hidden from you, on purpose, by other people. it's not a stretch to say that humans like to learn secrets, in many different contexts: we like to learn secrets about each other, that is, gossip; we like to learn secrets about the world, that is, conspiracies; and we like to learn secrets about stories, that is, we read them.

games, being designed to give us what we want, also present secrets galore. but there's an inherent paradox in a game hiding a secret: if it really wants to hide something from you, why do they always leave some way of letting you discover those secrets? couldn't they just hide the information in a locked room with no door?

the solution to this paradox is that the game designer doesn't really want to hide something from you, it just wants to make you work for it. it's in the nature of play to do that: the objective of an obstacle race isn't to block the progress of the contestants, it's just to make things more spicy.

but wait, aren't there secrets in videogames that are just like that - locked rooms with no door? yeah, I acknowledge that. in practice, I think there're 2 different kinds of secrets: "non-immersive" and "Immersive"

a "non-immersive secret" is what most people would call an easter egg. it's something that the game designer as a person hid in the game, for no-one to found. to fnid it is to recognize the game as a game, and therefore to break the immersion. notable examples include: the "Created by Warren Robinett" in Adventure, the John Romero face in Doom, etc.

an "immersive secret", on the other hand, is a secret that's made for you to find and fits itself nicely in the context of the game world. it might be very hard to find, but it doesn't hurt the player's immersion. also, it was created by the game designer not as a human signing its name on a blender level, but as a god partaking in the creation of this world. notable examples of immersive secrets include: finding Gwyndolyn in Dark Souls, getting the crystal hearts in Celeste, getting the true ending of cave story, etc.

mystery games love to have secrets. that's because a secret is, by design, a mystery: something difficult to explain or understand.

a sequence of specific actions

a non-linear world


knowledge barriers

an overarching narrative mystery

an overarching narrative mystery