The Unexplained Setting

Whilst I was wrtiting my recent examination of “Stories Untold“, one aspect electrified me with a sudden shock of nostalgia that I wasn’t expecting. The player is presented with an apparently mundane setting, however the setting’s unsettling nature is present from the outset due to the unknown elements: Why are we being asked to do these tasks? where are we? Like a dream, the player finds themselves in the middle of events without knowing how things go to this point being, expected to ‘go along with it’.

This sudden nostalgia pang stems from my childhood. Growing up I always had an interest in riddles, or I guess ‘logic puzzles’ to give a more accurate description; a brief overview of story or circumstance was given requiring a logical explanation or solution. One of these always vividly stands out in my mind:

You are in a room with three switches; the room has no windows and only one door. Outside the door is a winding corridor at the end of which is a second room inside of which is a single light bulb hanging hanging from the ceiling by a wire. You know that one of the switches activates the light in the second room however, there is no way to see the light in the second room from the first, and as soon as you leave the first room the door closes and locks stopping returning once you have left it. How do you determine which of the switches controls the light?

The reason this specific riddle stuck out was not for the puzzle or the solution, but because of how vividly and unsettling my childhood brain imagined the scenario to be. In my mind these two rooms were underground, the walls were cold, damp and concrete; the door was heavy, metal, and rusted; when it slammed behind you the sound reverberated along the concrete corridor; there were no other exits, and no reason why this was your task, or who had set it for you. I imagined solving the problem and then just being trapped in that corridor and room, goal achieved but not being able to leave. The first time I created the link between thus riddle and games was likely during some early forays into text-based adventures. Once again the situation is created in a short paragraph of text, but my overactive mind fills in the blanks.

You’re standing in a small room, to the north there is a door, a staricase leads down, in the corner there is a flask*”

What kind of building are you in? Is it dark? Can you see anything down the stairs? Why are you here? Who has put you in this situation? I can’t help but feel on edge, even if it’s not what the designers intended.

Portal captures the essence of this “You’re in a room” feeling

For me the epitome of the riddle scenario was the first ‘Portal’ game; at a quick glance this is a first-person puzzle game where the player is required to get to the exit in a crisp, futuristic setting, but once our protagonist stumbles upon that first jammed panel to the world behind the scenes the entire tone of the game changes; just seeing that there is something ‘behind’ those walls forces the player to question their perception of the in-game world. I remember playing that for the first time with the same feeling I had when I first questioned the nature of the world that those switches and light-bulb existed in. Likewise ‘The Stanley Parable’ gently probes at the idea of free will in games in an unnerving and unsettling way by presenting the player with an unexplained world where the player is given choices, but no option to walk away… other than perhaps turning off the game…

The ‘unexplained setting’ technique isn’t even restricted to games where a world is created. The WarGames styled tactical nuclear disaster that is ‘DEFCON: Everybody Dies’ presents the player, not with a world, but just an interface to some vector based missile control system. As the player watches the death toll from each nuclear strike, the only hint of a game-world is created in the hum of the bunker atmospheric control, and the quiet sobs and coughs from its other, unseen, inhabitants. The ‘why?’ and ‘who?’ of this apocalypse is never provided, and the experience is more chilling for it. A little while ago (… actually the evening before we went to the airport and rolled the dice…) a friend introduced me to ‘TIS-100‘, an assembly code based puzzle game from the people who brought us ‘SpaceChem’, and once again there is a world hinted at but never explained. The game itself is simply the assembly interface with very little explanation on-screen, in order to play you need to print a copy of the manual for this virtual language, and even then deciphering what you have to do is part of the challenge (as the manual is just that; a manual, not a tutorial). The mystery of what exactly this virtual system was used for is created by cryptic notes and scribbles on its pages and guarded references to classified applications in the text. It’s a game I’ve yet to dive in to, largely because I remember the rabbit hole that was trying to optimise ‘SpaceChem’ systems.

DEFCON is chilling, despite being just a tactical display

Even in a lively party-game atmosphere, the why?, who?, and where? of an unknown situation can be curious if the players mind drifts to it. In the asymmetric ‘Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes’ the player at the computer finds themselves (very convincingly in VR mode) in a small brick room, sat at a desk trying to diffuse a bomb; it’s not clear if this is a police station, underground bunker… or even if the player is taking on the role of a bomb diffusion expert. Don’t think about it too long… seriously, who is making you diffuse all these bombs without the manual? is it all just some cruel game?

Where even is this??

I recall the same feeling playing the first ‘Virtual Pool’ game on PC, a simple pool game, the player is little more than a floating cue in a small backroom bar, but that tantalizing door out of the room would drive me to move the camera just to see if I could clip slightly out of the room and catch a glimpse of the world outside (as if the designers were going to make the rest of the building just in case). I was even unsettled by one of my Sister’s educational CD-ROMs, “Eyewitness Virtual Reality Cat”, an homage to our feline friends in the form of a virtual museum (including gift shop) with educational exhibits… But where was this museum? Why were we here? Could we leave? Why weren’t any other visitors there?…

Hello??… Hello?….

… and am I taking it too far if I’m worried about Pacman’s tormented existence? running endlessly through a blue neon maze, unable to escape, his world looping infinitely, his only release the sweet glitch-embrace of level 256….

* You cannot get ye flask

8 thoughts on “The Unexplained Setting

  1. I have these feelings too! Games are interesting at the edges – finding the “limits” to the freedom you have, exploring the edges of the worlds you find yourself in.

    The best games encourage this, and reward you with new sights or characters or items for pushing this exploration.

    Someone once said that “freedom” in games are always ultimately an illusion (even those massive open world games). The trick is rewarding players when they find something just beyond the edge of the world – something that seemed to be inaccessible.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s slightly tangential, but I always think it’s interesting the choices that designers make at the ‘edges’ of games to hide this limits – the uncrossable mountain, the chain link fence. The best examples are where the space is designed in a way that the boundaries aren’t even noticeable, gone are the days of the ‘invisible wall’.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I always wonder these things, too! haha I find it so fascinating how, by their nature, games can get away with dumping someone into a scenario with no explanation and being told to just “go with it.” Like Nick the Gent, I think that these types of scenarios offer a lot of opportunities for exploration as the player tries to “understand” – both deeply-rooted parts of our existence (exploring and understanding) – and it’s great when the game offers a pat on the back for creatively thinking about a problem or exploring the world to its utter limits.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not only can they ‘get away’ with it, it’s one of the excellent things about games. With a book or a film being dumped in the middle of the action isn’t unusual, in a game however the player is an active participant… I guess the popularity of this feeling has spread out into the real world, possibly influencing the rise of life action ‘locked room’ games.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This post was a treasure to read. I’ve always loved imagining what put me up to a situation in a game where there is no explanation for it. I think that’s why Portal is one of my favorite games– because it puts you in the same situation and then, as the game goes, forces you to start questioning it.
    I really enjoyed reading about just how deeply you get that feeling of needing to know more. I must say, I never experienced it while playing a text RPG or on the rare occasion of playing Pacman. That must have made those games even more fun!

    Liked by 1 person

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