Systems Suspense

Some folks in the community Discord for my roguelike Caves of Qud are heading an effort to write an expansive wiki for the game. As a game wiki apologist, this brings me an immense amount of joy. I recall my experiences with one of Qud’s biggest inspirations, the 90s roguelike Ancient Domains of Mystery (ADOM), and how it was (successfully) pitched to me as a game “so complicated you need a guidebook just to play it”. I spent hours scrolling through the pages of said guidebook, in parallel to my playthroughs but also in tangent to them — first searching for answers to my questions (why was I just crushed to death by my own luggage?) then later enchantedly browsing through catalogs of the game’s myriad secrets (if I put beeswax in my ears I’ll be protected from the banshee’s wail, but getting hit by a fireball trap will melt the wax and cause me to hear her again).

Amusingly, “so complicated you need a guidebook just to play it” reads as critique today; games are frequently judged by how self-contained they are, how effectively they encapsulate an experience inside the bounding box of their rules, how elegantly they unfurl their own secrets. The sort of game that does these things successfully will point to the gaps I, the player, am meant to fill: I might look at an Into the Breach map and not immediately know the solution to the tactical puzzle there, but I know what to solve and how to solve it. I know what the stakes are. Contrast this with an alternative tendency — what Jim Stormdancer called “games as ludic mystery” — where what is unknown is itself unknown. On the Qud team we talk often about a related idea, systems suspense, to describe the experience of maneuvering through game systems that do not make their boundaries immediately known. Instead of deriving theorems from their axioms, these games ask players to discover the axioms themselves.

The modern design ethos, of simple, elegant mechanics that can be internalized in seconds but then played for hours, stands in direct opposition to games as ludic mystery -- games where figuring out how to play them at all is a huge part of the fun.— Jim Stormdancer (@mogwai_poet) January 17, 2019

(Full thread)

Bounding Boxes

ADOM and its older sibling Nethack, with their dedication to anticipating every imagined interaction, are both games made in the tradition of ludic mystery. This lineage was broken with the roguelike popularity explosion of the last decade, a phenomenon that saw the distillation of some of the genre’s mutually supportive design patterns (procedural generation, permadeath, player-monster parity) into ludicly unmysterious shells. I’m no purist — this new crop of games are interesting in their own right, and people should make them, play them, call them roguelikes, etc. I’m just taking a moment to mourn what could have been an alternate path to genre popularity based on the oft-neglected principle that feeling bewildered can be satisfying.

I said something earlier about games encapsulating experiences and bounding boxes. One thing games look to do is accentuate the dynamics of the real world by metaphorizing them into a set of knowable rules and learnable extrapolations. Grid-based combat approximates real-life combat. Conversation trees approximate real-life conversations. A “bounding box” game wants to get you fluent in its particular suite of system metaphors as quickly as possible so that you can experience what it’s like speak in them, i.e., to play the game. I imagine a physics-like system diagram of the forces in the game where all the arrows are pointing inward toward this experiential goal. Ludic mystery games, instead of rushing you to fluency, seek to reproduce an epistemological relationship we have with the real world, where knowing things is difficult, boundaries are fuzzy, and horizons are far off. They lean into the idea that knowing itself is protean, erratic, perpetual: a bouquet of arrows pointing in every direction.

Knowledge Communities

How do we become knowledgeable in the vast and messy real world? We do so by a variety of means and tactics, stitching together familiarity and then wisdom from a diverse array of sources. This process is inherently discursive and nonlinear1. Think of how we click through hyperlinks on a wikipedia page, walk through the citations of a research paper, chain together google search results. Ludic mystery invites us to import this methodology into our play, to melt the magic circle, just a little more than usual, and reach out to the encompassing world for context. Enter guidebooks, wikis, forums, chat rooms, and let’s plays; these are sites on the game’s periphery that enable understanding through discourse.2

You may know someone who, like me, admits to prefer reading about Dwarf Fortress to playing it. I say prefers reading to playing, but reading (or writing) is its own form of play, one that’s fundamentally social — through a series of page views and edits we shape the collective understanding of the game, and in turn the collective shapes each of our own. Wikis are the social stratosphere that surrounds the lithosphere of the game core. Like all cultural objects, the lithosphere itself only coheres into something meaningful through a system of references that necessarily point outward — regardless of whether there’s ludic mystery or not — and so it seems reasonable to think of cruising the stratosphere as play, too. In fact, doing so opens up some interesting design possibilities. Blaseball is a good example, with how it encourages creative interpretation in its stratosphere and then sublimates the results back down into its lithosphere. (Interestingly, the upcoming Neurocracy seems to take the converse approach to this ludic layering, isolating the discursive subject and packaging it back into a bounding box.)

Gratuitous Friction?

Obviously there are play patterns here that are degenerate. If a game is forcing me to look up an answer on a wiki and then immediately enact it and move on, I’m not crawling the web of collective knowledge in a meaningful way, I’m just doing a chore. And ludic mystery games will flirt with this boundary, because by definition there’s less linearity, less curation, less greasing away the friction. Some of the arrows in the bouquet will point to dead ends. I may even experience what the bounding box designer dreads most: frustration. There’s also the time investment problem. As a 30-something new parent, I appreciate the efficiency of the experience-in-a-box and am increasingly drawn to the idea that games should respect my time. I find myself looking for the escape hatch when a game gives me what feels like a gratuitous amount or type of friction. Nonetheless, despite all the pitfalls, I still crave and relish these experiences of ludic mystery, of righting a bewildering world by gathering its far-flung pieces and fastidiously putting them back together.