Cartoon owl holding up a controller. Pixelated red background. Text: Sense of Mystery!

I’ve blathered on and on about how I don’t really like excessive HUDs, or minimaps, or quest markers on this blog.

It’s not that games that utilize those features would be bad, necessarily. Many massively great games of their time like World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto 3 use them.

But it’s always worth discussing if something could be done better, and what we players lose when the game developer just slaps those features in without thinking.

The good old days

If you’ve followed the gaming scene for any good length of time, then you’ve probably heard somebody reminisce the good old days. (Or perhaps you’re the one who has been reminiscing those days.)

The days when games came with manuals and you actually read them when not playing the game.

The days when the Legend of Zelda didn’t have cracks in walls to indicate where you need to use bombs.

The days when you got your information from the school playground and Nintendo Power.

Back then, you’d get a game and have little idea about how everything works and what there is to find.

“Oh, I didn’t know you could do that!”

“Did I just stumble on something nobody else has ever seen?!”

There was a sense of mystery present in almost every game.

What is the Sense of Mystery?

In the realm of gaming, mystery is not merely an element – it is the lifeblood that keeps the player engaged and invested. The allure of the unknown, the thrill of the unexpected, and the satisfaction of unraveling enigmas are what make games feel alive.

Without it, you don’t feel scared when playing a horror game. You don’t feel like you’re on an adventure when playing an adventure game. Combat feels more like math and less like actual combat.

Even games like Tetris that would seem “almost purely mechanical” benefit from a certain amount of mystery. You don’t know in what order your tetraminos are going to be available to you. And instead of going for the high score just for the sake of high score, you keep wondering what kind of ending screens you’ll see.

Tetris (NES). The scene in this picture gets more and more Nintendo characters playing instruments as you get a better score.
(image source)

When you’re young and don’t know any better, it’s very easy to embrace the mystery. It’s almost automatic (as long as the game isn’t purely about crunching numbers on a spreadsheet).

But as we get older, things change.

Fast-forward to today

To be completely honest, while I personally miss the old days, it’s only the feeling of mystery I miss. Not the outdated mechanics or the lack of accessibility.

Playing the first Legend of Zelda today feels cumbersome unless you have played it so much that you already remember most bomb spots and other item usage spots. (Or unless you abuse save states.)

Games like Ultima IV are practically unplayable if you’re not willing to look through a guide. (And that is despite the fact that the Ultima series greatly simplifies mechanics used in many RPGs that are based on Dungeons and Dragons!)

Secondly, if you’ve played games for a dozens of years, then you’re probably stuck in the same situation as I am: we’ve seen so many games that the inherent mystery is gone.

If you’re a programmer (like I am), or have dabbled in making your own games, then the illusion is even further gone.

And not just that, but as games have evolved, developers have started adding in a lot of mechanics that make them easier to understand – at the cost of losing much of the mystery.

The question now is, have we lost that sense of mystery completely? If the mystery comes from the fact that we were young and didn’t understand things, then surely there can be no more mystery anymore?

The good news is that it’s not gone. It just requires some work from the developers.

Mystery vs Information

The player needs information in order to do anything in a game. You can’t play if you don’t know what to do.

The Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past. A crack in the wall means you need to use a bomb.
…Except this one specific crack in this picture that actually requires a special Super Bomb.
(image source)

If you add cracks to walls that tell the player that they should use a bomb there, then you’re just creating an arbitrary task. It gives the player too much information. It’s not a puzzle or a challenge. You know exactly what to do, and doing it is very easy.

If you forgo cracks in the walls, then you’re making the game overly enigmatic. There’s not enough information! (How am I even supposed to start guessing that I needed a bomb there?!)

One option removes all mystery, the other one adds too much.

(Well, that’s not completely true. “Cracks in the walls” still retains the mystery of “I wonder what’s inside there”. But still, neither option by itself is all that good.)

And there we get to the meat of the problem: the developers need to balance creating a sense of mystery while still explaining how the game works and what you need to do.

If you don’t have cracks in the walls, then you need to add some sort of other hints that point toward hidden entrances.

If you do add cracks in the walls, then you may need to adjust what breaks them, or maybe make bombs more scarce. You can also make the cracks much less visible, so that looking for them becomes a challenge.

Ultima V. There’s one fake wall in this picture that can be walked through. See if you can spot it from all the other grey walls!
(image source)

If the game tells the player too little, it’ll turn off a lot of players who don’t understand what to do. (Or they’ll end up playing the game with a guide, which effectively spoils any sense of discovery.)

If the game tells too much, there’s no mystery – and the game becomes a chore.

It’s an endless struggle to balance out the two.

The perfect balance

Games strike a perfect balance when they introduce a game mechanic, but cleverly hide its implementation. In other words, give the player information, but make it natural and often somewhat inaccurate.

Let’s look through a couple of examples on how existing games strike that perfect balance between information and mystery.

Harvest Moon – stamina/energy

Most modern games that utilize a stamina or energy system present it with a stamina meter or wheel.

Harvest Moon, however, doesn’t. Instead, you recognize your character’s remaining energy from visual cues.

Harvest Moon: Back To Nature. When your character gets tired, he’ll first wipe sweat with a handkerchief, and later falls on his butt exhausted whenever you try to do anything that requires energy.

There is a minor downside to this that it can get a bit repetitive, since you’ll be trying to use up your energy every day before going to sleep.

Splatoon – health

Splatoon 3. Instead of having a health meter, the sides of the screen start to get filled with enemy color ink as you take damage. (The screenshot is from Splatoon 3, but all three games in the series use this same effect.)

Splatoon 3’s “screen filling with enemy ink” mechanic gives you the necessary information that “you’re wounded and need to take shelter until you heal up”. A health meter or number would give you the same information. But this way is more natural, retaining a sense of mystery.

Since you’re not seeing exact numbers, you can’t really know if you survived some situation with 10 health or 1 health. There’s three big reasons why that doesn’t bother players in Splatoon games:

  1. Players always need only 1-4 hits to get splatted.
  2. There’s no power creep of any kind: you can’t make your character or weapons do more damage. When you start the game with Splattershot Jr., it requires 4 hits to splat an enemy. When you’ve played the game for 1000 hours, Splattershot Jr. still requires 4 hits to splat an enemy.
  3. You can’t heal with spells or items.

One big reason to have an accurate health bar is so that you can use healing items or spells efficiently.

But here that extra bit of information about “how much health you have left exactly” is pretty much always completely unnecessary. All you really need to know, is that you’re damaged, and need to take a breather.

(Sidenote: There are a ton of first-person and third-person shooters that use a similar effect, but most of those games also show you a health bar. From games I’ve personally played, Splatoon 1-3 and Mirror’s Edge are the only ones that forgo health bar completely.)

Ultima V – weapon stats and damage

Most games that have weapons tell you what is the “attack value” of said weapons. That’s important, because the player needs to know if some weapon is stronger than another. However, it’s also quite immersion breaking.

Ultima V doesn’t reveal any such stats.

But if that’s the case, then how would I know if a weapon I found or want to buy is stronger than my current weapon?

Simple: you look at their order.

Ultima V. Arms (weapons) and armour are listed in an order in your inventory. You can always trust that the item below the previous one in that list is superior. (In this picture: club < main gauche < throwing axe < short sword …)
(image source)

There are some intricacies in the list that you have to realize separately. For example:

  • Things such as arrows are included in the list, despite not being a weapon, but ammunition. Also rings and amulets, which have specific effects instead of “being better or worse” than other rings and amulets.
  • Certain weapons may not necessarily be stronger than the previous weapon, but they may have an additional feature: throwing axes can be thrown, morning star and halberd can attack 2 tiles away etc.

There is something of a flaw in this system in that you can’t be completely sure if something a shopkeeper is selling is stronger than something that’s in your inventory. (Not until you buy the item and see its placement in your inventory.)

But as I mentioned, this system aims to answer the most important question a player has with equipment.

It’s not “how strong is this weapon?”, it’s “is this weapon an upgrade to my previous one?

Additionally, when you’re fighting enemies, you don’t actually see how much damage your hit dealt. You only get information about that enemy’s current state after the attack:

Ultima V. When you hit an enemy, you receive information about how wounded the enemy is or if they were affected by a status effect. E.g “Squid lightly wounded!”, or “Ettin heavily wounded!” or “Avatar is poisoned!”
(image source)

This system adds further suspense to whether you manage to, say, slay a fleeing opponent before it runs away.

However, note that even Ultima V does show you the health of your characters. So the added mystery and suspense is mostly tied to enemies. I imagine that only showing the general status of your characters (healthy, wounded, critical, dead etc.) might work in a game like this, but I can’t be sure without experiencing it firsthand.

Failed balance

Games can also bomb this delicate balance. Here are some examples of that:

Kingdom Come: Deliverance – quests with multiple endings

KCD is an open-world RPG with a ton of quests. A big thing in the game is that many of those quests can be solved in multiple ways, and often through gameplay mechanics, instead of dialogue options! Many quests can also fail, meaning that you don’t get second chances.

However, the problem is that the game is somewhat buggy. That can easily make you afraid that you break something permanently and lose tens of hours of gameplay because you can no longer advance in the story. The mystery is lost because you feel like you need to look at a guide to check that you don’t screw yourself over by doing something wrong.

Kingdom Come: Deliverance. I could wait for the horse race to start. Or I could cause a commotion and make everybody flee, therefore winning by default as the only contender… and hope that doesn’t break the entire game.

Additionally, if you don’t do quests absolutely perfectly then that usually results in people being super pissed off at you, which feels pretty crappy. (But at the same time, at least the game evokes a lot of feelings!)

A sad thing here is that I personally only came by exactly one game-breaking bug during my three playthroughs of KCD. So it may very well be that there’s really nothing to worry about anymore? However, if you google anything about the game, you’ll come by tons of comments from back when the game was a year or two old. And many of those comments warn you about how any little thing can screw over your game file. So maybe the game’s fine now, but the fear lingers in your mind!

Bayonetta – score screen

Bayonetta is a visual marvel. The gothic-inspired architecture, intricate characters, over-the-top animations, and the “biblically accurate” angels are what really wowed me in this game and drew me into it. You’re playing a true badass in a world of magical wonder and mystery!

You’re enjoying the exhilarating combat of the game, praised by critics all over the world! You defeat the last opponent of the fight and suddenly – bam-bam-BAM! Score screen!

Wait, what? Score screen?!

Bayonetta. “I see that the enemy managed to hit you once with a move that you had no idea was coming… That’s a demerit.”
(image source)

On one hand, this is a great way to reward the player for doing well. It’s also a somewhat good way to give the player information about what the game is about: try to do combos, try to defeat the enemies faster, try to take less damage. The developers probably think that they’re adding an adequate sense of mystery and immersion by using medals and trophies (instead of just grades), and by not revealing exactly how much you need for each medal.

But there’s two major drawbacks.

First, Bayonetta is supposed to be a nearly unbeatable badass, but you getting graded like this breaks that immersion immediately.

The game is clearly telling you: “You’re not Bayonetta, you’re just some dude playing a video game. And you suck since you didn’t get a perfect grade!”

Secondly, since you now know that the developers themselves are judging you, you no longer just enjoy playing the game on your own terms.

If the score screen didn’t exist, you’d be the judge of how well you did:

  • “Phew! I won!” (survived the fight, no matter how long it took or how much damage you took)
  • “I could have done better. I’ll try playing the stage again.” (someone who naturally wants to improve)
  • “Aaaaand, I think I can shave a few seconds off there.” (speedrunner/completionist)

But since the score screen is there, it doesn’t matter who you are, if you take one hit in the fight, you’ll feel bad because now your score is going to suck. If you do a little mistake, you can’t redeem yourself. Not unless you replay the stage, painstakingly skip through all the cutscenes, and redo all the previous fights, trying not to do any mistakes there…

“WHAT?! I did so well, how is that only worth a silver medal?!”
“Why do I get a Bronze medal for a 4081 combo here but a Platinum one for 318 in the previous fight?!”
(image source)

The sad thing here is that if that score screen was just a high score (no medals or ranks), then it would be easier to ignore. But since they’re using medals, it gives you a clear sense of “you did bad” or “you did good.”

If you’re someone who enjoys perfecting your gameplay, then this score screen is great! (But even you might be annoyed that the game doesn’t reveal exactly what you should be aiming at.)

For the rest of us, there’s little immersion to be had here. Only frustration and the wrong kind of mystery.

Gheralf H. Swiftwar

Gheralf H. Swiftwar

Crazy owlmister. Eternally attemps to find ways to prove that his thousands of hours put into video and computer games has not been just an utter waste of time.

2 thoughts on “Sense of Mystery – Game Design

  1. Welp, I agree completely.

    I just started playing Disco Elysium recently, which actually manages to cultivate mystery about not only the world around you and other characters, but about yourself as the main character. Not just trying to find out about your past, although that’s also a part, but also the mystery of what the heck you’re going to do next, as you bumble through the game with untold legions of tempting options put forth by the voices in your head to lick stains off tables, alternately console and berate a mailbox, and try to convice anyone that will listen that you’re secretly Karl Marx. It’s a very interesting game.

    In Epic Battle Fantasy 5 (and 3/4, to a less polished extent)(turn based combat, heavily inspired by FF among others) all enemies are by default basically complete unknowns save for what they actually look like. You can then ‘scan’ new enemies, wasting a turn, to reveal their name, health, elemental weaknesses, etc. You don’t have to scan anything though, you can theoretically play through the entire game in blissful ignorance of anything you’re fighting. There’s even a challenge condition menu that lets you turn all info off. There are also certain status effects and weather conditions that can obscure information about both enemies and your characters, which can be either pointless or catastrophic depending on how tough/complex of a battle you’re in. The series, particularly the last game, are actually pretty awesome and can be found free (sans side dungeons, but otherwise fully playable), or purchased for extra content.

    1. Oh man, Disco Elysium is another game I’ve been meaning to play for a long time. Maybe someday.

      I generally like the scanning system you mentioned, even if it can be somewhat immersion breaking in many games (because it usually tells you the exact health and weaknesses of opponents).
      … As long as the game itself is not designed poorly! I remember playing some more obscure JRPGs in the past where understanding the enemies’ weaknesses was practically impossible without “scanning” them (it’s a Flaming Phoenix, but it’s randomly weak against NATURE spells?!), and beating said opponents was extremely difficult without knowing what their weak spots are. And even after you scanned an enemy, it was very easy to forget what the weakness was, so in the end, you’d just end up keeping a walkthrough open all the time >_< I also don't mind the system that's in Octopath Traveler, where you can see how many weaknesses the enemies have from the get-go, and after you've damaged them with something they're weak against, it remains visible on that enemy at all times. It's not the most immersive system, but I think you can chalk it up to "your characters remembering these things for you." And it's better than having to always try to remember the different weaknesses of every enemy. (The perfect system would, of course, make the weaknesses easy to remember by simply looking at the enemy.) I've never actually played Epic Battle Fantasy, but I remember seeing flash animations of it. You mentioning it led me to a roadtrip of nostalgia, going through old flash clips and games I've saved.

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