While playing these games, I was thinking a bit about three things from Jasper Juul: his notion of “incoherent worlds,” the role of abstraction and representation, and the ways that rules and fictions can interact.
Juul defines incoherent world in a game as “a game with a fictional world but where the game contradicts itself or some game events cannot be explained as part of the fictional world.” He gives the example of Donkey Kong, as we don’t know why Mario has three hearts and can never find out why. Initially when I was playing A Dark Room, I was considering it a bit incoherent, as the idea of clicking to stab or clicking to build–this projection of a real world action into the game through this mechanic–felt arbitrary.
But really I was confusing the ideas of representation with this coherence. In the world itself, though textual, things made sense. Huts provided housing, and though some of the materials felt odd–like stone spears coexisting with laser guns or teeth and scales making weapons–game elements had an internal coherence. Instead, I found myself a bit jarred from the narrative by the mechanics of playing.
As time went on, also, I found myself less engaged by the fiction and more engaged by the mechanics, which is something Juul also describes: “It is a common characteristic that with sustained playing of the same game, the player may become less interested in the representational/fictional level of the game and more focused on the rules of the game” (139). I think was especially easy in this sort of game because things were pretty abstracted: no sound, only symbolic images (instead of more “realistic” ones), largely alphabetic representations, simple controls and rules, etc.
I found the opposite taking place with Myst: the world drew me in, but I (in time) got a bit bored by the mechanics. As Elizabeth points out, it was nice to sort of hangout in Myst for one, as the setting was full of ambience, including music and sound effects. The visuals were also attractive and realistic. And the point-and-click movement had a calming quality.
Adding to the raw sensory experience, Myst also wove its game mechanics and instructions into the game, like the note one initially finds from Catherine. This helped the apparatus of the rules feel more integrated into the world itself, withdrawing into the fiction. Similarly, the point-and-click hand that let you project your actions into the space was one of the only representational elements in the game. The rest was “in the world,” as it were, augmented by in-game texts about the world itself.
But, as John points out, it was a bit tedious to go back and forth hunting for clues or trying to figure things out. After some initial gains, I found myself a bit stuck trying to figure out some of the puzzles–or figuring them out but having to re-walk across the island to find a particular number that I missed along the way.
Splitting the difference, Home had some interesting mechanics and fiction, though it undertook the fiction differently. Similar to Myst‘s multiple endings, Home has multiple endings, but it does so through this odd combination of trees and literal chose-your-own ending. I only played through once, but reading about other endings, I was intrigued by some of the possibilities. For me, Norman had killed my wife, but I didn’t know how Norman got killed or who the man in the house was. And, I was able to walk out the door at the end. For others, they decided that they killed Rachel and Norman, then slit their wrists in the bathroom. While some choices affect the ending–like the gathering of clues or the taking of the knife or gun–the player is ultimately decides key plot points, like if Rachel is really dead. This was odd.
For example, one player noted how this puzzling end broke his immersion. As a response, though, another player said, “Most games with various paths and endings just drag you along for the ride, telling the story of these charcters [sic] and expecting you to feel for them. This, though… when I was first presented with the question “Did I find my Rachel?”, I literally sat at that screen for… I dunno, 20 minutes, just piecing together the things I had learned and trying to come up with my own answer. I /loved/ it. It really was my story, even though I was playing as another person.”
I’m still thinking through what Home did and how I feel about it, whether considering it clunky or clever. But overall, I think these games do a great job highlighting the different ways that “fiction” operates in games–and how it differs from narrative.