The cryptic, mysterious power of open-ended universes

Ether One is a new video game about a researcher who dives into the brain of a patient suffering from dementia to try to retrieve some memories. The New Yorker has a profile:

If a game is going to be a game, in the sense of a progressive series of challenges leading to a definite end state, it can’t represent dementia or Alzheimer’s with anything other than a self-conscious artifice. We’re used to suspending some disbelief to enjoy shooting games, but it feels like bad faith to say that a disease should be the basis of a similar kind of entertainment. Our desire to entertain ourselves within systems that make triviality and tragedy indistinguishable says more about us than the depicted subjects. If violent war games are driven by delusional power fantasies, then empathy games are driven by a parallel delusion about how caring we are in reality.

“Our aim was to create an empathetic story but it wasn’t necessarily to raise awareness about dementia,” Bottomley said. “Most people know what dementia is—they just find it hard to talk about, especially if someone close to them suffers from it. The main thing we wanted to achieve was to open the conversation about dementia and put you in the shoes of someone suffering with it.” At their core, games are abstract informants against our communal shortcomings, systems that model our frailest qualities in a subconscious effort to dispel them, to imagine a world where they might surpassed.

I purchased the first version of Myst when it released in 1993, and the experience of playing it for the first time is still so vivid I can remember how I felt. Myst was unique in its complete absence of any instructions, rules, or backstory other than some basic notes on how to use your keyboard and mouse to navigate. It capitalized on one of the unique qualities of video games as a medium, the ability to drop you into a world without any information and to force you to decipher the rules of that universe as part of the gameplay.

Even further back than Myst, I remember playing the first Leisure Suit Larry, staying up until the wee hours of the morning trying to figure which commands to type to solve one puzzle and progress to the next level, or screen (an apt metaphor for a teenager's journey of acquiring sexual knowledge, part of the game's humor). After a few hours stuck on one level one night, I finally realized I had to type a command like "read the sign" to find out I was standing at a taxi stand, and that led me to type "call a taxi" which was the key to moving on. Since the interaction text field was open ended, I had no idea what commands would work at any particular screen or location.

Every time I play with one of my nieces or nephews, they inundate me with questions. Children query at a noticeably higher rate than adults, and playing open-ended video games like Myst returns my adult self to that child-like mode of unending exploration. While children can be exhausting, I love watching them try and make sense of the world, like voracious information gatherers trying to understand the rules of the universe they've been dropped into, and I always feel guilt when resorting to the white lies that adults feel justified in using from time to time when speaking to young children (e.g. Santa Claus).

Myst shifted that type of puzzle to a non-verbal level, elevating the sense of mystery to an almost dream-like state where cryptic visual symbols abound. Memento, still my favorite of the Christopher Nolan movies, could very well describe the sensation of playing these types of video games.

Detective stories and movies are a related storytelling form, and the private investigator descending on a town to solve a mystery or crime is one of my favorite character archetypes. I've read the complete Sherlock Holmes over a half dozen times at this point, and I'm a sucker for those British miniseries like Broadchurch that involve some investigator trying to solve a murder in a small town. The best of such mysteries work on two levels: at the literal level, the crime itself must be unpacked, but at a higher level, the crime reflects some rot at the heart of the community or society or country at large, the way Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy protests a variety of ills at the heart of Swedish society and culture.

Recently I learned that Myst and other games are classified as escape games and that some people had brought such games to the real world in the form of one hour experiences called Escape the Room. Many of my friends in San Francisco have already tried the local version, Escape the Mysterious Room, and for my brother Alan's birthday this year I tried Escape the Room NYC. If you're a fan of escape games, I highly recommend organizing a team for a real world Escape the Room event. It only takes an hour, and since the rules are, by definition, limited, the time commitment is minimal.

All of life can feel like one grim escape game, sometimes it's fun to relax with one with no consequences. It's not for nothing that the word “escape” has multiple definitions:

:to get away from a place (such as a prison) where you are being held or kept

:to get away from something that is difficult or unpleasant