As an insufferable coastal faux-intellectual, I am pretty much obligated to listen to This American Life. Each week, the show picks a theme (such as “A Call for Help” or “I Was So High”) and presents a few stories on the theme. It’s nice nice way to learn a few things about politics, science, and culture while also wrapping my voyeurism in the guise of journalism. It’s a good way to hear dramatic or embarrassing stories without feeling like I’m prying. I recently caught an old episode that helped me realize that my interest in certain types of video games stems from the same place.
The episode is called “House on Loon Lake”, and I highly recommend it (it’s also free to download). Part of its allure is the mystery, but without giving too much away: Adam Beckman tells the story of how he and his family happened upon an abandoned house in the 1970s that set off a decades-long mystery of trying to find out who owned it and why they left. Inside the house they found a host of artifacts: old newspapers from the 1930s chronicling the Nazis’ march across Europe, an old driver’s license, highly personal diaries and letters about children born out of wedlock. It was an honest-to-goodness creepy old house with a mystery. Who were these people, and why did they leave without taking their things?
It is confirmation of many a gamer’s fantasy. The entire “immersive sim” genre actually has a basis in reality. Games like BioShock tell much of their stories through the environment. Abandoned buildings, discarded objects, and misplaced notes let you piece together a character and put yourself into a previously-hidden story. According to the Beckman, the House on Loon Lake was full of intriguing items that were almost too good to be true: an empty baby crib, a tattered white dress hanging in the closet, personal journals. It’s as if Fullbright Company’s Gone Home was happening in real life and being broadcast on the radio for everyone to hear.
The House on Loon Lake was a riddle and at the most basic level, so are video games. You have to learn the controls and then grasp how they let you interact with the game’s rules. Having an in-game world to explore adds another layer of depth since it can add a traditional plot-based mystery to unravel. What secret is hidden on the island of Myst? What was Rapture’s undoing in BioShock? What happened to all the crew members in Dead Space? The answers are tied up in the artifacts that you find in the world, just as Beckman’s answers about the House were connected to the discarded items that filled it.
Eventually, some of the threads lead Beckman to people that give him a broader understanding of the house and its former occupants. It’s a moment akin to discovering the Ratman’s hidden rooms in Portal. Cracks open up in the world, and things become simultaneously clearer and more complex. Beckman learns more about the house and the family that lived there, but he get conflicting reports from different people. To some, the residents were the salt of the earth. To others, they were troublemakers. Even the descendants tell conflicting stories.
The episode hammers home the old trope that the journey is oftentimes more important than the discovery. The mystery was a source of curiosity and focus for Beckman and his family growing up, one that would have a hard time living up to any final explanation. At the end of the story, I had a similar feeling to when I finished Journey, satisfied, yet wistful, since I knew I could never truly discover it for the first time again.
I imagine it’s the same feeling that inspires people to embark on doomed quests such as looking for Bigfoot in GTA: San Andreas or searching for a hidden beast in Shadow of the Colossus. There is still a longing for the unknown when the mechanical mysteries have been mapped and the obvious plot points discovered. Someone must have hidden something, a message or some extra clue that preserves the game as a riddle and prevents it from becoming an empty house.