In the same way that the green light on Daisy’s dock across the bay in “The Great Gatsby” is a detail imbued with symbolic purpose, every object in a video game has the potential to affect our understanding of the game’s logic and our progress through the plot.
It’s entirely possible to reach the end of a large, “open-world” video game like, say, “Skyrim” (one in which players roam freely in a nonlinear fashion), and not have experienced the game in its entirety; arcane references and aspects of the landscape will inevitably remain undiscovered. So, too, would it be incredibly rare to “catch” every reference, explicit or implied, in a work of literature. This is even more true of literature that has a nontraditional structure. In a lecture about Calvino and video games last year, the indie game designer Jonathan Blow talked about the “mental phases” readers go through in the process of trying to understand a novel like Calvino’s “Invisible Cities.” The final step, he argued, was an appreciation of the book’s “solved, jewel-like structure.”
Blow’s point was theoretical; it’s unlikely that readers of formally experimental fiction like Calvino’s (or any work of fiction, really) would reach the sort of total understanding that Blow imagined. (As he put it, most of us have to settle for “some appreciation of a partially understood clue structure.”) Nor would such a total understanding be possible for players of even the most straightforward video game. Readers and players implicitly decide how close they want to try to get to this final understanding upon starting a book or game; they must determine how much effort they are willing to expend analyzing content that points away from all but the most literal meaning of the plot.
This is to say that the general expectations a player has upon starting a game are not very different from those a reader has upon starting a book. As is the case with many novels, there are games whose objective is unstated, where figuring out the objective is part of the game. However, to my knowledge, there are no games where the stated goal and the actual goal are completely different. That would be a violation of the fundamental, if unspoken, maker-player contract.
In both literature and games, enigmas must have a resolution. This is why we put up with Bran’s standoffishness in “Game of Thrones,” because as readers we trust that his standoffishness is a trait that will become meaningful as the narrative unfolds. We assume that upon reaching the end of the plot, our questions will be answered — that there will be an emotional or intellectual payoff (in the best cases, both). This is why, as a child, I was upset by Daniel Handler’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events”: The books offered enigma without payoff. Blow sums this up nicely: “If you create the feeling of some grand mystery and you can’t actually back it up in the end, you’re being abusive or callous. You’re certainly not having a close relationship with your audience. You’re trying to fool them.”