Filling in the gaps: why mythology encourages more engagement

Half-Life 2, Harbour by Valve/thmxShort of a modest FMV sequence to tease your appetite, a game’s manual intro page was once all the backstory you were given. In a time where any major franchise worth its salt is accompanied by a herd of canonical novels, comics and web shorts, game mythologies are being undervalued. The thrill of discovering mythology in-game, of that knowledge impacting gameplay and playing purely for wonder is being undersold.

The creation of game mythologies, history and subtext woven into the fabric of gameworlds, is an important practice. Valve’s Half-Life 2 is a particularly good example, since its design team created histories for every environment, meaning you see echoes of the past during your travels through City 17. Not every game mythology has to be as expertly crafted as Half-Life 2’s, however.

In lieu of concrete information players invent their own reasons and scenarios. They take the base foundations of an open world platform game, like Jak and Daxter: the Precursor Legacy, and fill out its mythology personally and collectively.

Ancestry and knowing your roots was a theme that steadily grew in my mind while playing the original Jak and Daxter. The titular characters’ odyssey to return Daxter to his ‘human’ form is about as complicated as it gets. Woven into this is the mystery of the Precursors, an ancient civilisation that vanished long ago with only mystical relics as clues that they even existed. It’s this ever-present mystery that spurred me to continue exploring the gameworld long after I’d beaten the game, discovering half-buried ruins and deciphering the Precursor messages scattered across the land.

Probably the biggest out-of-game stimulant is players sharing their game experiences with other players. Fan fiction/art, wikis chronicling the a-to-z of gameworlds, forums debates; the process of crafting a game’s mythology only begins with the development team. The web has amplified player-generated contributions, as well as a feeling of entitlement. And the more players invest, the greater the backlash if/when developers do something they don’t approve of.

In essence, game mythologies catalyse engagement by stimulating the imagination. Of course, maps, books, comics, online wikis and so on can supplement this. But, crucially, a fertile game mythology will trigger a desire to explore that mythology further (which could be through gameplay), share the mythology with others, or add to the mythology itself. Game mythologies are the result of collective craftsmanship, forever shifting and difficult to separate from subjectivity. And it’s because of them that your incentive to play, and to dream, will always be rewarded.

Image: Valve/thmx/Flickr

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