Learning to leave undone

Make the worlds bigger, they said. So that there is more to discover, they said. And indeed: I discovered a bunch of stuff in the last years. So much that there is nothing more to discover left.

In the eyes of my ten years old past-me, Starfox on the SNES was one of the biggest, most expansive games. In fact neither does this game have many levels nor is the playtime particularly long. But as that noob, playing games only since recently, I never saw the later stages of the hardest route to Venom. I was just too bad at playing. But I knew that they were there and that I could discover them. Some day, when the time has come.

Today I scale most games in my sleep. I know their design language and it is not really important how many virtual meters there are between the invisible walls. I know what to expect, I know what to do. A former exciting journey of discovery becomes a check list I work through more or less joyful.

If the world is a village, then Los Santos is an ambitious phone booth. The biggest misunderstanding in designing game worlds might be that magnitude was of any significance. But the amount of places and events and the distance you can travel theoretically are actually not really important. The sense of moving through a large, diverse world originates from the invisible.

The HUB world of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, a miniature version of Prague, has nothing on the vastness of open world games by Ubisoft or Rockstar. It is small, you can run through in a few minutes and you cannot even use another vehicle but your feet. But to me it holds the fascination of real bigness. This time not due to the lack of skill, but by design.

Prague is packed—not primarily with people and quests but with corners of meaning, doors that are locked but I could potentially open, rooftops that are too high but I could potentially climb up to and paths that potentially lead somewhere if I just could follow them. For that Prague does not need big distances and hundreds of map markers. It just needs an alleyway that is blocked, a door I cannot hack, a dialog refusing to be triggered.

Warren Spector, maker of the original Deus Ex, once said in an interview with Rock Paper Shotgun:

I got a lot more interested in really deeply simulated smaller spaces. I’d rather do something that’s an inch wide and a mile deep than something that’s a mile wide and an inch deep.

Side note: In an interview with Wall Jump, Spector also showed love for Breath of the Wild, which seems logical when you think about it.

While wideness is measurable and graspable, deepness is often hidden at first. A place of the unknown. A room for endless possibilities. When in the remake of Demon’s Souls for the PS5 a new locked door was discovered, people were desperate to find out if it was just decoration or if there is something behind it. The journalists had the best time covering the existence of that door and speculating about the meaning. The actual opening of that door on the other hand was a rather minor thing.

Today I play “good” enough to theoretically discover all places and pieces of games like Mankind Divided. But for that I would have to skill up my character pretty high and needed to be very good in observation until I can really say that I saw everything. Also I would have to go for several playthroughs since it is a common theme for immersive sims that I cannot hack a door that I blasted to pieces and I cannot really combine a shootout with a stealth strategy. So one or another aspect will always be hidden from me, will remain undiscovered.

This counter concept to total completion does have a very special appeal. Nowadays I transfer it to other games and replace the gamificated check list with something wonderfully childish. I learn to leave things undone. Maybe I come back to them later, maybe in a second run, maybe never. That is actually the best. If something is still there I have not discovered yet. Because my brain is filling this question mark with the infinity of possibilities—more possibilities than a game maker could ever design for me.

Deus Ex (2000) and its spiritual predecessors System Shock (1994) and System Shock 2 (1999) are considered the archetypes of the „Immersive Simulation“. The franchise got revived by developer Eidos Montreal in 2001 with Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mankind Divided in 2016. The big deal of the genre, which has its root in RPGs and Action Adventures, are the multiple solutions for a quest and the claim that you can choose your own play style so that the game becomes a very unique experience for each player.

This post is also available in: German