The Mythopoetic Sandbox: The Less We Know the More It Means

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My first love is and has always been tabletop RPGs. My favorite RPG writer is Greg Stafford (by way of disclosure, I worked on a project with Stafford which is pending publication), a legendary figure in the industry who’s responsible for Runequest, King Arthur Pendragon, Ghostbusters and a whole host of others, big and small.

Stafford is also an amateur mythologist, though I use amateur in the strictest form of the word; a lifetime of traveling to mythological sites, reading texts, and writing his own myths has given him a pretty good pedigree. Stafford’s writing reflects this obsession with the mythological. He’s got a certain style which translates the strangeness of things like Bronze Age culture to us in the modern day. Let me give an example from Sartar Kingdom of Heroes, a book about Glorantha, his most enduring creation:

It’s important to note that this snippet of text isn’t accompanied by a description of what the Trial by Combat was (though it’s obviously important enough to capitalize). I didn’t see any reference to what, precisely, the Locked Gate is or what the guardians look like. The overall effect is to let your mind rush in to fill the blanks, even though Stafford is ostensibly telling you an entire story. And, perhaps counter-intuitively, the lack of that fine detail is what makes Stafford’s work feel so alive. Your imagination wanders in the face of the implied weirdness present in this style. It’s rarely in your face; there are no Monster Manual style descriptions of tentacled horrors screaming “LOOK HOW WEIRD”. Only a quality of ineffability to the proceedings. You don’t completely know what The Locked Gate is because you can’t know.

I’ve become dissatisfied with the way we talk about open world games and sandboxes. They tend to be spoken of purely in terms of mechanics. An open world game has a main quest, side quests, interaction with the everyday inhabitants of the world, etc. All true, but some of the games in this style are increasingly doing interesting things with worldbuilding which allow for a different avenue of examination.

I bring up Stafford because his work is the best example of a mythopoetic style in games, one revived in the current renaissance of sandbox and open world games. Indeed, Stafford is responsible for one of the giants of the quasi-formless, follow your bliss PC games which are gobbling up market share: he was a designer on King of Dragon Pass, which is set in the aforementioned Glorantha.

The form’s success ultimately trades on a sense of scale. Bigness is key, since the aim is to create a sense that an entire world is constantly moving outside of the player’s immediate narrative. But size is also one of the toughest things to implement in a satisfactory way. Nothing about size, alone, inherently communicates itself to the player. It’s not enough to simply be big; a game has to make you feel it, too.

A narrative shortcut for communicating the scale necessary, and one used often in the past year, is to lean on Stafford’s technique of implied weirdness. When you see something which is only partially explained, the natural reaction is to think there’s more submerged than there is being shown. When you visit Venderbight, a town of corpses, in Sunless Sea, the questions hanging over the place enhance the narrative mood, rather than detracting from it. You barely know what a Tomb-Colonist is, much less why there’s a town full of them. You feel not just narratively distant from what you, the player, know about the world, but physically and temporally distant, as well.

This distance sparks the brain’s salivary glands. When I went to Venderbight on my first play of Sunless Sea, my mind went racing. What did this place mean? How did it come to be? I left it behind, the questions unanswered, but leaving it behind was the point; with so many things not fully understood, it made the whole feel larger and realer than it probably was. Indeed, for all that Sunless Sea has (rightly) been getting praise for the quality of its writing, the game shines most in its unwritten moments. They’re what make it breathe.

The unknowable allows us to humanize the alien, as well. Even for the most creative of us, imagination is a finite thing. We bump up against the limits of what we can know and understand quite easily. And in videogames, an inherently visual medium, the absence of image is even more powerful than the absence of textual description. Where there’s a gap, we fill it with what we can relate to. It humanizes the Other in unexpected ways.

That’s why Endless Legend, one of the best games of 2014, works so well. It is an expert execution of Staffordian storytelling in videogame form. For all that reviewers have complimented the game’s mechanics and innovation, it’s the praise for its atmosphere which seems loudest. Particularly when compared to the dull as dishwater Sid Meier’s Beyond Earth, Endless Legend oozes charm.

The charm comes from the fully realized nature of its factions. But, in keeping with the tendency to embrace the weird, it tells by not telling. The quest text (always optional) for the factions presents straightforward objectives while hinting at mysteries that are never told. The art, from the in-game models to the prelude vignettes, always asks questions that are up to the player to answer.

It’s something that harks back to my love of Greek myth. Here’s the secret that they don’t tell you in the kids’ books on myth: Bronze Age culture was utterly alien to us. What makes their myths eternally relevant isn’t that they were just like us but that they mostly weren’t; it’s the few threads of similarity that are turned into applicable morals. The love of Orpheus for Eurydice is so poignant because so much of the background to the story is beyond our ken. We distill down to what we can know, and we know love and loss. We know the adrenaline rush that comes with pain, so the Ardent Mages become relatable, even though they’re a masochistic magocracy on another world. We know loneliness, so the Tomb-colonist becomes a figure of pity, even though it’s a zombie locked in a box on a steamship.

This is at the heart of the mythopoetic style in videogames. It’s not cinematic. There are no cutscenes or jumpcuts. It doesn’t tell; it barely shows. Rather, it entices the player to come to conclusions that its deliberately broad strokes don’t offer. The mythopoetic game pulls the curtain back just enough for a glimpse, leaving an impression in the mind’s eye. And with the style garnering both critical and commercial acclaim, it’s liable we’ll see many more unknowable myths on our screens.

Ian Williams has written for Salon, Jacobin, The Guardian and more.