Monday, July 19, 2010

Open World Mysteries

Warning: The fourth paragraph of this post contains spoilers for ‘The Strange Man’ quest line of Red Dead Redemption.

The Red Dead Redemption cougar-man Scott referenced last week is a bit of fortuitous devilry that could shake even John Marston’s constitution. In the real world, evidence of such an abomination would be highly prized. Kooks and conspiracy theorists would hunt New Austin’s Lion-O incessantly. Thankfully he is just a glitch. But what of other anomalies in RDR? Could there be unexplained events or hideous creatures roaming the West, intentionally created by Rockstar to fuel intrigue and hint at the game’s untold narrative depth? There are actually some bonafide myth hunters on the trail of Red Dead’s unsolved mysteries.

While looking at comical glitches a few weeks back, I came upon the youtube video embedded below. In it a player discovers a deer pelt and various stones with strange markings on them. They seem to be of Indian origin, perhaps marking a burial of sorts. Interestingly, they lie inconspicuously in a rarely ventured area. There are few reasons the average gamer would stumble upon this find. The location, named the “Mystery Site,” has earned enough curiosity to spawn an entry in the Red Dead Wiki. The forum in which players discuss their theories about the Mystery Site reads like the chatter of real life conspiracy theorists.

Other enigmas have also been discovered and investigated. There was the Red Dead Werewolf, the haunted mansion of Tumbleweed, a zombified Mexican, and strange lights at Sidewinder Gulch. Most of these have been dismissed as glitches, but there are those still eager to speculate. These people are not crazy. People love to entertain the idea of a world not as it seems, even a digital one. In expansive open worlds, like Rockstar creates, oddities and “easter eggs” could be easily hidden.

The Strange Man seems to confirm Rockstar’s willingness to bend reality and tease players with mysterious and optional story elements. This top-hat wearing stranger knows Marston uncannily well and tests Marston with moral predicaments. In the end, when fired upon, the stranger is unharmed. He might be a version of Blood Meridian’s Judge Holden, but Rockstar certainly won’t reveal their intent any time soon - which is exactly as it should be.
The mysteries of Red Dead Redemption give players the opportunity to experience the play space in an entirely different manner. The investigators on the Red Dead forum conducted research both in and out of game. Forum user SpectralForm dug up old Indian creation myths, EpicWolf sketched out symbols to share with others, and various members have explored together online, using the game’s Free Roam mode to collaborate on theories regarding folk lore while roaming the desert, eyes on the ground. While not for everyone, exploration and speculation can be very appealing. Players have created for themselves a secondary game, one that involves prodding at the developer’s intent and mapping the fictional world in new ways.

While I think the mystery site is likely inconsequential, a simple detail added to the game to enrich the game’s aesthetics, I sincerely hope Rockstar has something more in mind. With upcoming DLC already announced, including a zombie mode, it is feasible for Rockstar to retroactively reward the mystery posse for their hard work. The investigative pursuit is valuable regardless, but actively encouraging such behavior is valuable to the player community.
In an open world environment, game developers have an exclusive opportunity to play with reality in low level content. Like the hidden symbols in Assassin’s Creed 2, optional content can enrich a game’s narrative even when it is rarely accessed by players. The allure of the unknown is powerful. Open world games can capitalize on this, encouraging cooperative storytelling between player and developer, while simultaneously benefiting from continue play and interest in a game’s unrevealed content. Why constrain ourselves to complete packages, when the jumbled mess of unsolved mysteries are even more entertaining?

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