Mystery in story vs. mystery in gameplay

Eric at Critical Missive has another excellent article,  this one about the importance of mystery in video games. He makes some great observations, even if he does have a rather different opinion of Half-Life 2 than I do.

I guess the difference is that I care less about mystery in gameplay than I do about mystery in story and character development. And this is one of the many reasons I consider Obsidian’s Knights of the Old Republic II to be the best game I’ve ever played. (Yes, I know loyal readers have heard this one before, so you can skip the following paragraph if you want to.)

If you read about KotOR II at all, you’ll see a lot of complaining that it’s “incomplete”. And it is–there was a lot of cut-content. And a lot of it was good content. But, as Zez-Kai Ell would say, “perhaps that is for the best”. The truth is, from the minute I woke up on Peragus to the very end, there’s always a lot of mystery in the game about who is doing what and why. It’s all deeply rooted in characters’ motivations, and I believe you can figure most of it out if you think it through, but it’s very mysterious. The answers are there, but the player has to piece them together; they aren’t spelled out. A lot of the cut content, once restored, just makes things too obvious, and introduces unnecessary elements. Good, but unnecessary.

Now, it’s true that the gameplay–fighting, walking around, swoop racing etc.–is not very mysterious in KotOR II. But that’s not what I personally played the game for.  What I look for is adequate, enjoyable gameplay that doesn’t actively get in the way of hearing the story.

There are other games that do give a great sense of narrative mystery–Planescape: Torment and Deus Ex are classic examples–but for the most part, games are focused on the playing and not the storytelling. Which makes sense, since they are still games and not just movies. But ultimately, the best games need to give you a sense of interest in finding out about the world you’re in, and making you want to do stuff in it. And mystery is a big part of that–if you know everything about a game, you don’t need to play it.

The bottom line is that Eric’s article is an excellent analysis of what’s wrong with games these days. The only thing I don’t get is why he see Half-Life 2 as an exception, not a proof. I mean to say, what Eric writes about Crysis 2 to show it as inferior to HL 2:

[M]uch of the game revolves around meticulously-animated set pieces and taking in beautiful vistas.  The shooting itself is fun enough, but the enemies you fight don’t really develop beyond the few basic types and the odd boss battle, and the weapons never stray beyond the ordinary.

…could pretty much be said of HL 2, in my opinion. (Although HL 2’s gravity gun was pretty cool.) But I don’t want this to turn into an argument over which is better. His larger point is totally correct, and his article is worth reading for any gamer.

What's your stake in this, cowboy?