Mysteries do not need to be solvable

In the past year I’ve gotten into reading mystery novels, and this has reinforced one of my strongly held opinions about the genre. There is a mistaken preconception about mystery novels, that the reader ought to be able to solve the mystery. This simply is not true. There are some mystery stories that are meant be solvable, but it’s a minority of mystery stories that I’ve seen. Solvability is not the primary appeal of the genre, or at least it’s not the appeal to me.

The reason I know this, is because when I was young, we had a “complete works of Sherlock Holmes” book, which had all the short stories. I didn’t read them all, but I read enough to know that Sherlock Holmes stories were not solvable. Usually, Sherlock Holmes would pull some clue out of thin air, that hadn’t been mentioned before; or else there would be an event that led to the mystery being solved. It was unambiguous that most stories were not even trying to be solvable. The mysteries were trying, first and foremost, to be stories. There’s something the reader doesn’t know (rising tension), and then Sherlock Holmes explains it (releasing tension), and that’s a simple but effective narrative arc.

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The information theory of Mysterium

A question that keeps me up at night is “What is the theoretical best you can do in Mysterium?” I’m exaggerating a bit, but it is a pointless question about a silly board game that I nonetheless spent too long thinking about. I went so far as to watch a series of lectures about information theory–listening to it in the background while in dance class, as one does. I never solved the problem, but let me at least explain what the problem is.


Mysterium is a cooperative board game where the players are trying to solve a murder mystery via psychic communication with the victim. One player takes the role of the ghost, and the rest take the role of psychic mediums. The ghost is not allowed to speak, and may only communicate through cryptic visions. The visions are represented by cards with surreal artwork. For example, one card has two people climbing into a giant fish mouth, another has a tarantula-like thing over a chandelier. After the mediums receive their visions, they discuss what they mean and make their guesses; and the whole time the ghost giggles about how wrong they are.

Example visions: two people climbing into a fish's mouth; a polar bear and spirit owl read a book; a chandelier hanging from strings from a tarantula's mouth

Examples of vision cards.  Source: Mysterium rulebook.

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I don’t have a games backlog

In video games, there is the concept of a “backlog”—a list of games that you want to play, but haven’t gotten around to playing. This is commonly discussed as a source of anxiety, as people accumulate hundreds of games in a list that they have no hope of ever completing. There are lots of videos and articles giving tips on how to clear your backlog, or else chronicling a journey to clear a backlog.

Talk of backlogs is so ubiquitous that people seem to think every gamer has one. This isn’t true. There are myriad ways to approach the consumption of entertainment media, and the backlog is just one. I’d wager that many people would even consider the backlog to be counterintuitive. Would you have a backlog for books, movies, or TV shows? You could, but I think most people just check what movies are available in the moment, and then pick one out.

I recently watched a Transparency video in opposition to the idea of a backlog, from the perspective of someone who doesn’t have one. Now, I also don’t have a backlog, but it struck me that Alicia’s approach is still different from mine. I think Alicia assumes that any list is a backlog, but I actually have a list that I don’t consider to be a backlog.

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Games that are just books

Back in 2021, I was persuaded to play a little game called The House in Fata Morgana. It’s a Japanese epic visual novel that follows a series of tragedies across the ages, each with multiple twists and turns, and a mysterious thread connecting them all. Throughout that entire time, the player only makes a handful of choices.  We might say that the game is basically a book–and a fairly long one at that, taking me 35 hours to finish.

I enjoyed it enough that I would play a few other long visual novels over the years. I read a couple furry visual novels—Echo and Adastra—and the Japanese visual novel STEINS;GATE. I’m currently reading Umineko When they Cry, which has about a million words, the length of a whole series of novels.

Something that occupies way too much of my brainspace, are those snide comments about visual novels on gaming websites: “It’s not much of a game if you’re not making any decisions.” On the one hand it denies the legitimacy of the visual novels–and on the other hand, it literally does nothing of the sort. After all, visual novels can be legitimate without being video games. Just as novels and movies don’t need to be games in order to be legitimate, neither do visual novels.

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Islands of Insight teaches logic puzzles

Islands of Insight is a recent puzzle game taking place in a shared online world. This, by itself, is an extremely ambitious concept, because normally “puzzle” and “MMO” do not go together.  I know only of two other games that tried to be puzzle MMOs: Uru, a 2003 game in the Myst franchise that dropped the MMO aspect before commercial release; and Puzzle Pirates, another game from 2003 which is a “puzzle game” in the sense of Tetris.

There are three challenges facing a puzzle MMO: Puzzle games generally have small cult followings at best, whereas an MMO requires some level of mass appeal to be commercially successful. Puzzles are often solitary activities, whereas MMOs are social. Puzzles generally require careful bespoke design, whereas MMOs want endless content.

Did Islands of Insight succeed in squaring the circle, to create the Puzzle MMO? No, not at all. Despite the shared world, it’s not a very social game, and would work equally well solo. And while players seem to like it, it wasn’t commercially successful enough to support its development team.

But the game successfully addressed at least one of the challenges of the puzzle MMO.  They created over 10,000 puzzles with high quality standards to populate a large 3D world. These include perspective puzzles, mazes, hidden objects, moving block puzzles, and many more. I’d like to focus on the most numerous type of puzzle, the logic grid.

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What is the purpose of a reading?

In media analysis, we speak of “readings”, or interpretations of what’s going on in a work of (usually) fiction. Readings are not factual, they are fictional, and mutually contradictory readings can coexist. Naive readers often think that there’s just one right answer, which is to say whatever the author intended. However, authors can fail to fulfill their intentions, or else create something that goes in directions that they never intended. This is what’s meant by “death of the author”: a reading does not need to align with authorial intent in order to be a good reading.

But like a work of art, a reading can still be good or bad. And authorial intent is at least sometimes relevant to making that judgment. So let’s talk about a little reading that I saw a couple years ago that baffled me so much that I still think about it today.

In Gayming Magazine, there was an article talking about a queer reading of Elden Ring. I’m already on board, of course. The article started by observing that in a couple endings of the game, the player character becomes the “consort” of Queen Marika or Ranni the Witch. And generally, the game doesn’t really care whether the player character is male or female. So if you have a female player character, you can become the same-sex “consort” of a queen or a goth, and the game doesn’t really treat you any different for it. So that’s neat. That’s not the article that baffled me.

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Laudatory categories

Theseus’ ship is a philosophical thought experiment that asks what happens if you take a ship, replace it piece by piece until none of the original pieces are left. Is it the same ship, or is it a different one?

Now imagine the following response: “It depends. Is the ship seaworthy?”

This response is a bit absurd, because clearly the question does not depend on whether the ship is seaworthy. A ship may still be the same ship while falling into disrepair, or perhaps the ship was never seaworthy in the first place. And on the other hand, you could have another ship which is also seaworthy but is nonetheless a different ship. We may disagree on how to answer the question about Theseus’ ship, but surely whether the ship is seaworthy is besides the point.

Nonetheless, this seems to be the way people think about many categories. A laudatory category is one whose definition has become intertwined with the question of “is it good?” A pejorative category is one whose definition has become intertwined with the question “is it bad?” Let’s talk about a few examples.

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