The other Kirschbaum posts did a good job outlining Kirschbaum’s process of exploring Mystery House as well as explaining how it’s representation of formal materiality, so I figured I’d explore some other aspects of what make Mystery House fascinating. While Kirschbaum seems intrigued with the idea of Mystery House as an allographic document, I was interested by what the game says about the evolution and differences of various narrative forms.
Up until the creation of video games, narratives have been largely linear experiences. That’s not to say that the content of the narratives themselves are linear—we’re all familiar with the concept of flashbacks in stories—but the “reader” or “viewer” has always lacked agency in regard to how a story is told. When we’re reading a book, we can skip chapters or read them out of order if we so desire, but then we’re not experiencing the narrative the way the author intended. If we’re listening to the radio, watching a film in a theater, or viewing a dramatic performance of some sorts, we lack agency to an even greater degree—we simply sit there and watch the narrative unfold.
Video games are defined by user agency. When you play Pac-Man, you have the choice to go left, right, up down, to eat a power pellet, to eat a fruit, etc. The events that unfold during a session of Pac-Man reside solely in the hands of whoever is playing. But with games like Pac-Man, there’s no larger narrative. I wasn’t aware of this before I did a little research, but apparently you can’t beat Pac-Man; eventually you can only get so far before the game simply resets. The ultimate “story” of Pac-Man himself—whatever that is—ultimately goes unfulfilled. In this sense, Pac-Man is purely a game—it doesn’t possess the elements required for it to be a true narrative.
This is why Mystery House is fascinating. At its core, Mystery House is a narrative—its ultimate goal is to impart a story to the reader, or in the case, the user. The elements that make Mystery House a game are actually quite dull; typing in “GO UP” and “TAKE CANDLE” is fairly boring considering the game doesn’t require immediate action on the part of the user—it doesn’t test your reflexes like Pac-Man does. Mystery House does have its shares of puzzles, but, as Kirschbaum points out, they’re quite simplistic. The story of Mystery House is rather dull as well—it’s nothing more than an Agatha Christie knock off. In fact, when you break down Mystery House on paper, it doesn’t seem to be very compelling. But taken together, Mystery House becomes greater than the sum of its parts. It’s incredibly dated, but it serves as the perfect example for why video games have created an entirely new way to experience narratives. When you play Mystery House, it’s up to you how the story unfolds, or if you even get to experience the ending at all. You can’t “lose” when you read a book or watch a movie. If I were reading Catch-22, I wouldn’t have the ability to direct Yossarian’s course of action—but I can control the actions of the protagonist in Mystery House. I can’t change the ending, true, but ultimately I do control how I arrive there. This, in itself, is a seemingly unparallel quality when directly contrasted with other narratives.
But not quite.
As I’ve mentioned, you can’t control how a book, film, or drama is told. There are some exceptions, including those “Chose Your Own Adventure!” books we had as kids, but even then the reader is only experiencing a sort of simulated, artificial agency. Fascinatingly, the one narrative form that video games have most in common with is oral storytelling. Think about it: they both have an ultimate “Storyteller.” In the case of oral narratives, it’s the person telling the story—in video games, it’s the computer and the disk the game resides on. When you’re playing Mystery House, you’re told of the various environments and objects you encounter, but it’s up to you how you engage and interact with them. This quality is shared with oral narratives as well; when someone is telling you a story about going to the grocery store, you can ask them what store they were at, what time of day they went, what day of the week, etc. When you directly engage with an oral storyteller, you’re filling out the narrative and, in many cases, even pushing the story in new directions. Much like Mystery House, an orally told story has an ultimate, defined ending that you can’t change, but you have some control over how you arrive at said ending. Perhaps this is why video games have exploded in popularity over such a relative short time (~30 years) when compared to the growth of other narratives—they mimic the oldest, and most familiar form of story telling.
I think this is why something as mundane as Mystery House fascinates Kirschbaum. The ultimate goal of literary theory is to explore how the stories we tell define who we are—Kirschbaum is simply trying to push this study into unexplored territory.