Designing for a Sense of Mystery and Wonder

I play games to get to explore intriguing places, while challenge and story is secondary to me. But there still has to be a point to the exploration. I don’t want to just wander around some place - I want to uncover something intriguing and ideally mysterious. But the mystery lies not in the uncovering; it lies in the anticipation, or rather the lack of knowing exactly what I might find. In this article I examine that sense of mystery and wonder that’s tied not to story or themes, but to exploration. I’ll be using the word mystery as a shorthand for the kind of mystery and wonder I’m talking about here.

Zelda: Breath of the Wild from 2017 is an amazing game to go explore in, and one of my all time favorites. That said, while there are many things in the game that exude a sense of mystery - and certainly more so than in the average open world game - there are also a lot of missed opportunities.
Breath of the Wild reinvented the Zelda formula as an open world game.
I’ll compare Zelda: Breath of the Wild (BOTW) with Zelda: A Link to the Past (ALTTP) to try to figure out why ALTTP has a stronger sense of mystery than BOTW. A Link to the Past is a much older Zelda game from 1991 but I first played it in 2019.

Along the way I’ll be extracting four key design strategies for evoking a greater sense of mystery, and apply those strategies in the form of proposed design changes to BOTW. Finally, I’ll touch on some more general considerations to keep in mind when designing for a sense of mystery and wonder in general.


While I’m critical of certain aspects of Breath of the Wild in this article, I want to highlight a few things that did give me a sense of mystery and wonder: The eerie Lost Woods, the disorienting Thyphlo Ruins, and the three deceptive enormous labyrinths found in the world. These all evoked a great sense of intrigue and not knowing what I was dealing with or what I would find. But the sense of mystery in those locations largely came from them being unique one-of-a-kind things (or three-of-a-kind in the case of the labyrinths, although they were quite different from each other).
One of the three towering labyrinths in Breath of the Wild.
While having one-of-a-kind mysteries like this is absolutely great, not everything in a large scale game can be uniquely different from everything else. It would require too many resources and not be manageable. That’s why this article focuses on strategies that make the existing variety of content in a game less predictable and more mysterious without requiring large amounts of additional variety of content. That’s the kind of strategies Breath of the Wild could have used to get better “mystery-mileage” out of its already amazing content.

Curiosities with unknown outcomes

Let’s start with the most obvious element that caused many people to feel that the world in BOTW is not as mysterious as it could have been. When you explore the vast world of Breath of the Wild, you’ll frequently come across something curious, like a circle of plants in a pond or an abstract stone sculpture with a piece missing. And initially you’ll go “huh, that’s curious” and be intrigued. Let’s investigate! You try to dive into that circle of plants in the pond or locate and add the missing piece to the stone sculpture - and a little fellow pops out of nowhere and rewards you with a Korok Seed! Oh cool!
A little puzzle in Breath of the Wild that rewards the player with a Korok Seed.
However, by the 20th time you notice something curious, you’ll probably be thinking, “ah, it’s probably just another Korok Seed”. It’s still a fun little thing to do, and the Korok Seed is useful, sure, but there’s no longer any sense of mystery about it.

To be clear, there are various small mysteries in BOTW that lead to other things than getting a Korok Seed, but those are usually related to quests that lead to an Ancient Shrine of the Blessing type. In contrast, Korok Seeds never involve a quest and always follow a set of predictable templates. It’s a many-to-one relationship: One set of curiosity types leads to Korok Seeds and a separate set of curiosity types leads to shrines.

Not knowing what you get

How does this compare to A Link to the Past? The closest analog in ALTTP might be the optional heart pieces, since they are also often hidden behind a little curiosity or mystery.

Compared to the Korok seeds, though, the heart pieces in ALTTP are more strongly related to exploring nooks and crannies in the world. Sometimes you can see one in advance out of reach and the puzzle is figuring out how to reach it. Other times they just reward exploration but couldn’t have been known in advance.
Pieces of Heart are hidden away in many novel ways in A Link to the Past.
Sometimes they’re inside a chest, but chests can contain other things than heart pieces too. Similarly, reaching the heart pieces sometimes involves blowing a hole in a cracked wall with a bomb. But cracked walls can also lead to other things than heart pieces, so you won’t know what you’ll find. It’s a many-to-many relationship: Each of the curiosities that might lead to a heart piece (a chest, a cracked wall, etc) might also lead to another outcome.

The fact that the curiosities or puzzles that lead to heart pieces don’t follow specific templates that are only used for heart pieces means that finding heart pieces in ALTTP doesn’t feel formulaic and predictable in the same way that finding Korok Seeds does in BOTW. And this uncertainty and unpredictability about what to expect contributes to a sense of mystery.

The many-to-many relationship

What have we learned in this comparison between the curiosities in BOTW and in ALTTP?

A question we can ask to determine if we are not getting the best mystery-mileage out of curiosities in the world is:
When the player sees something curious in the world, can they predict in advance what they’ll get out of it?
And a strategy we can make use of to decrease predictability of the outcome is:
Have a many-to-many relationship between the types of curiosities in the world and the types of outcomes.
Perhaps it can sound like unknown outcomes is about randomness, and that it’s the same principle that makes slot machines and loot boxes addicting but not intrinsically engaging. But unknown is not the same as random. When you explore a world and learn of an outcome of a given curiosity located at a specific location, this knowledge might be relevant later in the game, or if replaying the game. It’s a fact you’ve learned that’s tied to the experience of exploring the world. Loot boxes, in contrast, are not tied to a location in the world and the outcome can’t be learned. As such they’re not tied to exploration but are detached random events.

Now let’s try to apply the strategy above to curiosities in Breath of the Wild. Perhaps some of the “Korok” style puzzles shouldn’t always lead to Korok Seeds. Sometimes they could lead to, say, an entrance to some area opening, a treasure chest being revealed, or it could mark the beginning of a new side-quest. Then you wouldn’t know in advance what you’d get or even it’s degree of significance. The relationship between curiosity and outcome would have been changed from a many-to-one relationship to a many-to-many relationship.

Ambiguous classification of spaces

In the last section we looked at how to make it harder to predict what you’re going to get. In this section we’ll be looking into how to make it harder to form an idea of what something even is. We’ll explore ambiguous classification starting with a comparison of the Ancient Shrines in BOTW with the dungeons in ALTTP.

Ancient Shrines and Dungeons

The entrance to a shrine in BOTW always uses (nearly) the same model. So you know exactly what a shrine looks like.
An Ancient Shrine in Breath of the Wild. They all look like this.
When you enter, you descend a long tube elevator down into an often enormous space. The kind of challenge found there varies greatly (sometimes there’s no challenge at all, if the challenge was reaching the shrine entrance in the first place), but invariably you will reach a platform at the end with a treasure chest and a monk who grants you a Spirit Orb that can be used to increase health or stamina. Then there’s a cut, and you’re back at the Shrine entrance in the world above.

Dungeons in ALTTP are not an exact analog to Shrines in BOTW. The dungeons play a more central role since they give you new abilities, they end with boss fights, and beating them is required. Still, they’re close enough for our comparison.

Entrances to dungeons in ALTTP don’t have a specific look; they are each unique.
Various entrances in A Link to the Past. Can you tell which of them lead to dungeons?
Some of the images above depict entrances to dungeons while some of them depict other entrances that are not to dungeons. Can you tell which is which? I actually can’t remember this myself despite having played the game just a few years ago.

I can’t overstate what this does for the sense of mystery when exploring this world. Instead of seeing “there’s a dungeon”, “there’s an X”, “there’s a Y” etc. I just see mysterious entrances. Who knows what’s inside? Compare this to BOTW where you always know when an entrance is an Ancient Shrine because all shrines look the same.

Now, I know that some dungeons in ALTTP get explicitly marked on the world map, but that doesn’t counteract the sense of mystery entirely.

What even is a dungeon?

Now, if this was only about the entrances, we could say this is another example of a many-to-many relationship where you don’t know what the outcome is in advance when you see an entrance.

But in ALTTP the mystery doesn't stop when you've entered an entrance because even once inside, it's still not entirely clear what kind of space you've entered. Is it a dungeon or not? And if it is, what does that mean exactly?

For what is a dungeon? There's forum discussions online where people discuss how many dungeons ALTTP has, and people reach different numbers depending on which criteria they use. Is it the spaces where you get a new ability? The ones that end with a boss? The ones that are mapped out with a dungeon map? And does the castle that you clear one part of, and then later in the game return to clear another part of, count as one or two dungeons?

This illustrates that it's not entirely clear cut what what constitutes a dungeon in this game, and I find that to be a good thing. It’s harder to know what to expect, and consequently, it feels more like anything might be possible, when structures in the game don’t consistently follow clear templates and the player can’t conclusively classify the spaces they encounter.

But just having occasional exceptions to the template isn’t enough. Imagine what it would do to the sense of mystery in ALTTP if dungeons clearly communicated “this dungeon follows the classic template” or “this dungeon is an exception” as soon as you see the entrance? This would greatly reduce the intrigue for the dungeons that follow the template, since it’s clear what to expect from them. This is exactly the situation we have in Breath of the Wild.

BOTW does have a few dungeon-like places that don’t fit the shrine template. And they were highlights in the game. But the sense of mystery those “exceptions” from the template produce doesn’t rub off on the shrines, simply because it’s so easy to tell if something is a shrine or something else. It’s important for the sense of mystery then, that the instances that are exceptions to the template can’t always clearly be told apart from the instances that follow the template.

Undermine simple classification

What have we learned in this comparison between the Ancient Shrines in BOTW and the dungeons in ALTTP?

A question we can ask to determine if we are not getting the best mystery-mileage out of different types of spaces in the game is:
Can the player easily tell different types of spaces from each other and unambiguously classify them?
And a strategy we can make use of to increase ambiguity is:
Reduce or eliminate signifiers that would otherwise clearly distinguish different classes of spaces from each other, or introduce exceptions that challenge or confuse simple classification.
Now let’s try to apply this strategy to the Ancient Shrines in Breath of the Wild. Instead of using the same recognizable model for all shrines, it would have been viable to create a dozen different “entrance” 3d models, each of them still highly visible from afar so they can still serve as a goal to move towards, and have each shrine use one of those. Crucially, these entrance models should also be used for entrances to other things than shrines - like notable caves, hideouts, passages and similar. (Footnote: And yes, shrine entrances also have a Sheikah Plate activation mechanism and a teleport location marker. Where would they be if using an entrance model that’s not specific to Ancient Shrines? I don’t have an answer to that but it’s a solvable design problem.)

This would make use of the many-to-many relationship discussed previously to ensure that when you’d see some entrance, you wouldn’t know what it would lead to - an Ancient Shrine, or something else. You’d have to investigate to find out.

However, this only makes the nature of the space unclear prior to entering it. To truly make the classification ambiguous, it would have to stay unclear also while inside the space, and maybe even still after having completed the encounter. This means we have to break down some of the other clear signifiers of Ancient Shrines too.

Does every shrine have to begin with a tube elevator? Does it need to be a separate space from the outside world at all? Consider the shrines of the Blessing type, where the challenge lies in  finding and reaching the shrine entrance in the first place, typically in some hard to reach spot, while there’s no challenge inside the shrine space. The treasure chest and monk simply sit there.
In Ancient Shrines of the Blessing type, the treasure chest and monk are reached without any challenge.
Why do shrines with no challenge inside need a separate shrine space at all? Couldn’t the monk sometimes hang out right in the hard to reach spot? In that case, it would be more ambiguous whether the defining trait of a shrine is just the presence of the monk, or if there has to be a separate shrine space as well.

Another possibility could be that after completing one shrine in the game, the monk at the end would be missing. Maybe there’s a message that you have to find him elsewhere in the world (yes, “our monk is in another castle”). Would this still count as a shrine? And if so, would the shrine count as completed before or after finding the monk?

If the answers to such questions could go either way, we’re on the right track towards the classification ambiguity that enhances the intrigue. If on the other hand you still think it would be obvious whether something is a shrine or not, think about what distinction makes it obvious and how that distinction could be broken down as well.

One last point regarding this type of ambiguity is that UI and other meta-elements can easily counteract it, if not carefully avoided. For example, the ambiguity of what is or isn’t a shrine is decreased if a title displayed on the screen tells you that this is a shrine, like in the image above. Maybe those titles are deemed important to keep for other reasons, but it’s worth being aware of the tradeoff involved.

Overlapping gameplay modes

Fairies are a staple in the Zelda franchise and they usually come in two varieties: Regular fairies that can be used to restore heath, and Great Fairies that can upgrade some armor or weapons.

In Breath of the Wild, regular fairies are found primarily at Great Fairy Fountains where the Great Fairies also reside, but also at other locations like atop the Deku Tree, at a pond on Ebon Mountain, and in Hyrule Field. They are always out in the open.
Fairies in Breath of the Wild can be collected at various spots out in the open world.
In A Link to the Past, regular fairies are found at Fairy Fountains located in a great variety of places. It’s normally in a cave or other inside area, but the entrances to these areas may be regular cave entrances, a staircase hidden below a rock, a hole in a hollow tree trunk, a hole under a bush, or behind a wall you have to blow up.
Fairy Fountains in A Link to the Past are hidden in a variety of ways.
Interestingly, these entrances are not only out in the open world. Notably, some fairy fountains are hidden away inside dungeons. In BOTW, finding fairies and clearing shrines are two entirely separate activities or gameplay modes with no overlap - from a design perspective it’s very clean - while in ALTTP there’s an overlap. Clearing a dungeon leading up to a boss is not a separate gameplay mode from searching for hidden secrets.

It might seem like a moot point to highlight such an overlap of gameplay modes - of course you can explore and find all kinds of secrets in dungeons just like in the outside world - why wouldn’t you? But the shrines in BOTW shows us that it’s not a given.

Spaces that serve multiple gameplay modes

In our comparison of BOTW and ALTTP we’ve found that a breakdown of clear separations between different gameplay modes enhances the sense of mystery because the player can’t form clear expectations of what to find where. Interesting things can be found anywhere.

A method we can use to determine if we are lacking overlap between different gameplay modes is:
Making a list of the different game activities or modes that exist in a game. Does certain locations or spaces in the game offer only few or a single gameplay mode to engage with?
And a strategy we can make use of to increase overlap of gameplay modes is:
Ensure spaces and locations in the game serve multiple different gameplay modes, though not all of them have to be equally obvious.
Let’s consider how we might apply this in Breath of the Wild. All over the outside world you can find various ingredients for recipes, some more rare than others. Why not be able to find those inside Ancient Shrines too? Not necessarily as a regular thing, but it could add a lot of sense of mystery to all shrines if some rare ingredients could be found inside even just a few of them. This would create an overlap of the gameplay modes of finding ingredients and clearing shrines.

And why stop at ingredients? Certain shrines could have fairies in them - just like certain dungeons do in ALTTP. Why, maybe you might even find a Korok Seed inside a shrine! Or certain side quests in the outside world might be initiated somewhere inside specific shrines. These design changes would break down the otherwise clean separation between Ancient Shrines and other gameplay systems and activities, and in the process contribute a bit to also making shrines feel like a more integrated part of the world.

Integrating the inside with the outside

We need to talk about caves. A Link to the Past is full of caves. Some cave entrances simply lead to a small cave room where you may find a reward like a treasure chest - possibly with a puzzle you need to solve first.

Some caves have multiple entrances. Sometimes when you enter a cave you’re teased with a reward you can’t get, but you can get it if you enter via a different entrance. Other caves serve as a shortcut - or maybe as the only route between two places. This makes the caves feel less like a space entirely separate from the world and more like a place that’s an integrated part of the world itself.
Cave entrances in A Link to the Past.
This all adds intrigue, because you have no idea what the nature of a given cave is before you explore it. It might be something trivial but could also be something critical to progress in the game.

Now comes the extension to this I particularly like. It’s not only random caves that can have multiple entrances. For a few of the dungeons, this is the case as well. For example, there’s a dungeon that you can exit through a different entrance and reach an area in the outside world that’s only accessible this way.
The Desert Palace in A Link to the Past is a dungeon with multiple entrances.
This greatly enhances the sense of mystery for several reasons. One is, as noted for caves, that it makes it harder to predict what to expect when the boundaries between different systems and spaces are less strict. But another reason is that mystery thrives when it’s grounded. The more logical, tangible and real the places in the world feel, the better they support suspension of disbelief, and the more effective the sense of mystery becomes.

Compare the dungeons and caves in A Link to the Past to the Ancient Shrines in Breath of the Wild. To get into an Ancient Shrine, you enter a small entrance above ground and soon find yourself in an enormous ornately decorated underground space. The first few times this feels super mysterious. How could this otherworldly space have been created deep underground? Astounding and unreal! But after seeing this repeatedly it begins to no longer feel unreal in a mystical way but rather in a gamey way. Is this space even located under the entrance at all? It might as well exist in a different dimension. And what difference does it even make? In the end, the game just transports you to a space entirely separate from the outside world - it’s a game thing; it’s what games do. And so the suspension of disbelief is eroded, and the sense of mystery along with it.

The inside space as a continuation of the outside

Comparing caves and dungeons in ALTTP with the Ancient Shrines in BOTW shows us the importance of integrating inside spaces into the larger world.

A question we can ask to determine if confined spaces in the game are disintegrated from the overall larger world is:
Does a given type of confined space in the game always have only a single connection to the larger world? Does navigation inside this type of space never affect navigation outside the space, and vice versa?
And a strategy we can make use of to increase integration is:
For a given type of confined space, design at least certain instances of it as a continuation of the outside space such that navigation inside and outside of the space affect each other.
This could be applied in Breath of the Wild to infuse a greater sense of mystery to Ancient Shrines by occasionally giving them a separate exit from the entrance. In these cases you’d emerge in the outside world somewhere else than where you entered the shrine. Maybe some spot off the beaten track, sometimes half hidden, but where it’s interesting for the player to end up?

While we’re at it, we could also, rarely, have a secret entrance/exit in a shrine as well (a bit like the secret exits in Super Mario World). It could for example lead to a location in the outside world that’s only accessible this way.

A suggestion I’m not making is to make the layout of the shrines physically match and integrate into the outside world. While it would undoubtedly be cool, it would be so much extra work to design them under that constraint that it wouldn’t be viable, when taking into account that there are hundreds of shrines in the game.

Breath of the Wild already demonstrates that this kind of tight integration can be done, because the dungeon-like Hyrule Castle is designed exactly in such a tightly integrated way - and it’s awesome!
Hyrule Castle is one of the few dungeons in Breath of the Wild that has a tight integration between the inside and outside areas.
But there’s a difference between pulling it off once and pulling it off hundreds of times. That’s why the proposed design changes are ones I believe could have been pulled off without incurring too much extra work. In the end, a successful integration of the inside and outside of a space hinges more on the purpose and navigation of the space than on its aesthetics.

Clean design versus mystery

I’ve suggested four different strategies for increasing the sense of mystery and wonder. You’ve probably noticed they all relate in some way to reducing how formulaic and predictable a game is to the player.

Classic system design wisdom that can help a large project stay manageable and maintainable is to make different systems have clear responsibilities with minimal overlap and interdependencies.

In that light it’s easy to imagine that gameplay elements like Ancient Shines and Korok Seed puzzles have a sort of template that takes care of all the common elements so only unique content has to be filled in. And that makes a lot of sense from a production perspective. However, it may also inadvertently lead to a diminished sense of mystery.

Ironically, I think it might be easier for designers not as experienced in making clean maintainable designs to stumble upon creating a sense of mystery, because a lack of clear consistencies in a world lends itself well to that. I even suspect that part of the reason A Link to the Past has a greater sense of mystery might be that the developers had not been forced to establish quite as efficient production processes and pipelines. After all, A Link to the Past, while large for its time, is a game of much smaller scope than Breath of the Wild.
The world in A Link to the Past was large for its time, but small compared to Breath of the Wild.
The point is not to make less clean or less maintainable systems. But I think it’s worth considering whether clean and unambiguous systems (from a design and production perspective) should also be clean and unambiguous to the player. And if they shouldn’t, then applying the strategies for creating a sense of mystery can make the systems less transparent to the player.

Ambiguity versus usability

Now, more ambiguity is not always better, and the usability of a game should not be sacrificed to obtain it. For an interaction to be easy and efficient to engage with, the user needs to be able to predict the outcome of their actions. This is generally the opposite of what we need to create a sense of mystery and wonder.

This means it’s important to be conscious about which elements of the game should aim for usability and which should aim for ambiguity. There is no one right way to determine that; rather, it depends on which kind of experience you want to evoke.

One rule of thumb is to avoid unpredictability where it causes significant frustration for the player in a non-engaging way. In this article I’ve focused on a sense of mystery tied mostly to exploration, and I think that it’s rarely frustrating not to be able to predict what you’ll find when exploring a new area. An exception to this is if the exploration has a significant cost. For example, if a game has bottomless pits that kill you, but some secretly contain a bonus item instead, that might enhance a sense of mystery but would also be frustrating to search for.

Another rule of thumb is to focus on unpredictability in gameplay elements that exist squarely within the game’s fiction, whereas focusing on usability makes sense for elements that form the interface between the player and the game. If the player can’t predict how to do something in the game (like how to jump, or how to dig a hole with a shovel) which the game’s protagonist would undoubtedly know how to do, then that leads the player’s attention to meta-elements of the game, which can diminish suspension of disbelief. On the other hand, things that are as unpredictable to the game’s protagonist within the fiction as it is to the player don’t compromise the immersion in the fiction.
How to interact with a menu is rarely where you’ll want to prioritize mysterious ambiguity over usability.
Some cases are not as clear cut, for example games where the player has lots of weapons, and certain enemies are only vulnerable to certain weapons. If there are no tells and the player simply has to find out by trial and error (as happens to be the case in ALTTP), then that’s an element of unpredictability. Some people like this and feel it adds to the sense of mystery while other people consider it a case of frustratingly bad usability.

Careful simultaneous attention to usability and unpredictability is also needed when it comes to puzzles. In a good puzzle it should typically be easy to predict how to interact with the elements of the puzzle, while it should be hard to predict how the individual elements in the puzzle combine into the correct solution.

In general though, these rules of thumb can be bent and broken to good effect when done intentionally and for good reasons. The point is not to always optimize for one thing or the other, but to be aware of the tradeoffs and make design decisions with intentionality.

Pattern breaks

So far I’ve mostly discussed how to achieve a sense of mystery and wonder by designing systems that never get too formulaic and predictable, which keeps the player on their toes. We can call this pattern obfuscation. However, there’s an argument to be made for an alternative approach where we let things get predictable, only to then subvert the player’s expectations by breaking the established pattern. Some of the design proposals above arguably already fit that bill, but let’s take a closer look at this distinction now.

While discussing a draft of this article, Nick Konstantoglou from KickBack said, “When the player stops seeing the world and starts seeing systems and to 100% know what to expect, the mystery dies. But it's really so easy to reintroduce the mystery element: Just break the pattern a few times. Making the player complacent and then pulling the rug under them completely resets expectations and I would argue it’s even more effective than if they never got complacent at all.” This is sometimes referred to as a pattern break.

One pattern break that left a big impression on me was in Super Mario 64 when encountering the Boo ghosts in the castle. Up until this point, the castle had been strictly an “overworld” serving as a gradually expanding map giving access to the individual stages of the game. When dying in a stage, you’d be thrown out of it and back into the castle, whereas there were no enemies or dangers in the castle itself. That pattern was broken with the Boos, which pulled the rug under me and made me question my assumptions about the castle. As a side note, this pattern break also broke down one of the (assumed) distinctions that separated the stages and castle as two different classes of space. The castle made use of several other pattern breaks as well and successfully remained mysterious throughout the game.
Encountering Boo in the castle in Super Mario 64 subverts the otherwise safe nature of the castle.

To obfuscate or to break

The difference between pattern obfuscation and pattern breaks is mainly a matter of when and how frequently a pattern is mixed up and which feelings you want to evoke. Pattern obfuscation is more subtle, since the player may not become aware of a pattern in the first place but just experience an undefinable sense of mystery. On the other hand, the subversive nature of a pattern break may evoke a stronger emotion, especially if the subverted pattern was an obvious one that had gotten very predictable. This stronger feeling comes at the expense of a greater sense of boring predictability up until the pattern break happens though.

The surprise of a pattern break itself is not the primary reason for its inclusion - it’s the increased sense of mystery from that point onward, due to the player no longer being sure of what to expect. As such, for a pattern break to be effective, it has to come late enough that the player has formed clear expectations based on a set pattern, but not so late that there isn’t much time for the post-break increased sense of mystery to pay off. Realistically you’ll need multiple different pattern breaks at different times to get the most out of it.

From a production perspective, pattern breaks lend themselves well to be hand-crafted one-of-a-kind exceptions to a pattern, since in their nature they are infrequent. They still provide good mystery-mileage because the mystery rubs off on the remaining instances that follow the pattern. Pattern obfuscation on the other hand needs to be more systemic and often involves mixing up multiple systems, such as with the many-to-many relationship strategy.

That said, there’s no hard line to be drawn between pattern obfuscation and pattern breaks. You can see it as two ends of a spectrum, and my design proposals in this article have been a bit all over that spectrum, really.

In our toolset of mystery-creation, it’s good to be aware that the sense of predictability versus lack of predictability is something that can be manipulated over the course of the game and played with in various interesting ways, to different effect.

In conclusion

I’ve discussed four concrete strategies for getting more mystery-mileage out of different elements and spaces in a world:
  • Have a many-to-many relationship between the types of curiosities in the world and the types of outcomes.
  • Reduce or eliminate signifiers that would otherwise clearly distinguish different classes of spaces from each other, or introduce exceptions that challenge or confuse simple classification.
  • Ensure spaces and locations in the game serve multiple different gameplay modes, though not all of them have to be equally obvious.
  • For a given type of confined space, design at least certain instances of it as a continuation of the outside space such that navigation inside and outside of the space affect each other.
These strategies are in no way exhaustive. They are merely examples, and don’t apply to every game. However, even if they don’t apply directly to a game, they might give you some ideas for similar strategies that do.

At a more general level I’ve discussed the tradeoff between mystery and usability, and the rules of thumb to prioritize unpredictability mainly where it doesn’t cause too much frustration and where the unpredictability is situated within the world’s fiction rather than in the interface between player and game. And I’ve discussed the ways a sense of predictability versus mystery can be manipulated differently with pattern obfuscation and pattern breaks.

By using these strategies and tools in our toolset, we can - without incurring significant extra costs in development - help prevent our worlds from getting predictable and formulaic, and in turn leave all the more room for players to experience a sense of mystery and wonder while exploring.

Thanks for reading! Writing an article on game design is new for me, and obviously many of the points I’ve made here are a lot more subjective than in my more technical articles. Whether you agree or disagree with them, I’d love to hear your thoughts! Let me know in the comments which games gave a particularly great sense of mystery for you when exploring them, and why you think that is.

Further reading and watching

Crafting mystery through gameplay in Nauticrawl by Andrea Interguglielmi discusses mystery through gameplay in a very different kind of game than Zelda. It’s clear that the strategy of overlapping gameplay modes is central to this game.

Which Ocarina of Time Dungeon is the Absolute Worst One? by Ceave Gaming is a video (disguised as a simple listicle) that discusses how a sense of mystery and wonder is established in Ocarina of Time through pattern breaks. The video also references another video in which Jonathan Blow touches upon pattern breaks in a Braid commentary, though not very explicitly in relation to mystery and wonder.

If you know of other writing or videos on the topic of designing for a sense of mystery and wonder, share the links below!


droqen said...

Hey, this is an extremely good article and breakdown and I love it. Mystery and wonder are so important to me as both a designer and a player, but this is the first time I've read such a wonderfully comprehensive analysis of so many strategies for designers actually seeking to create them. I definitely feel like I've fallen into the trap of only being able to design mysteries from a position of messy systems to which I am blind.

To seeing clearly, and obfuscating with intent.

jackk said...

this is great! I second all of what droqen said. it pulls together so many loose thoughts I've had about how games manage to facilitate a sense of exploration and discovery, and describes them with such great, clear examples.

Stephen's Sausage Roll has an amazing pattern break that really amplifies the player's feeling of discovery, and framing it this way helps connect it to many other moments in games in a way that has been hard for me to put my finger on until now.

jackk said...

this is great! I second all of what droqen said. it pulls together so many loose thoughts I've had about how games manage to facilitate a sense of exploration and discovery, and describes them with such great, clear examples.

Stephen's Sausage Roll has an amazing pattern break that really amplifies the player's feeling of discovery, and framing it this way helps connect it to many other moments in games in a way that has been hard for me to put my finger on until now.

patrickgh3 said...

Thanks for the article!

The first few of these ideas I found to be a little surface-level. You can slap on different dungeon entrance designs to a game, and randomize what curiosities lead to what rewards, but to me there's a deeper level of intent that's the real source of the mystery. The different dungeon entrances feel to me like consequences of having a rich and well-thought-out world, rather than standing on their own. I can see though how these could be useful rules of thumb and sources of inspiration.

The later points about overlapping gameplay modes, integrating different parts of the world, and purposeful pattern breaks feel like they're on that deeper level of intent to me, and I like how they're framed! They feel like good organizations of these ideas. Thanks.

Unknown said...

What an incredible article! It's a lot to digest! In particular what you've said about allowing gameplay modes to overlap is really interesting.

Something I'd like to point out is this: rather than mixing things up as you've suggested, imagine BotW without shrines, or korok seeds (you can keep the towers though, those are cool :D I think they actually do a great job of a lot of what you've describe above).

Imagine travelling from the Great Plateau to Rito Village: You'd encounter a few bridges, a swamp with a rock monster, maybe a huge hollow log. There are bunch of Bokoblin camps along the way, which are always kind of fun to deal with. After passing between the Dueling Peaks you would encounter the first stables and maybe find a horse or get shot at by a guardian in that big ruined field. Then you'd ride your way up the road into Rito Village where you would learn more about your quest.

I honestly think that the shrines and korok seeds were unnecessary. For me, traversing that world was the interesting thing to do and my destination was only rarely a shrine. Battlefields left untouched for 100 years, ruins and villages and people rebuilding, hidden statue gardens, old roads and challenging fights. Most of the time I was climbing mountains because they called to me, or going to hit up a tower so that I could use it to sight more interesting things to climb or trying to kill a Lynel or a Guardian. The world itself is irregular and lovingly crafted, the fights are challenging and creative, and to me it feels like the shrines and seeds are just sprinkled on top because maybe it was too scary to make a game without them.