Take off the brakes

Ossuary is an adventure game about Discordianism. Despite the underlying philosophy, this is a very straightforward approach, so it’s useful for determining whether this kind of thing actually works, at all.

ossuary_evil

Our first order of business is to understand what type of thing an “adventure game” is. That is, you walk around and you talk to people and you use things on other things and your progression is typically heavily story-based, but the question is: what are the underlying rules that define your interaction with the game space? To get an idea of what we’re talking about here, consider a typical combat-based RPG. You have an attack stat, and the monster has a defense stat and an HP value, and based on those things there’s an equation that determines what’s going to happen when you execute a particular attack. Or, in an action game, there’s maybe a physics engine or something (which is also just an equation) that determines what’s going to happen when a particular set of objects is in a particular configuration. So what’s notable about adventure games is that they lack any framework of this type, and what they have instead is nothing. Rather than being able to calculate the right answer, you just have to guess it.

The mechanics of other types of video games are like physical laws: they can’t (in theory) be broken, but you also don’t necessarily know what they are. You can be mistaken about them, and they may not accord with whatever conceptual frameworks you employ to understand them, but they’re there anyway. In an adventure game, there are no such laws, which means there are only conceptual frameworks. As you’re playing, you form the idea that, for example, you need a key to open a locked door, but there’s nothing that requires that to be the case. In a Metroid game, a green door can always be opened with a Super Missile; there may be an additional route around it, but that rule is always there. In an adventure game, there is no “always.” You might find a key for the door that breaks off when you try to use it, and instead have to talk a nearby guard into opening the door for you, even if neither of those things ever happens anywhere else in the game.

What’s important to understand here is that, while any type of gameplay can be reductively understood as a matter of “guessing” the right answer, adventure games are still different. Returning to our RPG example, you’re also selecting from a number of options, one (or more) of which is the “right answer,” but the underlying framework tells you something about what’s going to happen when you choose each option. When you have an attack that deals 50 damage and you use it on an enemy with 45 HP left, you know in advance that you’re going to kill it. Furthermore, those variables can change: the enemy might have a defensive property such that it only takes half damage and survives, and you might then have a “piercing” attack that ignores defense, so you can use that and kill it anyway. Learning about these rules as you play the game enables you to make informed decisions, and to take advantage of the available variables in order to accomplish your in-game goals.

What distinguishes an adventure game is the complete lack of any of these sorts of variables. Using the blue key on the blue door will open it and allow you access to the next area, and that’s it. That is absolutely everything there is to be said about the gameplay from a mechanical perspective. There’s no rule you can follow to predict what’s going to happen in advance, and there are no confounding variables that can change that result. In short, an adventure game is a game with no mechanics.

By itself, this sounds pretty bad, as though the gameplay were merely a matter of making random guesses until one of them works and allows you to watch the next cutscene – and, indeed, in the worst adventure games, this is exactly what happens. So adventure games are kind of the mechanical equivalent of free verse: there’s nothing that necessarily holds them together, so you have to come up with a way of doing it yourself. What’s needed is a way of making things make sense; in other words, the gameplay in an adventure game is aesthetic rather than mechanical.

A simple example of how this can work occurs in the game Savoir-Faire. The player character has the innate magical ability to link two objects together, such that actions taken upon one object affect the other. The first puzzle you encounter is a locked door, which can be opened by “linking” it to a teapot; “opening” the teapot then correspondingly “opens” the door. Knowing that you can do this type of thing reliably means you’re not just fumbling around in the dark when it comes to puzzles. You’re still “guessing,” in a broad sense, but you have something to go on – you have a reason to expect certain potential solutions to work. A more popular example is the Ace Attorney series, where your actions have a very specifically defined context: you’re trying to select a piece of evidence that refutes a particular argument. Because you always know what type of thing you’re trying to accomplish, you have a basis from which to make intelligent choices. And this is why the concept of “puzzles” is appropriately associated with adventure games: rather than simply having a list of options to try, there’s something you have to actually figure out.

There is, of course, a next step, which is to make the puzzles actually mean something. Guessing what door-opening technique the author was thinking of isn’t any more interesting than guessing what number they were thinking of. And what’s significant about Ossuary is that it actually gets really close to doing this. It has a coherent theme that provides an aesthetic foundation for its puzzles.

ossuary_democracy

The game is set in an unexplained foreboding netherworld, with the aesthetics set to maximize the forebodingness. Raw blackness is offset only by the tiny, misshapen figures of what barely count as people. The crunch of bones underwrites every step you take, everywhere in the entire game, while spooky dirge noises reverberate continuously in the background. It is very clear that the place that you are in is a bad place.

The gameplay uses the traditional adventure game approach of “inventory” items that you “use” on things, but it’s both radically simplified and semantically amplified. There are only seven “items,” which aren’t actually items at all: they’re the seven Christian sins. You gain the use of each sin by being “infected” with it, thereby becoming able to infect others with it. Every puzzle is solved by choosing the sin that will motivate someone to do what you need them to do.

The conceit, then, is that sins are good things. The descriptions in the “inventory” are all framed positively, inverting the usual valence: rather than sins being threats against purity, here they are the only spark of life in a world of darkness. The aesthetic thread that ties the puzzles together is this idea of positive corruption. Your goal is to introduce meaningful disorder into a world of pernicious order.

ossuary_pride

The basic idea of Discordianism, if there can be said to be such a thing, is that society is currently constructed along an order/disorder axis, with a preference for order. This points towards the false goal of an eternally true “perfect order” that will solve all problems and account for all things. Hence, we end up pursuing order even when it’s harmful. The proposed redress is not to make the same mistake in pursuing pure chaos, but to sometimes pursue order and sometimes pursue disorder as appropriate.

The world of Ossuary is, like ours, a world toiling under what Discordians refer to as the Curse of Greyface.

“In the year 1166 B.C., a malcontented hunchbrain by the name of Greyface, got it into his head that the universe was as humorless as he, and he began to teach that play was sinful because it contradicted the ways of Serious Order. ‘Look at all the order around you,’ he said. And from that, he deluded honest men to believe that reality was a straightjacket affair and not the happy romance as men had known it.

It is not presently understood why men were so gullible at that particular time, for absolutely no one thought to observe all the disorder around them and conclude just the opposite. But anyway, Greyface and his followers took the game of playing at life more seriously than they took life itself and were known even to destroy other living beings whose ways of life differed from their own.

The unfortunate result of this is that mankind has since been suffering from a psychological and spiritual imbalance. Imbalance causes frustration, and frustration causes fear. And fear makes for a bad trip. Man has been on a bad trip for a long time now.

It is called THE CURSE OF GREYFACE.”

Ossuary is an ironic portrayal of this situation. It’s all imposing black backgrounds and haunting sound effects. It even has slowly-fading-in Famous Quotes displayed in isolation, which is like the calling card for pretentious over-seriousness. In fact, in the last ending, the quote displayed is “The human race will begin solving its problems on the day that it ceases taking itself so seriously” – presented in the most serious manner possible.

So, I mean, that’s the joke, right? It’s a somber and serious explication of why it’s bad to be somber and serious. Hence, all of the endings are bad endings. There are five possible goals, each of which allows someone to take over the netherworld according to some principle of how things ought to be ordered. This even applies to the goal of exposing the lies of the other potential rulers, because that just gives power to the one claiming the authority of the truth.

But it’s not just that Ossuary portrays this situation, it’s that the entire logic of the game accords to this framework. As an adventure game, all it involves is slotting the right answers into the right questions. It’s perfectly ordered: use A on B so you can get C, use C to get to D, and then you’re done. The gameplay, as gameplay, is rigid and boring in the way that adventure games generally are. You just walk around and click on things until the puzzles get solved, and you have to constantly track back and forth to get the necessary items from one place and use them in a different place. In terms of game mechanics, it’s a fully ordered system illustrating why fully ordered systems are bad. So, in fact, the player’s introduction of disorder is merely aesthetic, because it is executed in the most orderly way possible.

ossuary_order

So, like, that’s still kind of the joke, it’s an expression of the fundamental emptiness of order, but we’re getting into dangerous territory here, don’t you think? The thing about satire is that it’s actually not a joke; it takes its subject more seriously than the subject takes itself. The corresponding danger is reification: if Ossuary works for you as a game, that necessarily means that you’re totally cool with expressing things through fully ordered systems.

To understand the problem, consider the Principia Discordia itself, as a document. It is, of course, an explanation of Discordianism, which makes it an orderly work. It even contains some substantive philosophical statements and political arguments. The reason is doesn’t suffer from the same problem that Ossuary does is that it’s presented in the most haphazard manner possible. It jumps between different weird sort-of-parables while making up a bunch of goofball terminology and fake history, accentuated by crude sketches and bad jokes. And throughout it all, it presents itself as a religion, injecting unseriousness into what is normally the most serious of affairs. The concise way to put this is that it’s fun1. This isn’t done out of defensiveness; it’s an active illustration of the document’s own principles. It embodies the upsurge of disorder into order.

Ossuary lacks this upsurge; it offers only one extremely narrow pathway of progression; it’s all hodge and no podge. In fact, there is a sort of alternate hidden goal in the game other than empowering the rulers, and it’s not an ending, which sets it apart from the rest of the game’s framework. It allows you to remove the Curse of Greyface, returning light to the netherworld and replacing the spooky dirge noises with happy glow noises. But you’ll notice that this is the most boring and conventional way to express this state of affairs, “bringing light to the darkness” or what the fuck ever, and, indeed, the way you achieve this goal is even more arbitrary and dull than the rest of the game. You have to solve a couple of nondescript click-on-things-in-the-right-order puzzles, so you don’t even get to talk to people or anything; you’re just inputting the correct answer into the system.

ossuary_art

So, is the point that this sort of thing is impossible to express through the necessarily hyperconstrained format of the adventure game? It is the opposite: it is precisely because an adventure game does not have an underlying set of mechanics that it is the perfect vehicle for illustrating the simultaneous use of multiple, overlapping frameworks.

This is a specific point; we’re not just talking about “chaos” in general here. Like, an action game can be “chaotic” in the sense that there’s a bunch of stuff going on and it’s hard to make sense of it all, but that’s not very interesting in this context. Remember, for Discordians, valorizing disorder is just as much of a straitjacket as valorizing order. What’s required is dynamism, and just as the Principia Discordia incorporates this understanding into its text, Discordianism incorporates it into its philosophy. As opposed to most conventional religions, which have a bunch of different sects that each think they are “correct” in opposition to the others, Discordianism has infinitely many contradictory sects which are all simultaneously correct.

To get technical, what Discordianism promotes is the ability to juggle conceptual frameworks. That is, there’s “reality,” which is the actual collection of stuff that exists, and then there are the ideas that we have about reality, which are frameworks that we use to understand it. Any given framework implies a set of constraints, which means it illuminates some things while obscuring others. Thus, adherence to a single framework is necessarily limiting; the ability to switch between frameworks as required allows one to perceive more of reality than anyone can under a single framework.

So if we’re talking about gameplay, what we ought to be talking about is a game with multiple rulesets that the player must switch between of their own volition. Again, you might think that adventure games, without mechanics, cannot accomplish this, but in fact they are optimally suited for it. Remember what we were discussing before about adventure games being held together with aesthetics rather than mechanics? In any other genre you would have to actually implement multiple different systems, which, like, go for it, but also good luck. But in an adventure game, you can get right down to business: you can simply portray the thing you want to portray. The frameworks won’t “technically” be implemented in the game, but they will end up where they actually matter: in the player’s mind.

The idea of productive corruption via sin that Ossuary advances is just one aesthetic approach. Indeed, Ossuary has five goals that you can pursue all at once, but you pursue them all in the same way. This problem is most obvious when it comes to the lie-exposing goal: this ought to be a different type of thing than the other goals, but it’s actually just the same walk-around-and-trigger-flags rail-ride. Only the negative half of the argument against excessive order is made; the ability of games to require behavior of the player provides the opportunity to force them to do the thing that you are claiming is important for them to be able to do. Miring the player in only one system undercuts the argument.

More important than any one conceptual system is an understanding of what a conceptual system is and what it does, and more important than perfecting any one set of game mechanics is understanding what those mechanics are for in the first place. Mastery has already been achieved, and it hasn’t helped. We need better art and worse games. We need a little chaos.


  1. I’m aware that I am no fun, so don’t bother pointing that out. I’m not claiming to be the Pope of Discordianism here. 

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