XII – Tanizaki vs the Triglavians: the Role of Mystery in Worldbuilding

Imagine that a novel begins:

Sam got out of the car and went into the gas station to buy cigarettes and a flashlight.

There’s nothing to suggest that this shouldn’t be true—that at some point this didn’t or couldn’t happen—and so we, as readers, accept it.  We suspend our disbelief for a few more lines.  But we don’t believe it yet, in the way that, if the writer does their job, every word between this sentence and the last will imprint almost as vividly as a memory from our own lives.  For us to really believe that this is true—for us to buy into the story—something else has to happen.

Now picture:

Sam, still slightly out of breath, climbed over the ragged convertible’s door, which he discovered was permanently jammed shut.  He ducked into the store past a poster of his own face, sans mustache, to buy cigarettes and another flashlight.

Do you see this one a little better? 

What’s the difference?  The second is obviously longer in words, though it covers the same actions and expanse of time.  That extra language is used to produce some details, so at first glance we might imagine that the specificity leads us to buy in.  Essentially, we’re thinking, Well jeez, if they know all those details, it must be true!  This is akin to how cult leaders are actually more effective when they make wild claims, because they lead us to think they must be right, precisely because their claims are preposterous while they’re so confident about it.  To some extent, this is how any storyteller works.  They project an air of sureness about what they’re saying, and deliver carefully curated clusters of details to get us to believe what they’re saying, writing, or showing on the screen, not just accept it.  This is as true in ancient oral poetry as it is in more modern forms like novels or movies, and the postmodern form of videogames.  EVE, for all its scope, breadth, and internal history, relies just as much on its details as any of its predecessors.

But encyclopedias are full of details, and no one finds them to be engaging stories or worlds.  We might read them and accept the information as true, and functionally believe it, and yet a good storyteller can get you to feel the reality of lightsabers in a way you’ll never feel anything you see described in an encyclopedia.[i]

It is actually the delicate blending of details with mystery that makes us believe, really experience, a story or a world.  In the example I wrote above, the detail that our character is out of breath might add to the image, but the word “still” makes us wonder where he’s coming from, and why he’s out of breath after driving a car.  We might likewise wonder how the car’s door got jammed shut, or why he appears to have just recognized that (Did he steal the car?  Is that why he’s out of breath?) or why his face is on a poster at the gas station, or why he has a mustache now.  (He must have stolen it!  No one with a mustache and a convertible is ever up to any good!)  Even the word “another” makes us wonder what happened to his first flashlight, and perhaps interacts with the other details and their resonant mysteries, so we can begin to see the outline of a story, yet dimly, flickeringly, so that we want to read more to find out.  This reflects our conscious experience of the real world—we are constantly presented with details that form contours in our minds, but since we never get to see everything at once (like an encyclopedia or god) we have to feel our way forward, based on these details, to bring the whole thing into light; and even then, we uncover further mysteries, and keep going.  Thus, what gets us to buy into a story, to believe it, is when it mirrors our conscious experience of reality by carefully deploying believable clusters of details that outline a mystery.  The story begins to feel like another world because we explore it like we do this one.

But in the example I gave above, the story is in the linear, monophonic, non-interactive medium of prose.[ii]  That is to say, your ability to feel forward through the world is itself a sort of illusion, as in actuality the author is leading you along. 

So what happens in a world like EVE, where the storytelling is embedded in a world we actually can explore on our own, and where much of the story actually comes from what we do?  How do you get someone to believe in a world, not just a story?  And how does this form manipulate the interactions between detail and mystery that make it all tick?

In 1933, electric light was still fairly new to Japan.  The novelist Junichiro Tanizaki saw this simple technology, which is now ubiquitous and not generally tied to any specific culture, as something distinctly Western, foreign, and contradictory not just to traditional Japanese aesthetics, but to the philosophies behind them.  In a quiet and deviously humble essay titled “In Praise of Shadows,” he begins by explaining the challenges of building a new house that still feels authentic: hiding wires, using wood panels instead of tile, and so on.  But this is just the literal application of what he really wants to talk about—shadow, mystery, depth, age.  In Tanizaki’s view, the core philosophical element to a Japanese home or to Japanese design is not its characteristic sparseness, but its use of shadow, or recessed alcoves that hide the artwork within them, of deep eaves that block the sun.  The real problem with electric light isn’t that it’s foreign, but that it is too effective at eliminating these carefully curated shadows, and all the depth and variety they imbue.

Why am I bringing this up?  Because this is the same issue the storytellers at CCP have to balance in EVE.

We might think of a story like the darkened rooms of Tanizaki’s essay, and our progress through them like a small candlelight.  Here, the light would be the details, (the new mustache, the broken car door) and the darkness would be the mysterious reality they imply (Did he steal the car?).  The detail casts into certainty some things, but at the flickering edges of its light, it creates uncertainty, illusion, mystery, so that we can’t be sure what things are.  A pot at the edge of a flickering light might be a face, or a mirror; a bookshelf might be a radiator, or a window—and only as we draw closer do they come into focus, just as, later in my example above, you would expect to find out what our character is really doing.  As more candles are lighted throughout the darkened room, their shadows intersect and pool together just as much as their lights.  We do indeed see more of the space, but very little of it with any certainty.  When the story concludes, in most cases, we can at best see only half of the forms in the room.

The encyclopedia, in comparison, throws on the halogen floodlights, obliterating shadows and overwhelming us with a deluge of details and certainty.  In this light, we might find the room mildly interesting, but not addicting—not enchanting, and certainly not begging us to explore and interact with it.  Moreover, the room will look the same at any hour of the day, and to anyone passing by.  There is nothing organic, nothing unknown, that can arise out of this abundance of details without any mystery.   In essence, this is the difference between an art and a science.

Controlling this process—lighting the right candles at the right times, directing the eye to the right places—has been difficult enough to justify storytelling as a virtuosic artform going all the way back to Homer.  But it’s made even harder in the days of online wikis, fan theories, and databases.  Indeed, it’s tough for Star Wars or Harry Potter to contain any real depth of mystery any more, because over time they have not only gotten more and more detailed (or brighter) but they have also had those details combed through and assembled into something like very literal encyclopedias.  As I showed so briefly above, there is this weird parabola in our ability to believe a story, so that the barest lines do nothing to engage our imagination, but total encyclopedic omniscience also reminds us that we’re dealing with fiction, and everything feels more designed than depicted.  Creators in older and more detailed universes thusly need to be careful to work with what they already have, to stay in that middle-ground where there is still mystery; or, to keep using Tanizaki’s metaphor, they need to add items to the room without throwing on any more lights.  That is a whole lot to manage.  It’s no wonder longer projects of worldbuilding often lose that initial spark.  (Candle pun intended.) 

The challenge in a game like EVE is that the story doesn’t begin at the beginning.  Entering New Eden is more like getting off the plane in a foreign country than cracking open a book or starting a movie.  To compare it to my example above, we don’t necessarily begin with Sam’s little scene at the gas station, seeing it through the lens of prose—we might be on the other side of town, as a character ourselves, and might see this part of the story firsthand only if we’re in the right place and time, and then might only hear about it afterwards.  Even if you’re one of the rare few who has been in EVE’s world since 2003 when it launched, in story-time, you’ve only been around for the most recent instants at the crest of an eons-long history. 

But it is precisely that history that makes the world so immersive. 

I remember the moment I got hooked on EVE’s world, some time in my very first hours in the game: I was running a mission in my Kestrel, and I flew by the massive wreck of some ancient freighter.  It looked nothing like any of the ships I could read about in the market, and it was as big as a station—while still being only one broken piece!  I was stunned with the idea of how old this universe was, how long it had been around before me.  I was humbled, and hooked.

This combination of dazzling futuristic technology and impenetrable ancient worlds is what makes a lot of sci-fi tick.  Perhaps the best, most efficient worldbuilding ever done is the words “A long time ago,” at the beginning of Star Wars.  I mean, really, can you imagine a more economical way to build in the mystery that is so addicting than by setting up a vibrantly futuristic world and then telling us it happened in the past?  That one line might have, on its own, made the single biggest difference in whether Star Wars became a universe you wanted to visit, or stay in.  We might download EVE for the spaceships, the things we can do in the world, but we are sucked in by those ancient stations, wrecked starships, and planets settled longer than human cities in real life.  This is the magnificent interplay of detail and mystery, light and shadow, in EVE’s storytelling.  It is only made more powerful by the way you are dropped right into it, given your own little candle, and invited to forge out into the dark.

But people pay for content.  One of the challenges of this type of storytelling is that everyone is not at the same point of the story at the same time.  While a new player might be utterly enthralled just looking at the asteroid colony in a mission, advanced players need things to do.  So, like any game, EVE has to run out expansions.

The challenge in rolling these out is very much like Tanizaki building a house with modern amenities and traditional aesthetics.  Like Tanizaki had to take pains to put the right shades on his lighting, or to hide the telephone behind a staircase, EVE’s storytellers need to introduce new game mechanics, new activities, without making the world feel too new, or solved.  They’ve done this with varying degrees of success. 

Two of the major expansions over the past decade have involved first the pirate Sansha’s Nation creating “Incursions,” or randomly spawning NPC invasions all over space, and then the more recent Triglavian invasion, in which an entirely new civilization began attacking the universe out of, essentially, another dimension.  While the Sansha’s Nation existed in-game prior to their major expansion, and so fulfilled Tanizaki’s philosophy of repurposing and deepening older material, the Triglavians were implied in the lore but didn’t exist in the world at all prior to their expansion.

I worry about the dynamic of every new expansion being OH MY GOD WE’RE BEING INVADED… again.  Obviously, marketing has some interplay with storytelling here: while it’s better for the story to uncover some ancient mystery, it’s easier to market an OH MY GOD INVASION to new, current, and returning players.  In my opinion, the exigencies of marketing this way do compromise the storytelling, forcing it to be at best less creative, and at worst compromising to the mystery that really forms the bedrock of a fictional world.  To put this another way, we might come for the invasions, but we stay for the depth, and it’s very easy to obscure that depth by constantly rolling out new content. 

However, the rollout, especially of the Triglavians, was masterful.  I do think it’s important to direct my criticism at the marketing, the management decisions that force every new storyline to involve another invasion, because the layering of mysterious messages distributed to players, encrypted in a new fictional language, and then the steady escalation of information,[iii] coupled with new content that unfolded it, exemplifies our simile of carefully curating new candles around a darkened room.  It is even more of an achievement for EVE’s storytellers and worldbuilders that they were essentially set up to fail by the necessities of marketing a new expansion, and yet they still managed to capture some of the magic.  This being said, herein lies another example of market pressures making the form and distribution of art contradict its function.  The game’s world would naturally be better off if these could be synergized.

Perhaps all stories, not just worldbuilding, but all worlds too, are some part of Tanizaki’s “dream world of candle and light.”[iv]  Indeed, dreams haunt us because they feel so close, and yet like they contain so much more than we can grasp—the best worlds and stories work the same way.  While in EVE’s lore, the presence of the atavistic Triglavians might reside within darkness, it would be almost impossible to introduce them with the sudden totality of a new MMO expansion without creating the effect that the lights have suddenly been thrown on.  This makes the act of exploring the world not one of pushing deeper into that darkness as if pulled along by it, nor even of seeing apparitions in the fog alongside a boat the storytellers are driving, but of pushing oneself through that absolute, shadowless glare of a laboratory.  In this light, we might marvel at the things we see for the way they were constructed, but it is impossible to imagine that they exist on their own.  Exploring the world becomes a theoretical, intellectual exercise, more akin to memorizing sports statistics than interpreting mythology. 

Yet, videogames are a brand-new medium.  What we’re discussing here is storytelling, but much of EVE’s history also involves storymaking—that is, the way players have created and then chronicled intricate histories with their own actions.  To me, it’s both beautiful and fascinating that we haven’t yet discovered all of the ways these things interact, or what this new medium can really do.  Capitalism isn’t kind to any sort of art, and over time, as our societies evolve and our videogames are further innovated, we might gain enough data to see how marketing and monetization can work with storytelling and storymaking, not against them.  Moreover, in any competitive game, people optimize themselves out of their most engaging gameplay[v]—they solve problems, which is ultimately the goal of any game—and in so doing gradually turn up the lights themselves. 

Tanizaki’s essay is a powerful snapshot into one of those strange periods between times, when old and new blend but are not yet indistinguishable.  In 2021, EVE Online, and digital media in general, are in much the same place.  I hope that in the future, this blog will do some of what “In Praise of Shadows” does for us now—whatever that is.


[i] This is also the sort of buy-in mechanism used in a lot of modern cults, or “mystery religions,” such as Q-Anon: modern as we are, our brains still prefer the story to the facts.  That might never change, and maybe it shouldn’t.

[ii] Go back to Post I for a nice refresher on what different mediums do better than others.

[iii] A good example from midway through the story is when the Triglavians hacked billboards to broadcast their message, and the in-world news site The Scope reported on it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2Mj8g4k2Gs

[iv] In Praise of Shadows, pg. 1

[v] A fantastic essay on how we ruin our own games: “Water Finds a Crack,” by Soren Johnson,  https://www.designer-notes.com/?p=369

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